This is my first real post! I’m writing on my phone while we are driving through Riau, from Pasir Pangaraian to Pekanbaru. Riau is one of the key oil palm growing provinces in Indonesia, producing about a quarter of the country’s palm oil. It is a fascinating place to do oil palm research.
So, where does palm oil come from? As the name suggests, it’s source is a palm tree, commonly named ‘oil palm’. For the fans: the Latin name is Elaeis guineensis Jacq., Indonesians and Malaysians say ‘kelapa sawit’, the French say ‘palmier à huile’ and the Spanish call it ‘palma de aceite’. Oil palm originally comes from the wet tropics in Africa. It needs lots of sunshine to grow so in the wild it is mostly found along rivers and streams and in swamps, where other trees don’t grow. The palms can grow very tall and the fruits are found between the leaves up in the crown. The Africans used to climb up to harvest the bunches, and some still do. I’ve tried it myself (not too high) and it is relatively easy when the trees are still young, because the stalks of the old dead leaves form good handholds and footholds. But when the trees get older (say, around 15 years and up) the old stalks fall off, so then the trunk is as smooth as the trunk of a coconut tree. Needless to say that in commercial plantations, climbing the trees is not considered a very efficient way of harvesting. So nowadays, the bunches are harvested with a curved knife on top of a telescopic pole. I’ve tried that too and I can tell you: it’s very hard work! It’s dangerous as well, because the bunches weigh up to 40-50 kilo and are covered with very hard spikes; enough to kill a careless harvester when they come crashing down.
In 1848, four oil palm seedlings were carried from Amsterdam to the Bogor botanical gardens in Java, Indonesia. At that time, they were mostly appreciated as ornamental plants. In 1907, the first commercial plantation for the purpose of oil production was planted in West-Africa by William Lever, the founder of the company now known as Unilever. Commercial plantations in Malaysia and Sumatra followed around 1911. But it was only after the second world war that the palm oil industry really started booming. Nowadays, palm oil is the most important vegetable oil in the world, and in Indonesia more than 43% of the plantations are owned by smallholders. The reason for the success of oil palm is simple: the trees are extremely productive. With a bit of management and some fertiliser, a farmer can produce 10-15 tonnes of fruit bunches per hectare per year, which equals 2-3 tonnes of oil. With better management and seeds of good quality, a farmer can produce 20-30 tonnes of fruit bunches. Each tonne will earn about 100 euros, depending on the world markets for fossil oil and vegetable oil. So that’s 2000-3000 euro per year from one hectare; more than almost any crop can earn. Farmers are therefore mostly very fond of their oil palms.
Of course there are problems, too. Farmers are part of a complex supply chain and they can be vulnerable. Certain stories keep coming back. Stories of factories (that buy the freshly harvested bunches to press the oil out) being oversupplied and refusing the bunches, or offering a bad price. As storing the bunches is not possible, this leads to the farmer losing money or getting less profits. Stories of fake fertilisers are common, and I’ve seen the truth of these myself. This is a big problem, because the farmer spends money on a useless product and the yields go down because the palms don’t receive enough fertiliser. Stories of farmers having planted oil palm on peat soils or in swamps, not knowing that oil palm won’t work there unless you dig canals and build dams. Often farmers don’t know much about growing oil palm anyway, so they make many mistakes. I even met one farmer who fertilised his trees with monosodium glutamate (MSG)! On the other hand, there are also examples of farmers getting better yields than big plantations. So it’s not impossible!
Land grabbing, dead orang utans, fire and smoke problems, CO2 emissions due to peatland conversion… it all happens. Oil palm is just really profitable and, like in a gold rush, that means there is a struggle to harvest its fruits. But as far as I can see, the majority of farmers and companies just wish to run a good plantation and earn a decent income for themselves and their families. Oil palm provides that option, which is why I have come to like this crop so much.