Travelling down to Ipoh from Penang and passing vast plantations of palm oil trees made us wonder about the origins of rubber and palm oil, two of the most important industries in Malaysia, together with tin. For someone who grew up in Kuala Lumpur I am a little embarrassed to admit that I had no idea that neither rubber, nor palm oil tress, are indigenous to Malaysia.

The rubber tree (Hevea brasiliensis) is in fact indigenous to the Amazon basin in South America. Rubber seedings were smuggled out of Brazil in the late 1870’s and became the parent planting stock for all rubber plantations developed in present-day Malaysia and other Southeast Asain countries at the turn of the twentieth century. These plantations gradually superceded those in Brazil partly because of much improved productivity. In Brazil the trees naturally grow some distance from each other; in Southeast Asia trees were planted close together making harvesting much easier and quicker. Today Brazil plays an insignificant role in international markets.

The story is much the same with the oil plam tree (Elaeis guiniensis jacq.) which originates from West Africa where it grows in the wild and later was developed into an agricultural crop. It was introduced to Malaysia, then Malaya, by the British in the early 1870’s as an ornamental plant. The first commercial planting took place in Selangor in 1917 but it was in the early 1960s that palm oil cultivation increased significantly under the government’s diversification programme to reduce Malaysia’s dependency on rubber and tin.

Sadly the production of palm oil has long been associated with negative factors such as:

tropical deforestation, biodiversity loss, air pollution, soil and water pollution, soil erosion, violation of customary land rights.

Deforestation followed by plantation establishment has had a significant effect on carbon stocks and greenhouse gas emissions.


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