Jun 30, 2024

The Evolution and Impact of Palm Oil Plantations: A Historical and Contemporary Analysis

Sources : https://everchem.com.my/

By: Atep Afia Hidayat

The history of palm oil begins in the wild forests, where it was first discovered and utilized by certain people, gradually spreading to society and eventually becoming a significant global trade commodity. The awareness of the importance of palm oil cultivation was triggered and accelerated by the Industrial Revolution, which began in England between 1750 and 1850.

According to Wikipedia (2023), the Industrial Revolution brought massive changes in agriculture, manufacturing, mining, transportation, and technology utilization. It significantly impacted social, economic, and cultural conditions worldwide. Originating in England, the Industrial Revolution spread to Western Europe, North America (the United States and Canada), and Japan.

Kipple et al. (2000) explain that the Industrial Revolution, which began in England, directly increased the demand for palm oil, especially for use as an industrial lubricant. By the early 19th century, West African farmers had already developed simple palm oil cultivation methods, successfully exporting limited quantities and meeting their own needs. However, the continued Industrial Revolution and the increasing demand for palm oil led European investors to develop large-scale palm oil plantations in Central Africa and Southeast Asia after 1900. By 1930, global palm oil trade had reached 250,000 tons (Kipple et al., 2000).

According to GPS (2016), Germany began large-scale palm oil plantations in Cameroon in 1902, spurred by the discovery of the Tenera palm variety. Disbun (2013) notes that most commercially superior palm oil plants are of the Tenera variety, produced by crossing the Dura and Pisifera varieties.

One of the earliest palm oil plantations was established in Gabon in 1870 (Kipple et al., 2000). However, like most West African plantations, it struggled to compete with local farmers until the late 19th century when European colonial powers in Central Africa, particularly Germany in Cameroon and Belgium in the Congo, began implementing European agricultural technology for palm oil. Despite challenges such as World War I, these developments spurred the global palm oil industry revolution.

The cultivation and industrialization of palm oil in the Congo, along with various research initiatives, led to significant advancements. The discovery of superior planting materials with higher productivity directly reduced production costs. Improved production machinery enhanced oil quality, making it more competitive. The growth of the food processing industry in Europe and America also stimulated the palm oil industry in the Congo.

Before the Industrial Revolution in Europe, palm oil was a wild plant in the forests of West and Central Africa or cultivated in simple local farms. With the Industrial Revolution spreading from England to Western Europe, North America, and Japan, the demand for palm oil products skyrocketed. Colonial governments developed palm oil plantations, leading to its significant expansion in Southeast Asia and, eventually, South and Central America.

In Southeast Asia, palm oil plantations flourished in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand. In Malaysia, William Sime (a Scotsman) and Henry Darby (an Englishman) introduced palm oil in 1910 (GPS, 2016). By 1917, the Tennamaran Estate in Kuala Selangor, Selangor, became Malaysia's first palm oil plantation, using the Deli Dura variety from Rantau Panjang.

Unlike other regions, the palm oil industry in Indonesia and Malaysia has grown remarkably, dominating global production and market share. Palm oil remains a critical commodity for both countries. However, concerns about environmental impacts and the negative health effects of palm oil consumption persist. Environmental activists criticize the exploitation and deforestation of tropical forests, while non-palm oil producing countries raise health concerns related to palm oil consumption.

The palm oil industry's growth and evolution began with the Industrial Revolution. Today, it is a well-established sector with diverse products and applications across various industries.


  1. Kipple, K., et al. (2000). Global Palm Oil Trade History.
  2. Disbun. (2013). Palm Oil Varieties and Commercialization.
  3. GPS. (2016). History of Palm Oil Plantations.
  4. Wikipedia. (2023). Impact of the Industrial Revolution.

#PalmOilHistory #IndustrialRevolution #GlobalTrade #EnvironmentalImpact #PlantationDevelopment

Re-write from :

Hidayat, Atep Afia dan M. Kholil. 2020. Industri Sawit Serta Dampak, Ekonomi, Sosial dan Lingkungannya. Penerbit WR. Yogyakarta. (Bagian Satu : Revolusi Industri dan Sejarah Industri Sawit: 1. Berawal dari Revolusi Industri.


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