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Basil Been | The coconut in Jamaica

Published:Sunday | November 6, 2016 | 11:00 AMBasil Been

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 20TH CENTURY

 

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 field-tested 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.

 

HURRICANE GILBERT

 

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 LY-free 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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