The views expressed herein are those of the writer and do not represent the opinions or editorial position of iWitness News. Opinion pieces can be submitted to [email protected]. 

St. Vincent and the Grenadines was once the coconut capital of the Commonwealth.

Coconut oil and other coconut related products were vibrant and booming with respectable export figures to other countries in the region and persons saw coconut trees as money growing from the earth.

Today, however, coconut oil producers who are trying to revive a long-dormant industry are considering importing coconuts from Dominica for the sustainability of their enterprises.

The revival of the local coconut oil industry should be a national (and regional) imperative.

One way to ensure that we salvage what is left and enhance the industry will be to establish coconut forest reserves.

Just before I get into that, let’s get a little deeper into the history of the demise of the industry and its inherent problems.

According to a 1997 report by the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IACA), “Coconut production formed the base for one of St. Vincent and the Grenadines’ long-standing agro-industries — oil and fats extraction and processing.”

The report went on to state that “since the mid 1980s, however, the viability of the oils and fat industry has been greatly reduced due to significant reductions in demand for coconut based products in response to competition of ‘healthier’ substitute”.

“Falling prices for coconut oil induced declines in tree maintenance and copra production. Increased fragmentation of the large coconut estates and the debilitating effects of the spider mite and red ring diseases, were also serious constraints to the industries’ recovery,” the report added.

The report stated further that as a result of this, “between 1991 and 1995, St. Vincent’s sole factory operated below capacity, with output levels insufficient to maintain operations”.

In the end, the industry could not supply the regional market; the industry was dead.

According to a report by the CARICOM regional transformation programme for Agriculture Strategies for the Development of the Coconut Industry, the result of this was “the loss of employment, declining contribution to the national economy and declining contribution to the rural economies and rural livelihoods”.

Amidst all of this, there were still preservers of the coconut heritage who always refused to be deceived by widely accepted notion that coconut oil was less healthy than other oils.

Local politicians such as (then Senator) Selmon Walters continued to champion the cause of the revival of the industry in Parliament.

According to the Hansard of the Wednesday Dec. 9, 1998 sitting of the House of Assembly, Walters, debating the Budget, opined, “Mr. Speaker, if I go back a little bit to the coconut industry and the copra industry. Right through this country, Mr. Speaker, we have an abundance of coconuts. I realise that a lot of our farmers are wondering what are we going to do with all these coconuts on our hands. The traffickers would take some of it, but a very minor part, the majority of the coconuts; Mr. Speaker remains here, not being utilised.”

Persons throughout St. Vincent and the Grenadines, especially in the Garifuna Community (areas such as Sandy Bay), continued (as a tradition) their cottage-style production of coconut oil, mainly for domestic use.

The CARICOM regional transformation programme for Agriculture Strategies for the development of the Coconut Industry, (reporting the 2000 Agricultural census) stated that, a 39,478 coconut tress existed in St. Vincent and the Grenadines in compact plantations; Orange Hill estate, Hudley’s estate, Lowmans Windward and Spring.

There were also 32,126 coconut trees in scattered plantings.

Today, we know that trees still exist in considerable quantities in the Gorse, Richmond Vale and Mount Wynne areas also.

So where do we go from here?

Let’s take a look at the push to revive the industry. Private entrepreneurial citizens and entities such as Val Kelly Investments, Brio Che, Alex Phillips, persons in Sandy Bay, Georgetown, Belmont and elsewhere make Coconut oil for retail sale (but still on a small scale).

Many of them have labels and proper packaging, and others are emerging in that regard.

Their core challenges, however, remains the same, namely, the supply of coconuts locally, absence of machinery to ramp up local production, overall inability to meet growing local demand for coconut oil, as the oil has reclaimed its rightful place at leading oil, globally’ and, competing interests for the local coconuts. Private coconut farmers also suffer from praedial larceny.

From speaking to some of the producers, I’ve concluded that there are four winds pulling coconuts, locally. These are: the traffickers, the coconut oil producers, the bakeries and the sellers and bottlers of coconut water.

If we are to arrive at a stage where coconut oil can be competitively priced and readily available on supermarket shelves in both the extra virgin (cold-pressed) and “ordinary” versions, the issue of supply must be addressed.

One such way to do this is through the establishment of coconut forest reserves.

Where the state owns considerable amounts of coconut trees, an entity like the Department of Forestry can apply practices and techniques (employed in existing forest reserves), to keep those coconut trees in check, by designating areas with large concentration of coconut trees into “Coconut Forest Reserves”.

That entity can also be responsible for the selling of coconuts to oil producers, from those reserves, thus reducing widespread pilferage and arbitrary harvesting of coconuts in these areas.

This will also help in the maintenance of the trees, the identifying of pests and response thereto and the planting of dwarf coconut varieties to ensure supply is maintained and that the industry in sustainable.

This will mean income for the government, through coconut sales (locally and regionally), more employment for persons harvesting coconuts and caring for the trees and industry for the private sector who are buying the Coconuts.

CARDI and the CARICOM’s regional transformation programme for Agriculture Strategies for the development of the coconut industry, also have recommendations of their own to get the industry up and running again.

