PUB­LIC AF­FAIRS The co­conut in Ja­maica

Jamaica Gleaner - - OPINION & COMMENTARY - Email feed­back to col­umns@glean­

THE CO­CONUT is not in­dige­nous to Ja­maica. It is gen­er­ally agreed that this palm was first in­tro­duced about the mid­dle of the 16th cen­tury, and records show that it was com­mon here by 1681. Ini­tially, co­conuts were planted near har­bours and coastal set­tle­ments but later, with the ex­pan­sion of plan­ta­tion agri­cul­ture, the crop was grown in­land.

The co­conut did not be­come the agro-in­dus­trial crop that we know to­day un­til the 19th cen­tury when co­conut oil be­came the cheap raw ma­te­rial used for the man­u­fac­ture of soap, ex­plo­sives and mar­garine. When the Pal­isa­does Co­conut Plan­ta­tion was es­tab­lished on March 4, 1869 – an event com­mem­o­rated by a mon­u­ment along the Pal­isa­does Road not far from the Plumb Point light­house – co­conut was well on its way to be­com­ing a plan­ta­tion crop lo­cally.

At that time, the main va­ri­ety grown was the Ja­maica Tall, or ‘Na­tive Co­conut’. Since then, more than 60 va­ri­eties, in­clud­ing the Panama Tall and the Malayan Dwarf, have been in­tro­duced. Hur­ri­canes and dis­ease have played a piv­otal role in the in­tro­duc­tion of ex­otic va­ri­eties and evo­lu­tion of the in­dus­try.


Early in the 20th cen­tury, there was no lo­cal co­conut mar­ket­ing or­gan­i­sa­tion; traders pur­chased fresh nuts di­rectly from grow­ers and ex­ported them to the USA. Most of the larger grow­ers made and ex­ported co­pra. Lo­cal pro­duc­tion in­creased but de­mand grad­u­ally de­creased, and by the 1920s most of the crop could not be dis­posed of prof­itably. Mar­ket­ing of the crop be­come chaotic, but this ul­ti­mately led to sig­nif­i­cant de­vel­op­ments in the in­dus­try.

In 1930, a group of grow­ers formed the Ja­maica Co­conut Pro­duc­ers As­so­ci­a­tion Ltd, a co­op­er­a­tive mar­ket­ing or­gan­i­sa­tion which used its mem­bers’ co­conuts to pro­duce co­pra, oil and, be­gin­ning in 1937, soaps. Other co­conut-pro­cess­ing fac­to­ries were es­tab­lished, and there was com­pe­ti­tion.

The Govern­ment en­acted leg­is­la­tion to pro­tect the lo­cal in­dus­try from ex­ter­nal com­pe­ti­tion and, in 1940, the Ja­maica Co­conut Pro­duc­ers As­so­ci­a­tion, in part­ner­ship with Drax Soap fac­tory, formed Soaps and Ed­i­ble Prod­ucts Ltd (now SEPROD), which bought out all the other pro­ces­sors ex­cept Caribbean Prod­ucts Ltd. In 1945, the Co­conut In­dus­try Board (CIB) was es­tab­lished as a statu­tory body to ad­min­is­ter the in­dus­try. The CIB bought all the shares in SEPROD from its own funds and later, in 1964, ac­quired the share­hold­ings of Caribbean Prod­ucts Ltd. In 1985, the CIB di­vested a ma­jor­ity of the shares in SEPROD.

In 1934, after hur­ri­canes in 1932 and 1933, lethal yel­low­ing (LY), per­haps the most de­struc­tive of all co­conut dis­eases, be­gan to cause con­sid­er­able dam­age on the north coast be­tween Mon­tego Bay and Lucea. In 1940, Ma­jor Pease of Round Hill es­tate, who had watched the dis­ease spread­ing on the es­tate and had been un­able to con­trol it by felling and burn­ing, ob­tained a few seed­nuts of Red Malayan Dwarf from Trinidad. Three ger­mi­nated and in time gave rise to 10,000 palms, and it was here that the LY re­sis­tance of the Malayan Dwarf was first no­ticed and doc­u­mented.

By the end of the Sec­ond World War, the de­mand for co­conuts had de­creased, as its strate­gic im­por­tance was pass­ing to other crops, and syn­thetic de­ter­gents and fi­bres were ap­pear­ing on the mar­ket. The ex­port of dry co­conuts de­clined and ceased when the hur­ri­cane of 1944 de­stroyed 41 per cent of all bear­ing palms, and an­other in 1951 was equally de­struc­tive. Large-scale im­por­ta­tion of Malayan Dwarf seed­nuts from St Lu­cia, along with var­i­ous re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion pro­grammes fi­nanced by the CIB, led to good re­cov­ery by the late 1950s.

