Palm oil, with its many uses in cooking, as an industrial lubricant and in soap, has been popular for quite some time. Palm oil plantations were established in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) in the 1840s and throughout Malaysia in the early 1900s, but it was not until the 1960s that large-scale palm oil plantations began to increase, mainly in Malaysia. This was due in part to the Malaysian government’s policies of encouraging its poor populations to plant cash crops other than rubber–which by the 1960s was largely being supplanted by synthetic derivatives. Palm oil was the most lucrative crop, so it began to predominate.
Today palm oil is gaining popularity not only because it’s becoming cheaper than most other cooking oils, but because it also has potential as a source of biofuel. Although the environmental effects of large-scale palm oil cultivation are very negative, Malaysia, still a poor country, is actively encouraging production of it as a biofuel source as the world looks for alternative to fossil fuels. We’ve seen time and time again in the developing world how hard it is to dislodge a popular cash crop once it takes hold, so Southeast Asia’s reliance on palm oil will probably continue for some time to come.
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