Category Archives: Environmental History

Palm Oil, Rubber, and Colonialism

The Emergence of an Export Cluster: Traders and Palm Oil in Early Twentieth-century Southeast Asia

by Valeria Giacomin (Harvard-Newcomen Fellow in Business History during 2017/2018)

Abstract: Malaysia and Indonesia account for 90 percent of global exports of palm oil, forming one of the largest agricultural clusters in the world. This article uses archival sources to trace how this cluster emerged from the rubber business in the era of British and Dutch colonialism. Specifically, the rise of palm oil in this region was due to three interrelated factors: (1) the institutional environment of the existing rubber cluster; (2) an established community of foreign traders; and (3) a trading hub in Singapore that offered a multitude of advanced services. This analysis stresses the historical dimension of clusters, which has been neglected in the previous management and strategy works, by connecting cluster emergence to the business history of trading firms. The article also extends the current literature on cluster emergence by showing that the rise of this cluster occurred parallel, and intimately related, to the product specialization within international trading houses.

Freely available at Enterprise and Society, Volume 19, Issue 2, June 2018, pp. 272-308

Review by Helena Varkkey (University of Malaya)

In this article, Giacomin presents an archive-based historical analysis of how palm oil became one of the most important traded commodities from Southeast Asia to the world in the early- to mid-1900s. She uses the cluster (defined as a “geographically proximate group of interconnected companies and associated institutions in a particular field, linked by commonalities and complementarities”) approach to explain how the organizational structure of the pre-existing rubber cluster in the Malay peninsula (at the time a British colony) and Sumatra (under the Dutch) formed the basis for an emerging palm oil cluster in the same geographical region.

The first part of her paper focuses on how the regional rubber cluster structure developed. While the literature commonly credits unique local factors in the development of such clusters, Giacomin instead looks at nonlocal factors: (1) mainland Chinese traders that controlled regional trading routes from major Southeast Asian ports and brought in low-skilled tappers and harvesters from surrounding territories, and (2) Western traders that brought in capital inputs (seeds, machinery and finance) and highly-skilled human resources (estate managers and engineers) from Europe and other parts of the Empire and established headquarters in major European trading ports, allowing them to access crucial market information on demand. Both of these foreign merchant communities congregated in the emerging trading hub of Singapore, strategically located in between British Malaya and Dutch Sumatra, and developed a mutual dependency: Chinese contacts were vital for Western traders wanting to run a business in the Eastern colonies, while the Chinese needed Western traders to scale up their region-based commercial activity to a global scope.

The second part of the article explains how palm oil became the “spin-off” crop of the rubber cluster in the region. During the natural rubber boom in the early 1900s, the Malaya-Sumatra rubber cluster became over-dependent on this export and thus over-specialised in terms of existing practises, agronomic knowledge (through R&D agencies like the Rubber Research Institute), and coordinating institutions (eg. the Rubber Growers’ Association). When the advent of synthetic rubber in the 1920s caused natural rubber prices to fall, companies desperately looked to diversify their production to recoup and replace their losses. However, this over-specialisation meant that they could consider only a limited range of crops similar to rubber for diversification. As it happened, the rubber estate structure could be conveniently repurposed for into oil palm estates. Furthermore, the oil palm flourished in a much narrower latitude span compared to rubber, giving confidence to companies that the demand for palm oil would be more sustained since supply would be more limited.
Giacomin concludes that even though the literature often regards over-specialisation as fatal, in the case of the Southeast Asian rubber cluster, this serendipitously led to the emergence of one of the most enduring regional clusters serving the global economy. Today, Indonesia and Malaysia account for over 90% of global palm oil exports.

While the significance of the rubber sector in paving the way for palm oil in Malaysia and Indonesia is well known, this paper remains an important and significant addition to the current literature, not only on general business management and strategy, but also more specifically in terms of (1) palm oil expansion and development and (2) agricultural systems (estate vs. smallholdings).

Firstly, the specific role of nonlocal (especially Chinese) entrepreneurs in connecting the production areas in this region to the consumption areas in the West was previously not well understood. In the context of the “global north” and “global south”, palm oil can be considered a uniquely “southern” vegetable oil. Compared to other oils like sunflower, rapeseed, and soya bean, the production, major business players, beneficiaries and direct impacts of palm oil is situated more comparatively in the global south. Giacomin alludes to this in reference to the narrow latitude where oil palm can be grown. This northern/southern framing has coloured much of the recent debates and controversies over palm oil today. This paper’s analysis on the historical role of Chinese merchants is especially useful in further informing the idea of palm oil as a “southern” oil, while at the same time, the equally important role of the Western merchants that Giacomin highlights may be useful in moderating certain northern arguments in this ongoing debate.

