Shaking the coconut business
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CTA. 1987. Shaking the coconut business. Spore 11. CTA, Wageningen, The Netherlands.
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For many people, the coconut symbolizes the relaxed, easy life associated with tropical islands. That may explain why it has often been overlooked As a result, coconut plantations in many countries tend to be over-mature with poor yields and thus...
For many people, the coconut symbolizes the relaxed, easy life associated with tropical islands. That may explain why it has often been overlooked As a result, coconut plantations in many countries tend to be over-mature with poor yields and thus declining markets. Far from simply providing the background for picturesque postcards and films, the coconut can play an important role in the local economy. New, high-yielding varieties now make it possible to renew coconut plantations and thus the economy of those regions that depend on this crop. In Southeast Asia, where it originated, the coconut is part and parcel of the agricultural landscape. Every farm has a coconut stand with the result being that 7 of the 9 million ha of coconuts grown in the world are found in this region. Large, industrial plantations have made the Philippines, India and Indonesia the world's biggest producers. On most Pacific islands, the coconut is the principal resource, equally important to both the local and national economies. In Vanuatu, for example, coconut plantations employ 80% of the rural population and produce 75% of total, exports. In Africa and South Americe, however, where the coconut was introduced in the 15th and 16th centuries, its economic importance is much lower because it is not consumed locally. In Africa, only Tanzania, Mozambique and more recently Cote d'lvoire, have established large plantations. Many people throughout the world depend on the coconut, which is primarily grown in village plantations or on individual farms: 90% of the world's coconut trees belong to small farmers who are both the major producers and consumers of this crop. For them, this 'King of tropical plants' is also the 'tree of 100 uses practically all of its parts can be used. Coconut flesh and milk are consumed fresh, the albumen is dried, the copra is used to produce oil (which is often the only fatty material available), the trunk is used as construction material, the palms are used as thatch or to make brooms and baskets, the shells are used as a fuel or for making various utensils, and the sap is used for making wine, alcohol or syrup. Coconut trees are thus an irreplaceable part of the daily life of local people. When they are destroyed or lost, as was the case when a cyclone hit the Solomon Islands in 1986, the only recourse left is to seek outside aid. Unfortunately, statistics do not reflect the importance of such traditional uses of coconut trees. Primarily, they deal only with the numerous industrial products sold in international markets. Coconut oil contains a strong foaming agent, lauric acid, which is widely used in the manufacturing of soaps, detergents and cosmetics. Shredded coconut which keeps very well when dried, is used by the food and confectionery industries and coconut oil is used to make margarine and other oil-based products. The charcoal produced from coconut shells is even used in nuclear power plants because of its ability to absorb and filter noxious products, including radiation. The coconut is thus both a food crop and a cash crop as the sale of copra often provides the family's main source of revenue Stagnating production For over twenty years, copra exports have been diminishing while the world production of coconut has stagnated around 35 million tonnes or about 4 million tonnes of oil per year (about the same level as groundnut oil). This situation is not encouraging for the future of the coconut industry: if supplies become insufficient, coconut oil risks losing its market to other oils, notably palm oil because of their similarities. For the many people dependent on this industry, it is thus imperative to increase its production and to make it more competitive on world markets. This will be no easy task. In most producing regions, the plantations consist of even-aged, over-mature trees and their soils have often been exhausted by this unfertilized monoculture (less than 1% of the world's coconut trees receive commercial fertilizer). To make matters worse, the litter and other agricultural residues that were used as fertilizer are now being used to replace dwindling fuelwood supplies. Furthermore, no selection is made to improve the stands and it is often the leftover nuts that are planted. It is thus not surprising that yields are low, averaging 4,000 coconuts per hectare or 600-800 kg/ha of copra, often of poor quality. New EEC standards on acceptable levels of aflatoxins threaten the exports of many countries, notably in the Pacific and Africa. Lazy man's tree One may well ask why the coconut industry has deterioriated. For many years, research and development efforts all but ignored this crop, which was considered as a traditional activity of little economic importance. The coconut, after all, was known as the 'lazy man's tree'. Furthermore, its 50 year life span means that it takes from 7 to 10 years to reach maturity and, even under optimal traditional cultivation, it produces no more than 2 tonnes of oil per hectare. It is thus no wonder that researchers concentrated on the oil palm which produces 5 to 6 tonnes of oil per hectare. Research efforts are now being made to compensate for this lack of attention but the results are only now beginning to be felt. There is considerable potential for the improvement of coconut trees and this is the focus of the French Research Institnte for oils and oil crops (IRHO) in Port Bouet, Cote d'lvoire. This research centre, the largest in the world dealing with coconuts, has used its extensive collection of coconut varieties to develop more than 80 hybrids. After a series of tests and field trials, four of them with increased yields of 20-30% started being distributed over 15 years ago. The most well known is