Ironically, the crop that the Europeans propagated had amassed incredible wealth while ‘controlling’ the locals in many ways
pic by MUHD AMIN NAHARUL
MANY of us might have taken the oil palm for granted, thinking that it has always been indigenous to our country. The crop which has become a key part of the country’s economy, the livelihood of millions in a larger eco-system and contribute billions in ringgit, originates from the tropical rain forest in West Africa. It is found in countries like Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana to the equatorial region of Angola and Congo.
The first batch of oil palm trees was brought to the Far East from Congo by Dutch botanists in 1848, and planted at the Bogor Botanical Garden in West Java, Indonesia. In 1870, oil palm made it to the then Malaya as ornamental plant when it was planted at the Singapore Botanic Garden.
However, it was Frenchman Henri Fauconnier who began the commercial planting of “Elaeis Guineensis” at Tennamaram Estate in Batang Berjuntai, Selangor, in 1917.
Of course there is another version to the story. According to a plantation giant, the oil palm was introduced to Malaysia by William Sime and Henry Darby, who founded Sime Darby in 1910.
Irrespective which story you believe, it is safe to say it was the Europeans who were the first to sow the oil palm seeds in South-East Asia.
Ironically, the crop that they propagated and had amassed incredible wealth while “controlling” the locals in many ways, is the very commodity Europeans are rejecting.
It is a known fact that the plant appears to have thrived better in this region. With high rainfall in tropical climates within 10 degrees of the Equator, Malaysia and Indonesia to oil palm is like polar bear and the North Pole.
The palm bears its fruit in bunches, weighing between 10kg and 40kg. The individual fruit is made-up of an outer skin (the exocarp), a pulp (mesocarp) containing the palm oil in a fibrous matrix, a central nut consisting of a shell (endocarp) and the kernel which contains oil.
The palm oil which is used in thousands of products from soap to shampoo to chocolate bars and instant noodles, is a cheaper and more versatile option.
According to the Malaysian Palm Oil Council, oil palm trees produce on average 10 tonnes of fruit per hectare and can be harvested all year round. This is far more than other crops such as soybean, rapeseed and sunflower.
This also means that oil palm requires 10 times less land than the other three major oil producing crops, soya, rapeseed and sunflower.
In fact, oil palm trees can be harvested for 25 years before replanting. Soybean is harvested every six months and requires replanting.
So, it is not surprising to see oil palm being cultivated in a massive scale over the last 100 years.
Ever since Fauconnier planted the crop in Selangor, more Europeans had entered the business.
As a result, several companies have become major players in the palm oil industry at that time, including Sime Darby Bhd, Kumpulan Guthrie Bhd, Golden Hope Plantations Bhd and United Plantations Bhd.
Today, Sime Darby Plantation Bhd, a subsidiary of Sime Darby,is the world’s largest palm oil plantation company by planted area after the latter was created following the merger with Guthrie and Golden Hope in 2007.
But how much we try to ignore, our palm oil industry is deeply rooted to our rich history and colonisation.
And yes, the Europeans had plundered the wealth generated from the industry for decades until Malaysia gained its independence. Even after that, Europe continues to import as much as about 1.9 million tonnes of palm oil a year.
However, of late, the European Union (EU) has been embarking on a campaign against the commodity, claiming of its detrimental impact to the environment. More alarming — claims of deforestation.
Such allegations have hit Malaysia and Indonesia as both countries account for a combined 85% of the global palm oil supply. The move also sours the relationship, as the EU is Malaysia’s second-largest importer of palm oil.
Last month, Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad described the bad publicity from international community’s assessments and assumptions about Malaysia’s palm oil as unfair.
“Palm oil is the cheapest edible vegetable oil. It is also easy to cultivate, and once planted the yield can be enjoyed for up to 25 years unlike other oils such as soybean and rapeseed.
“For that reason — of palm oil being able to compete (with other oils) and likely to win — they invented this idea that we are cutting down trees to plant (oil) palm trees and depriving animals of their habitat,” he said during his three-day working visit to the UK.
The premier also criticised environmental non-governmental organisations from the West for using the environment narrative in their anti-palm oil campaigns.
“Most of the forests in Europe have been cleared, so much so there are no more wild animals in Europe.
“But in Malaysia, we still have tigers. If you like to go into the jungle, we can send you there,” he said, adding that Malaysia wanted to compete with the rest of the world in a fair manner.
Palm oil is a viable option to reduce dependency on fossil fuels as it has tremendous potential as a renewable source of energy.
Malaysia, the world’s second-largest palm oil producer, also plans to double its biofuel programme to B20 by 2020, which mandates fuel be blended with 20% (B20) palm-biodiesel.
With so much potential and resistance, Malaysia will submit a complaint to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) by November to challenge the EU’s restrictions on palm biofuel.
Earlier this week, Primary Industries Minister Teresa Kok (picture) said the ministry has discussed with the Attorney General’s Chambers (AGC) to help identify some experts who can argue the case that would be filed with the WTO.
There is only one option for Malaysia — with guns blazing. Quoting a leading figure in the Mexican Revolution, Emiliano Zapata Salazar: “It is better to die on your feet than to live on your knees.”
Rahman Daros is the supplement editor of The Malaysian Reserve.