Palm oil is used in cooking oils, margarine, soap, paint, plastics, cosmetics and in many other products. It comes from the fruit of a palm with the botanical name of Elaeis guineensis, a sturdy, upright palm which can be over 50 feet tall at maturity.
Papua New Guinea has had a palm oil industry in Oro Province only since the early days of Independence. The first palms were planted and a mill was built at Higaturu on land that Australian planters had been using to grow cocoa. Higaturu Oil Palms Pty Ltd. was a joint venture by the newly independent PNG Government and the British Commonwealth Development Corporation, each of which had a 50% share. Now a steady 45,000 tonnes of palm oil are produced annually in Oro Province alone, injecting an estimated K16 million into the Oro economy in the form of wages, payments to smallholders and increased local spending.
Like coffee, palm oil is produced either by small-holders who sell their crop to the company or the company itself. In Oro 6,000 hectares are owned by small-holders, while a further 6,000 is company plantation.
In each case the fruit of the oil palm is first harvested with a kind of chisel tool, which detaches it from the main plant The whole bunch is transported to the mill. Heating and pressing results in the palm fibre within the fruitlets giving up its oil. The product, in liquid form, is ready to travel to the coast where it is transferred to ships whose destination is likely to be Rotterdam or Merseyside.
1,785 small-holders are involved in the Oro oil palm industry and a further 2,500 work for the company for wages. Taking into account other family members, more than 20,000 people are reliant on palm oil for the cash component of their livelihood – a considerable fraction of Oro’s 106,000 population.
The existence of the industry is not untroubled. All plantation economies are targets for environmental criticism and subject to labour problems. The oil palm industry is no exception. These aspects of the industry are receiving serious attention in PNG.
For example, the Oro Conservation Project, funded by the World Bank, has been set up to find out if the very rare Queen Alexandra Birdwing Butterfly has been endangered by the loss of forest habitat to oil palms. Its results may affect future planning.
For the present, however, the oil palm industry is a profitable part of the PNG economy, providing a much needed cash income and assisting in the development of infrastructure such as roads.