Wednesday, October 19, 2011


When Western world is talking to day about urban gardens to encourage local production of some food crops and reduce the carbon foot print of foods consumed every day, in India such gardens have always been existing. In the South there is hardly a house without a coconut tree and there are many with fruit crops like Guava, Mango, Sapota or even a sprinkling of vegetable plants producing Pumpkins, Spinach, Beans, Okra etc. Of course this trend is declining with house sites getting smaller and smaller in many cities and water becoming a constraint. Coconut, one of the most favorite perennial crops is still valued as it is a staple food in some states like Kerala, Karnataka, Tamilnadu, Andhra Pradesh and Goa. The catapulting of Coconut oil as a health ingredient because of its high medium chain fatty acids like Lauric acid has created a big demand for it through out the world.

There was a time when Coconut plants growing in places like Miami and Southern Florida in the US as kerbside plants and the nuts were swept off the roads as a litter material and even to day thousands of coconuts broken on the path of the deity Lord Ganesha during Thaipusam Festival in Malaysia find no takers, finally ending up in the landfill! In thousands of temples in India coconut is a part of the offering to God along with flowers, fruits, camphor and incense sticks. Coconut oil is also a much valued hair oil with large markets in the South and West Bengal. There are many uses for the coconut tree and its nuts and Kerala in India has large number of industries thriving on coconut, its husk, shell, leaves etc as it is a state where these trees thrive because of the favorable climate and profuse rains. The toddy industry in the state is dependent on tapping of the trees several times an year.

As a food coconut meat is used in many food preparations in the form of fresh gratings, extracted milk and desiccated powder. Water from tender coconut is a much valued beverage, often taken as a thirst quencher and healthy drink and in countries like the US this beverage is marketed as "equal" to blood because of its reported use as a substitute for blood for transfusion during World War II. With the role of Medium Chain Fatty acids in maintaining good health becoming apparent, demand for coconut oil in the international market has increased significantly recently causing a spurt in its price. World production of 61 million tons of coconut is contributed by 80 countries though Philippines, Indonesia and India account for more than 75%. In India four southern states of Kerala, Tamilnadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh produce more than 92% of the country's production.

Harvesting coconuts requires traditional skill for climbing the tree, which in some cases can be as tall as 70-80 ft and experience in picking up mature ones from several bunches and the frequency of harvesting can be once in 40 to 60 days. In Malaysia and Indonesia the nuts are picked by trained pig tailed Macaque monkeys and therefore human intervention is avoided. There are specialized training schools in these countries for training monkeys to climb and pluck mature nuts. But in India only human beings climb the trees to harvest the nuts and till recently adequate workers with necessary skills were available charging reasonably for the work. However during the last two years there has been a drastic reduction of the work force because of migration of these workers to other better paying avocations. This has led to a situation where those who still do the job charging exorbitantly for climbing coconut trees. There are many coconut plantations in Kerala looking for permanent employees for plucking coconut, willing to pay as much as Rs 15000 per month.

It is reported that dearth of coconut climbers is delaying harvest in many parts of the state and adversely affecting the productivity of the trees. Traditional climbers not only pluck coconuts but also take care of the trees, keeping them free of disease. This is reflected in the marginal dip in production in the state this year. It is a tribute to the Coconut Board at Kochi which has taken upon itself the task to address this problem on a war footing. Since the middle of August, the board has conducted free residential weekly training programs in 12 centers in Kerala, under a budget allocation of Rs 30 million which is expected to turn out about 5,000 climbers to pluck coconuts and identify diseases and spot seeds. They are also exposed to the technique of use of the tree climbing machine which are distributed free for practicing the profession amd make a career of it. The use of climbing machines also allows women to enter the traditionally male-dominated profession. Coconut plantation owners, as well as residents with coconut palms in their courtyards, will be hoping that the new crop of climbers start their work immediately. .

While Kerala is lucky to have the organizational backing of the Coconut Board, what about other states? What type of relief can be given to millions of house holds in these states who regret for having planted the trees in their premises considering the hassles involved in harvesting coconuts in time and avoiding unnecessary quarrel with their neighbors? Can there be tree crop harvesting companies formed here which can lend its workers for harvesting for a consideration? Entrepreneurship in this area can be a win-win situation for everybody.Already pre-harvest contractors are dominant in many states for crop harvesting and marketing and the tender coconut industry has evolved a system of contracting trees for harvesting tender ones based on an agreed price. These entrepreneurs must see an opportunity for a service business and form organizational entities with modern outlook. If this happens India can emerge as the top coconut producing country in the world within a short span of time.


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