Secondly, the historical nature of Giacomin’s analysis of this sector is especially timely in the current period where other regions, like West Africa and Latin America, are looking to increase their global trading share of palm oil. Giacomin mentions that even though the oil palm originated from and was first produced commercially in West Africa during colonial times, Western African territories were unable to effectively penetrate global markets because they did not display the same institutional cohesion across neighbouring territories, something that Southeast Asia managed to do through the pre-existing rubber cluster. This “cluster” model may thus provide an exemplar to be used by emerging palm oil production regions and companies as an effective way to possibly break the current oligopoly (Indonesian and Malaysian firms) which is the palm oil industry. Especially for West Africa, which is considered the current “greenfield” area for palm oil outside Southeast Asia, current strategies can be developed to avoid past mistakes.

Finally, Giacomin’s analysis of early smallholders is useful to inform current discussions on the ideal agricultural systems for oil palm. Her paper argues that in the mid-20th century, the fact that the palm oil was an estate crop (involving high costs and favouring large-scale production) provided a solution to the problem previously faced by rubber companies that were facing competition from and losing market share to rubber smallholdings. While this might have been the case historically, oil palm today has been successfully adapted to the smallholder model in both Indonesia and Malaysia, with a significant share of both countries’ production (about 40% each) coming from either organised or independent smallholders. Giacomin’s analysis stops at the early decolonialisation period, before the newly independent nations began to formulate oil palm smallholder schemes as a strategic tool for rural development and poverty eradication for both countries. Her analysis however can serve as a useful starting point in the ongoing debates on if and how both the estate and smallholder systems can co-exist efficiently and in harmony.

Overall, this paper is a valuable piece of business history that helps to further shed light on a controversial agro-economic sector often shrouded in secrecy. The fact that palm oil continues to be a hot topic worldwide today underlines the relevance and importance of such forays into history to inform the present.


Is it Possible to Escape the #ResourceCurse?

Mining and Indonesia’s Economy: Institutions and Value Adding, 1870-2010

By Pierre van der Eng, The Australian National University (Canberra) (

Abstract: Indonesia has long been a major producer of minerals for international markets. Starting in 2014, it implemented legislation banning exports of unprocessed minerals and requiring producers to invest in processing facilities to add more value before export. This paper establishes what light past experiences in Indonesia with mining sheds on this recent development. It quantifies and discusses the growth of mining production in Indonesia since 1870. It analyses the institutional arrangements that past governments used to maximise resource rents and domestic value adding. The paper finds that production and exports of mining commodities were long dominated by oil, but increased and diversified over time, particularly since the 1960s. The development of the mining sector depended on changes in market prices, mining technologies and the cost of production, but particularly on the institutional arrangements that guided the decisions of foreign investors to commit to mining production and processing in Indonesia.


Review by Miguel A. López-Morell

Mining is an economic activity that abounds with paradoxes and differs greatly from manufacturing and agriculture. Mining involves sourcing underground natural resources which, in turn, depends on the presence of certain minerals in the area, on the total costs of extraction, transport, refining, etc. and the current and expected demand for the mineral(s). The exact amount to be sourced is uncertain. Furthermore, mining is often environmentally unfriendly and as a rule, non-regenerative. It has a limited life as it ends the moment the material is exhausted. This unless new technologies or price hikes turn the extraction of any remanents profitable. Mining also associates with important negative externalities, as a consequence from the changes to the landscapes and the pollution it causes. Hence, teh potential market failures make case for state intervention and in regulating mining activity, the state has to strike a balance between wealth generation, employment and the ensuing negative factors. This sort of considerations and issues gain greater weight when extraction is to be carried out by foreign companies.