PB 121, a cross between the 'Malaysian yellow dwarf' which produces numerous small nuts, and the 'Big West African' which produces fewer but larger nuts. More commonly known as Mawa (Ma = Malaysia and wa = West Africa), this hybrid is prolific, matures between 4 and 5 years and, under good conditions, produces up to 5 tonnes/ha of copra. Furthermore, it is highly drought resistant. PB 121 has been tested in 43 countries under many different ecological conditions and has always outperformed the local variety. Encouraged by the success of these first hybrids, researchers are now trying to develop varieties that respond to specific needs, such as a compact form that enables more trees to be grown per hectare, or varieties with nuts that fall by themselves to facilitate harvesting. Attention is also being focussed on ways of increasing both the quantity of oil produced and its protein quality. The best hybrids are now being improved in order to increase their yield by another 20-25% but the seeds of such 'super hybrids' will not be available for another five years or so. Other research is concentrating on developing hybrids adapted to each region by exploiting the genetic variability of local coconut populations. This kind of work for the Pacific region is being done at the Saraoutou research station in Vanuatu which is trying to develop wind tolerant varieties for areas exposed to cyclones. Efforts are also being mad to develop hybrids that are not only more productive than the 'Big Vanuatu which also resist 'lethal yellowing' which is a disease (thought to be viral) that affects all exotic coconut trees. Hybrid seeds 'Miracle' trees alone, however, are not enough to ensure a 'green revolution'. They must be accepted and planted by the farmers and that remains a big problem. The first limiting factor is the production of hybrid seeds. The low seed production of coconuts (from 80-90 seeds per tree) necessitates large seed producing stands (about 350 trees are needed to supply the seeds for planting 100 ha of hybrids). As each seed weighs about 1 kg, transportation also becomes a problem. These stands consist of female trees of the same variety that have been artificially inseminated: pollen is collected from male trees planted elsewhere and is applied by hand to the seed trees. As pollen is easily stored and transported, it can be brought in from other countries. After 12 months, the nuts are harvested and quickly sent to the designated plantations because their germination is difficult to delay. Such seed producing stands have been developed in numerous producing countries, especially those with industrial plantations. Other such facilities are now being started in the Solomon Islands (funded by the EEC) and the Comoros (funded by the World Bank) but seed production still does not meet demand. In a few years, seedlings will no doubt be readily available thanks to the potential of in vitro techniques enabling the rapid reproduction of millions of plants from the best hybrids. Research in this direction is very promising but the first in vitro coconut tree has not yet left the IRHO laboratories where it recently saw the liaht of day. In order to ensure optimum results such improved varieties must also be planted and cultivated with equal attention. The high potential of hybrids depends on fertile soils so efforts must first of all be made to restore fertility levels in plantations despite the problem that this may pose for some farmers. Specific cultivation techniques, including good stand management, are also needed to ensure high yields. A major task is thus the training of those involved through good extension programmes designed to exploit the latest research results. To help pay for the renewal of their stands, and to shelter them from the risks involved in monocultures, farmers are encouraged to interplant their coconut trees with other crops: annuals to begin with, and then perennials. Cocoa and, to a lesser extent coffee, which are already used for this purpose in several countries including Papua New Guinea, are the most cost-effective associations. In Cote d'lvoire, leguminous shrubs are now being tested for their fuelwood potential. Livestock can also be raised in coconut plantations, thereby providing another revenue source, especially in meat-importing regions. All of these investments naturally warrant some protection from pests. Techniques adapted to the means of small farmers are thus being developed to control Agonoxena argaula, a small moth whose caterpillars wreak havoc with coconut foliage in Fiji, Tonga, Samoa and Vanuatu. In the Comoros, rat control is the priority as they are responsible for 37% of production losses. Post-harvest technologies also need to be improved as little attention has been given to the development of small-scale processing equipment that is both easy to use and gives quality results. Copra stoves fuelled by coconut shells are a good example. Other by-products can also be used. In Bora-Bora, in the French Polynesia, tests have shown that coconut fibre, burned in a gazogen, can produce a useful energy source. In countries where coconuts are not used locally, hybrid trees can still be used to develop coastal regions which are unsuitable for oil palms. The salt-tolerant coconut also thrives along the shore because of the high chlorine levels in the atmosphere which are essential for its growth. Thanks to these new, high-yielding hybrids, local coconut plantations that are well managed and associated with other farming activities can now enable farmers to improve their economic situation rather than simply provide the background for continued decline. Producing countries have started to implement the coconut renewal programmes that are needed, but it will take years of hard work to get this industry back on its feet For further information readers may be interested in receiving the bi-monthly newsletter Cocomunity (USD 75 per year) and CORD a bi-annual report on coconut research and development (USD 7 50 per issue for Asia; USD 10 elsewhere) both available from Asian and Pacific Coconut Community P O. Box 343 Jakarta 10002 Indonesia
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