The coconut palm is one of Southeast Asia’s earliest-known domesticates, treasured for its drinkable water, sweet sap, nourishing oil, and sturdy construction material. Relatively little historical attention, however, has been paid to the cultivation of the palm’s products and their circulation as commodities, even from the mid-nineteenth century onwards, when new uses for the coconut palm were progressively honed in the industrialised world. This paper helps redress this historiographical gap by examining environmental change in a coconut-producing frontier zone along the western coastline of Johor, the southern-most state of the Malay Peninsula. This low-lying coastal area, sparsely populated by a core of Malay peasantry before the nineteenth century, played host to hundreds of thousands of coconut-growing settlers from the Dutch East Indies from the mid-nineteenth century onwards. By 1930, Western Johor was Malaya’s single largest coconut producing zone, accounting for over half of all recorded coconut smallholdings across the Peninsula. By the 1950s, the coconut sector of Johor was in terminal decline, besieged by unattractive prices and an increasingly hostile, water-logged environment.
Johor’s coconut farmers were both perpetrators and victims of environmental change. They were caught up in an immense wave of natural resource commodification across Southeast Asia that reached unprecedented levels during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Three phenomena appear to have been primarily responsible for the environmental changes which worked against long-term coconut production in Johor. The first, and earliest, was the destabilisation of local mangrove swamp ecologies, led by migrant coconut farmers themselves who then excavated new drainage systems along the Johor coastline to facilitate coconut agriculture. West Johor’s farmlands, however, were also afflicted by developments upstream, as logging, plantation expansions, and mining all caused the rivers transecting the western coastline to silt and flood with increased frequency. This paper traces how one commodity frontier zone’s expansion was undermined by other competing zones of resource exploitation, over the course of a century straddling Malaya’s pre-colonial, colonial and national periods.