There are two broad areas that encompass an ongoing debate around the degree of state intervention in mining. On the one hand, ownership and control of the deposits and, on the other hand, taxation. The debates around taxation dwell on the extent to which the state can generate revenue through compulsive contributions based on local production and/or exports. The debate about ownership and control essentially starts with the idea that, regardless of who owns the top soil, whatever is underground belongs to the state. The discussion that ensues deals with how the state should enable individuals and/or companies to explore and exploit underground riches by ceding rights of explotation through concessions and permits. For instance atttutes towards mining in Germany, Peru, Mexico, Japan and Uruguay at the beginning of the 20th century resulted in a system of almost absolute freedom for domestic and foreign individuals and companies to make claims and exploit their mines. Examples of restrictive policies include the nationalization of oil in Mexico (1938), tin in Bolivia (1952) as well as that of copper in the Democratic Republic of Congo (1967 and again 2010) and Chile (1971).

Dewi Sukarno (also spelled Soekarno)  (1901-1970). President of Indonesia, 1945 to 1966.

Dewi Sukarno (also spelled Soekarno) (1901-1970). President of Indonesia, 1945 to 1966.

A large number of studies on the mining sector have emphasized the role of lobby groups in achieving better legislative conditions for exploiting and exporting mineral resources. At the same time, however, these studies also document how widespread administrative corruption has given rise to what is known as the “mineral resource curse” hypothesis or the apparent paradox that countries endowed with large mineral resources have not seen this wealth reflected in their GDPs. Morover, that these same countries often suffer sinificant imbalances in the distribution of the income, with mining districts falling into abandonment or in a precarious state. These are countries that have been unable to develop alternative economic activities to mining, suffer from poor infrastructure, and pollution from mining.

Haji Mohammad Suharto (also spelled Soeharto) (1921-2008). President of Indonesia,  1967 to 1998.

Haji Mohammad Suharto (also spelled Soeharto) (1921-2008). President of Indonesia, 1967 to 1998.

The paper by Pierre van der Eng, distributed by NEP-HIS on 2014-09-25 offers an important contribution to better understanding the “mineral resource curse”. Van der Eng takes a long-term view to address the policies undertaken by the Indonesian authorities to maximize income form their mining, be it through direct or shared exploitation or through specific tax policies. Over a 140 year period he establishes the various historical stages that have characterized the evolution of the Indonesian mining industry in terms of employment, exports, production and generation of added value and, most importantly, income absorbed by the national economy through the various types of mining.

Pierre van der Eng

Pierre van der Eng

At is birth in 1945, the Indonesian Republic inherited a system of tight control over the deposits in the region (as excercise by th Dutch through the former monopoly of the Chartered East Indies Company). In the decades following independence, the Indonesian governments maintained and reinforced the policy of tight control. At the same time, it set up an interesting shared management model of the deposits between a specialized public body and foreign mining companies (known as Contracts of Work or CoW). The CoW resulted in a significant improvement in both the control of production and revenue from taxes.

The CoW legally ceased to exist in 2009. Since then Indonesia began to decentralized a significant part of the collection of mining taxes. The loss of this revenue has been compensated with measures designed to increase the effort of the mining companies in the country and by retaining higher percentages of the added value generated by the mining industry. For example, in early 2014 the Indonesian government introduced a prohibition on mining firms exporting raw or concentrated minerals, which effectively force multinationals like Freeport-McMoRan to develop copper refineries inside the country while, at the same time, compensate for the lost revenue assosiated with the fall of the international oil price.


The Indonesian case is considered “paradigmatic” example of a good management policy of mineral resources. This thanks to Indonesia avoding the state-monopoly model (popular amongst oil producing countries). The Indonesian approach also shows that it is possible to find ways for the country to absorb a high proportion of the value added by mining productions while, at the same time, direct or manage investment in a strategic sector. The Indonesian approach seems to suggest that it is possible to align the incentives and outcomes of state companies and foreign multinationals. Specially as the latter complement a lack of capital and the country’s know-how. In the Indonesian case the lattter occurred while relating to a number of Japanese investments, which contributed to the Indonesian economy with capital, workers and technology. In these circumstances, the Indonesian government was able to supply oil and other raw material needs of the Japanese, who in turn reduced their dependence on more distant suppliers.

In short, the paper by Pierre van der Eng is opportune. A much welcome contribution to the world of mining history. There are few historical economic studies available on the micro and macroeconomic effects of mining on the economies of countries rich in mining resources. The view offered may also set off deeper reflection about how much pressure can be brought to bear on the profits of businesses whose presence in an area is fleeting. It may also inspire more comparative studies by countries.


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