elaeis oleifera

Oil palm

The oil palms (Elaeis) comprise two species of the Arecaceae, or palm family. They are used in commercial agriculture in the production of palm oil. The African Oil Palm Elaeis guineensis is native to west Africa, occurring between Angola and Gambia, while the American Oil Palm Elaeis oleifera is native to tropical Central America and South America. The generic name is derived from the Greek for oil, elaion, while the species name refers to its country of origin.

Mature trees are single-stemmed, and grow to tall. The leaves are pinnate, and reach between long. A young tree produces about 30 leaves a year. Established trees over 10 years produce about 20 leaves a year. The flowers are produced in dense clusters; each individual flower is small, with three sepals and three petals. The fruit takes five to six months to mature from pollination to maturity; it comprises an oily, fleshy outer layer (the pericarp), with a single seed (kernel), also rich in oil. Unlike other relatives, the oil palm does not produce offshoots; propagation is by sowing the seeds.


Oil palms are grown for their clusters of fruit, which can weigh . Upon harvest, the drupe, pericarp and seeds are used for production of soap and edible vegetable oil; different grades of oil quality are obtained from the pericarp and the kernel, with the pericarp oil used mainly for cooking oil, and the kernel oil used in processed foods.

For each hectare of oil palm, which is harvested year-round, the annual production averages 10 tonnes of fruit, which yields of pericarp oil, and of seed kernels, which yield of high quality palm kernel oil as well as of kernel meal. Palm fronds and kernel meal are processed for use as livestock feed. Some varieties have even higher productivities which has led to their consideration for producing the vegetable oil needed for biodiesel.

The African Oil Palm was introduced to Sumatra and the Malaya area in the early 1900s; many of the largest plantations of oil palms are now in this area, with Malaysia growing over 20,000 square kilometres. Malaysia claims that in 1995 it was the world's largest producer with 51% of world production. Palm oil and its fractions are practical and attractive choice for importers and food manufacturers, especially in 3rd world countries due to its price competitiveness, year-round supply, diversity and versatility for edible and non-edible applications.


The oil palm is a tropical palm tree. There are two species of oil palm, the better known one is the one originating from Guinea, Africa and was first illustrated by Nicholaas Jacquin in 1763, hence its name, Elaeis guineensis Jacq.

The fruit is reddish about the size of a large plum and grows in large bunches. A bunch of fruits can weigh between 10 to 40 kilograms. Each fruit contains a single seed (the palm kernel) surrounded by a soft oily pulp. Oil is extracted from both the pulp of the fruit (palm oil, an edible oil) and the kernel (palm kernel oil, used mainly for soap manufacture).

For every 100 kilograms of fruit bunches, typically 22 kilograms of palm oil and 1.6 kilograms of palm kernel oil can be extracted.

The high productivity of the oil palm at producing oil (as high as 7,250 liters per hectare per year) has made it the prime source of vegetable oil for many tropical countries. It is also likely to be used for producing the necessary vegetable oil for biodiesel, an example being a planned refinery in Darwin, Australia which will import the palm oil from Indonesia and Malaysia.

The oil palm originated in West Africa but has since been planted successfully in tropical regions within 20 degrees of the equator. There is evidence of palm oil use in Ancient Egypt.

In the Republic of the Congo, or Congo Brazzaville, precisely in the Northern part, not far from Ouesso, local people produce this oil by hand. They harvest the fruit, boil it to let the water part evaporate, then they press what is left in order to collect the reddish, orange colored oil.

The world's largest producer and exporter of palm oil today is Malaysia, producing about 47% of the world's supply of palm oil. Indonesia is the second largest world producer of palm oil producing approximately 36% of world palm oil volume. According to US Department of Agriculture, since 2005 Indonesia became the world's largest producer of Crude Palm Oil (CPO. Both nations are expanding their palm oil production capacity and the market continues to grow.

Worldwide palm oil production during the 2005-2006 growing season was 39.8 million metric tons, of which 4.3 million tons was in the form of palm kernel oil. It is thus by far the most widely-produced tropical oil, and constitutes thirty percent of total edible oil production worldwide..

Social and Environmental impacts

The social and environmental impacts of oil palm cultivation is a highly controversial topic. There are multiple sources highlighting the positive and negative aspects of this industry. Oil palm is a valuable economic crop and provides a major source of employment. It allows many small landholders to participate in the cash economy and also often results in the upgrade of the infrastructure (schools, roads, telecommunications) within that area. However, there are cases where native customary lands have been appropriated by oil palm plantations without any form of consultation or compensation, leading to social conflict between the plantations and local residents. In some cases oil palm plantations are dependent on imported labour or illegal immigrants, and there are some concerns about the employment conditions and social impacts of these practices.

Biodiversity loss and the potential extinction of charismatic species is one of the most controversial issues in oil palm cultivation. The impacts of oil palm plantations on the environment is dependent on multiple factors, including the existence and compliance to environmental legislation, the pre-establishment habitat and corporate responsibility. In some states where oil palm is established there had been little enforcement of environmental legislation leading to encroachment of plantations into protected areas, encroachment into riparian strips, open burning of plantation wastes and release of palm mill pollutants in the environment. Some of these states have recognised the need for increased environmental protection and this is resulting in more environmental friendly practices.

Demand for palm oil has increased in recent years due to its use as a biofuel, but recognition that this increases the environmental impact of cultivation as well as causing a food vs fuel issue has forced some developed nations to reconsider their policies on biofuel to improve standards and ensure sustainability.

Malayan folkculture

Since the days when the 'guineesis' was first introduced by the British, Indians laborer were brought in to work the estates. It was there that Hindu beliefs mixed with the local Malay race culture and started the usage of palm seeds by traditional healers suffixed with tok 'bomoh' or 'pawang' in the local language. It was found that every bunch of palm fruit usually bears a single 'illustrious' seed which looks like a shiny black pearl called 'sbatmi' in Tamil and 'shakti' in Malay. These are used as accessories by the 'bomoh' and 'pawang' in the mixed ritual for peace with nature as these are believed to contain mystical healing properties and one who wears it are blessed by nature.

Modern usage have seen more and more common people keeping these as a charm/fashion item to feel at peace thanks to its use on Television by some celebrities. It must be noted that all palm seeds contain acid and these sbatmi are no different and should be handled with care. Sbatmi lost some popularity in recent years when it was most recently used in a grisly ritual by the infamous Mona Fandey.

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