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Indonesia and the coconut


In 2014 Indonesia had a total of 3.6 million hectares of coconut plantations, more than 90 per cent of it farmed by smallholders working an average of just 1.5 hectares each.

Copra and the oil derived from it still dominate the industry as they did a century ago, with scant research and development failing to encourage advances in production of the other products derived from the palm and its nuts. So farmers continue to produce copra by drying split halves of nuts in crude kilns – a process which takes about six hours.

The distribution of the copra from the farm to the oil mills involves several levels of traders, and that’s where the farmers’ profits all but disappear, just as they do in the Philippines. ‘Small holders are not capturing a sufficient share of the profit in the supply chain,’ Indonesia’s Harvard-educated trade minister Thomas Lembong told a meeting of coconut producing countries. The less energetic and less efficient farmers might be expected to sell their land to their more efficient neighbours. But land ownership in Sulawesi bestows dignity on the owner so everyone holds on to their land regardless of any financial incentives to do otherwise.

In Indonesia’s Papua, the farmers in and around the village of Dabe are doing rather better. Dabe, a fishing village in the Sarmi Regency of northern Papua, has lost many of its fishermen to the coconut industry. Taught how to produce oil from copra by an aid team financed by New Zealand, both the men and women from Dabe and its neighbouring villages were soon producing enough copra to sustain two small oil factories employing one-time fishermen and their wives. ‘We never did anything with the coconuts except eat them,’ said one local fisherman-turned coconut farmer.

And where fishing had provided a meagre income, producing coconut oil within the community and without traders profiting from the distribution from farm to mill, has raised incomes considerably.

Several hundred miles to the west of Papua lies the small island of Kapoposang, a six-hour boat journey from Sulawesi. Here again the population had for decades made its living from fishing. But here they practised blast fishing – using explosives to stun or kill fish in shoals – and the explosives were destroying the habitat in which the fish lived. At least they were until a young Japanese woman visiting the area decided the local coconut oil was doing wonders for her skin. Ms Fujiwara contracted to buy 100 kilos of coconut oil every month for ‘Love’s Gallery’ her café-cum-shop in Hyogo, on Japan’s main island of Honshu. Within six months Ms Fujiwara had established a regular turnover of Kapoposang coconut oil, while the island’s fishing community, buoyed by the new income from their coconut palms, had given up blast fishing and invested in new ecologically-sound equipment to cultivate lobsters.

On Indonesia’s rather better-known island of Bali, the Day of Silence, a public holiday to mark the beginning of the new year, is just that, silent. Nobody works or travels anywhere; holiday makers are encouraged to stay in their hotels; aircraft are grounded; there is no entertainment, no shopping, and, for some, no eating. Instead there is meditating, contemplation and time for self-reflection.

On the day before Nyepi, as this silent day is known, things are a little different. Among the many high-spirited celebrations indulged in to mark the end the old year, young men thrash each other with flaming coconut husk to burn their demons and chase bad spirits away. During Ramadan on Java, fiery coconuts turn football into sixty minutes of health-and-safety-defying madness. A mass of husk is woven into a ball, soaked in kerosene and set alight. In bare feet two teams proceed to play a game of football with this uncompromising ball of fire. The game is popular in pesantren, Java’s Islamic boarding schools. Low-cost dormitory living and a curriculum part general and part religious studies combine to provide an education where character development and vocational skills come high on the agenda. One headmaster told the Jakarta Post that the game ‘increases confidence and bravery’. It was, he said, a way to praise God and that ‘God gives us strength if we surrender to Him.’

So the players surrender and so far have all lived to play another day. But they take the precaution of covering their legs and feet in a combination of salt and non-flammable spices before taking to the field.

Extracted from Coconut: How the Shy Fruit Shaped Our World by Robin Laurance

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