The need to keep im­prov­ing the in­dus­try led the CIB to es­tab­lish a re­search depart­ment in 1959 and later an ad­vi­sory di­vi­sion. Be­fore then, re­search on co­conuts was done by the Min­istry of Agri­cul­ture, but it lacked con­ti­nu­ity.

LY, which had been con­fined to the west­ern re­gion for more than a hun­dred years, sud­denly, in 1961, ap­peared in Buff Bay, 90km from the near­est out­break in the west. It spread rapidly through the main co­conut-grow­ing re­gion of the north­east and within two decades had de­stroyed five mil­lion Ja­maica Tall palms. The CIB screened all lo­cal pop­u­la­tions for LY re­sis­tance and, with in­ter­na­tional as­sis­tance, in­tro­duced and field­tested co­conut va­ri­eties from all ma­jor co­conut-grow­ing re­gions. The Malayan Dwarf and its hy­brid with the Panama Tall (May­pan) were found to have higher LY re­sis­tance than all other va­ri­eties and dis­trib­uted to farm­ers and so re­placed the sus­cep­ti­ble Ja­maica Tall.


Once again through im­ple­ment­ing as­sis­tance pro­grammes, funded by the CIB, the in­dus­try re­cov­ered, and when Hur­ri­cane Gil­bert struck in 1988, there were ap­prox­i­mately 5.9 mil­lion palms, mainly Malayan Dwarf and May­pan. Gil­bert de­stroyed 67 per cent of the palm pop­u­la­tion; an­nual pro­duc­tion fell from 168 mil­lion nuts in 1987 to 74.8 mil­lion in 1989. The CIB in­tro­duced a Hur­ri­cane Re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion Pro­gramme to as­sist grow­ers and the in­dus­try be­gan to re­cover steadily.

Un­for­tu­nately, in the 1990s, there was an up­surge in the in­ci­dence of LY; May­pans and Malayan Dwarfs be­gan to die in alarm­ing num­bers in some ar­eas. The CIB in­ten­si­fied its on­go­ing re­search on the dis­ease, im­ple­mented re­plant­ing pro­grammes, es­pe­cially in non-tra­di­tional co­conut-grow­ing ar­eas and LYfree zones. With as­sis­tance from the Euro­pean Union, Com­mon Fund for Com­modi­ties, and Food and Agri­cul­ture Or­ga­ni­za­tion of the United Na­tions, a fully equipped molec­u­lar lab was in­stalled, re­searchers spe­cially trained, and new va­ri­eties in­tro­duced and field-tested. To date, much use­ful in­for­ma­tion has been ob­tained on the dis­ease: phy­to­plas­mas which cause it have been char­ac­terised, the in­cu­ba­tion pe­riod de­ter­mined, pos­si­ble vec­tors and al­ter­na­tive host plants iden­ti­fied, and sources of promis­ing re­sis­tance found. The CIB worked closely with UWI.

Felling, burn­ing, and re­plant­ing, which had pre­vi­ously failed to con­tain the dis­ease, was tried once more, but in the east. There was lit­tle en­thu­si­asm from most grow­ers and the ex­er­cise was halted. How­ever, one grower, Michael Black – on his farm at Nutts River – per­sisted with great zeal and now the dis­ease is no longer a prob­lem there. It is pos­si­ble to live with the dis­ease.

Over the past decades, the de­cline in de­mand for, and price of, co­pra and co­conut oil on the world mar­ket forced the CIB se­ri­ously to look at by-prod­uct devel­op­ment and the pro­duc­tion of value-added prod­ucts. Lo­cally, the co­conut has been un­der­utilised. The CIB, with as­sis­tance from the FAO, set up a pi­lot pro­cess­ing plant for co­conut-based prod­ucts in 1996 and trained small pro­ces­sors in the pro­duc­tion of kitchen-type food prod­ucts and co­conut wa­ter bot­tling. A few years ear­lier, a small plant for pro­duc­ing vir­gin co­conut oil was es­tab­lished and grow­ers were trained how to pro­duce that prod­uct.

At the end of 2015, there were about 3.5 mil­lion palms pro­duc­ing 80.8 mil­lion nuts val­ued at $3.7 bil­lion. The sur­vival and devel­op­ment of the in­dus­try is largely be­cause of the ef­forts and com­mit­ment of the CIB, which has acted de­ci­sively after and be­fore dis­as­ters. It does not re­ceive a govern­ment sub­ven­tion but con­sis­tently has given grow­ers free seedlings, fer­tiliser and tech­ni­cal ad­vice, sub­sidised wind­storm in­sur­ance and agri­cul­tural chem­i­cals, and weed-con­trol grants.

The lo­cal in­dus­try can face the fu­ture with con­fi­dence know­ing that there will al­ways be a de­mand for co­conut prod­ucts and the crop fully de­vel­oped and strate­gi­cally used can in­crease food pro­duc­tion, im­prove nu­tri­tion, gen­er­ate em­ploy­ment and in­come, and con­serve the en­vi­ron­ment.


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