These include, provision of disease free seedlings to growers; the establishment and implementation of a program of incentives (subsidies, tax credits, etc.) to encourage rehabilitation and refurbishing and a review of the CARICOM Oils and Fats Agreement, including the CET on competing products.

The proposed Mount Wynne, Peters hope hotel development poses yet another threat to moves to get the industry up and running, too.

Hundreds of trees (mostly aged, but still of value) are expected to be lost as a result of this development.

This is another reason why urgency is needed in saving the other large concentration of coconut trees around the Island.

To conclude, I must say that the revival of the coconut oil and coconut products related industries is a key move in making right, a historical wrong and regaining employment and livelihood opportunities in the industry for Vincentians, especially in rural areas.

Studies conducted by Spade and Dietchy (1988), showed that coconut oil prevented the formation of hepatic cholesterol esters. In addition, the Lauric acid found in coconut oil provides the disease fighting fatty acid monolaurin, which boosts the immune system.

“Coconut reportedly has been proven to have no dangerous trans- fats, which are traditionally found in vegetable oils, margarines and shortenings” – the reports have said.

To conclude, Coconut oil as a part of our heritage is something we should be proud to hold on to.

Let us move towards preserving it fully.

Demion McTair

The views expressed herein are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the opinions or editorial position of iWitness News. Opinion pieces can be submitted to [email protected].

6 replies on “Who will save the coconut trees?”

  1. Jeannine James says:

    A good feature piece. So did Selmon Walters lose interest along the way when he found himself in a much better position to influence policy?

    From an estimated 70,000 trees to what now? Sri Lanka’s coconut industry might be an inspiration to SVG and the Windwards, I tend to think. They are now 5th among the world’s coconut producers and very present on the North America import scene both in food and cosmetic as well as bulk (for further processing) and shelf-ready.

    On the other hand, coconut re-planting might have been explored by the current leader-thinkers in SVG and found wanting even as they praise the efforts of those who shift themselves to engage in meager processing. I hear the quicker, hotter solution is medical marijuana. Yeah right… and I have 2 acres of swamp land west of the Brooklyn Bridge going cheap. SVG is special.

  2. As a young child growing up in SVG, we were proud to boast of 2 things especially, that we have the largest coconut plantation in the world and we have the oldest, most beautiful botanic gardens in the Western Hemisphere. Today, we still house the oldest garden but beautiful, no. A garden that used to be well groomed with beautiful and healthy looking plants are very run-down today. The coconut plantations are totally destroyed. However, all are not lost because the lands are just lying there doing nothing and coconut plants can still be found. The coconut industry can be revived with some initiative and honest promises from the agriculture department for a factory, not only for oil but also for other coconut products. I have 34 acres, I’d get on board in a heart’s beat.

    1. I would not believe in any promises from any government, any politician, anywhere in the world, especially SVG.
      What you say about the gardens and any agriculture of the past in SVG is all just memory now. Since independence we have had politicians that concentrate on terrible methods of getting revenue, HIGH DUTIES AND TAXES, instead of creating incentives for investment…in other words: LOW TAXES AND LOW DUTIES. Along with the terrible management and poor prioritizing, government in SVG has effectively shot itself in the foot. All these taxes has caused prices to go up and naturally labor demands more pay, causing the price of the farm products to go up. The world cannot afford SVG farm products.
      Also, we can ill afford SVG government officials to fly all over the Caribbean and the world, especially at Liat prices, and then we wonder why the financial situation in SVG is so bad.

  3. An intelligent argument except for the part about coconut oil being good to drink.

    I cannot fathom your uncompromising acceptance that ingesting coconut oil and related products poses no dangers when the current scientific literature suggests that this is still a very contentious issue and with many reputable scientists telling people not to ingest what they consider to be a harmful substance.

    The facf that you cite a nearly 30-year-old study when very recent studies contend that much more research still needs to be done before giving the ingestion of coconut oil a clean bill of health speaks for itself.

    On the other hand, there are many more uses for coconut extracts than ingesting them, and this is what we should be focussing on right now in reviving our production, something I fully support. Rub it on your skin, wash your hair with it, use it as a sexual lubricant, etc. … but show some caution when drinking coconut products until we know more.

    See:

    https://www.pritikin.com/your-health/healthy-living/eating-right/1790-is-coconut-oil-bad-for-you.html

    http://healthyeating.sfgate.com/safety-dangers-coconut-oil-10692.html

    http://www.livestrong.com/article/226250-safety-and-dangers-of-coconut-oil/

  4. The government will never go along with this because it is anti revolutionary and will put people to work before the ‘marshmallow revolution’ is complete.

    The family dynasty at some future point want to come charging in on their white horses and declare that they are going to create jobs, but this is not the time, its far to soon.

    First the upper and middle class must be removed, under the ‘marshmallow revolution’ which is soft and sweet needs to get all the intelligentsia, the upper and middle class’s to leave, this is well under way.

    Once the intelligentsia, the upper and middle class’s have been cleansed the peasant class can take its true place and now the dynasty can get down to its real business. They can oppress and treat the people as they want whilst staying in the power of dictatorship for generations.

  5. What some of you think are coconut trees are in fact Vincentian top grade marijuana plants. I am told we grow the biggest and best so its easy to mistake one for the other when you have never seen the weed growing.

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