TIMELINE: Slaves, colonials, weevils: palm oil's historic rise

Sept 23 - Less than a century after the west African oil palm was introduced to southeast Asia as a cash crop, Indonesia and Malaysia supply about 85 percent of the world’s palm oil, used in processed food and soap products. Here is a timeline charting how oil palm spread east.

15th century - Wild oil palms in west Africa’s tropical rainforests are processed to make palm oil for soups and baked dishes by small farmers. Portuguese discover the crop during expeditions to Africa. Palm oil later becomes an important provision on caravans and ships of the Atlantic slave trade.

1830s - Palm oil introduced in the botanic garden in Calcutta by British administrators. Trial plantings start later in Kerala.

1848 - Four oil palm seedlings brought to Botanic Gardens in Bogor, Java, from Amsterdam. First planted as ornamental trees on tobacco estates, the trees are now found across Asia.

1870: Dutch oil palm investors in Indonesia receive lands at nominal rent, sparking start of plantation boom. Meanwhile, the Industrial Revolution creates demand for palm oil for candle-making and as a machinery lubricant.

1907: William Lever, founder of today’s Unilever, the world’s largest palm oil consumer, seeks land concessions in Britain’s West African colonies to produce palm oil for his soap mills.

1911: Indonesia’s first commercial oil palm plantation is set up in Sumatra, Indonesia, by Adrien Hallet, a Belgian agronomist who had rubber interests in the Belgian Congo.

1912: Frenchman Henri Fauconnier plants seedlings purchased from Hallet in Sumatra in 1911 and 1912 to establish Malaysia’s first commercial oil palm planting at Tennamaram Estate, Selangor, to replace an unsuccessful coffee estate.

Post-war: Oil palm benefits from rubber industry’s post-war problems as investors seek to diversify. Malaysia launches systematic breeding programs. Indonesia’s plantation system stagnates after independence in 1945, as Dutch plantation owners no longer have the backing of the colonial government.

1967: Indonesian plantation system grows under second President Suharto, as government, with World Bank assistance, makes direct investments through state-owned companies.

1980s: Malaysia emerges as world’s largest palm oil producer. Researchers realize oil palm is pollinated by a tiny weevil, not the wind. Its introduction to Malaysia and Indonesia slashes costs by replacing hand pollination by humans.

1997-1998: Forest fires rage across Indonesia for months; smoky haze chokes cities across the region. The 700 million tonnes of carbon released by the deforestation amounts to a fifth of annual global emissions. More than 100 oil palm companies are accused of setting fires to clear land and blur concession boundaries; companies say small farmers set the fires.

2004: Palm oil producers and buyers establish the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) to create an ethical certification system to minimize impact on forests, wildlife and communities.

2007: UN says forest clearances for oil palm are Indonesia’s leading cause of deforestation, and that illegal oil palm, fires, and illegal logging, are widespread in 37 of 41 national parks.

2009: Malaysian palm oil conglomerate Sime Darby says it has cracked oil palm genetics, raising possibility of better yields. RSPO estimates about five percent, or two million tonnes of the expected 40 million tonnes of Crude Palm Oil produced in 2009 will be certified sustainable this year.

Sources: Reuters, The Cambridge World History of Food (here), United Nations Environment Programme, 'The Last Stand of the Orangutan: State of Emergency, Illegal logging, Fire and Palm Oil in Indonesia's National Parks' (here

nreport.pdf) (Writing by Gillian Murdoch; Editing by Megan Goldin)