Saturday, September 29, 2007

Kerala: Of monkeys and nuts

Yesterday's Indian Express, Cochin Edition carried an article on Joseph Alapatt. I know this gentleman for four decades and more. As far as I am aware of, he has done more for the coconut farmers of Kerala than anyone else, both personally and as Chairman of the Indian Coconut Council and in several other official capacities.

Alapatt's love affair with coconuts started at an young age though he began his career as a Director of the Catholic Syrian Bank, Trichur, a major financial institution of Kerala. His ancestral properties include a large area of coconuts.

The coconut farming sector in Kerala is in doldrums.This is not a sudden development. The diminishing returns scenario began years ago. One of the major reasons for this decline is the labor situation.

The yield from coconut trees is steadily decreasing. From over 40 nuts per tree per year a few years ago, I believe that the production has drooped to below 25 nuts. Two reasons for this are (1) the planting materials are often sub-standard because of unhealthy nursery practices, and (2) due to high cost and nonavailability of labor, the seasonal attention that is required is not given.

The price of coconuts in Kerala remains uneconomic. The support price is unrealistic. There is no meaningful government backing. JosephAlapat says that in the Philippines, the coconut portfolio comes under the President and in Sri Lanka there is a separate Minister for coconuts. He also says that the prices are kept low in Kerala by the copra mafia.

Before the coconuts can be made into copra, they have to be plucked from the trees. This is a process that has to be done 7 to 8 times in an year. A particular community attends to this job. There are not enough of them to meet the demand and those available ask for exorbitant wages.

Once, during his frequent trips to coconut growing countries, Joseph Alapatt found that in Indonesia monkeys are trained to pluck coconuts. He requested the Minister concerned to send a squad of monkeys to Kerala on a trial basis. According to the article, the Minister replied "The labor leaders in Kerala would kill the monkeys as soon as the animals reached that state"!

That is Kerala.


Also see:

Un-ploughed lies my land


Jacob Matthan said...

This is quite disturbing. In all our supermarkets the number of coconut related products is increasing exponentially. The number of brands of coconut milk hitting the shelf are growing by the day. And each supermarket is bringing in its own brand. Coconut sweets are also becoming very popular. The products are coming from primarily Thailand which has learnt ro exploit the western tastes at good profit. I hope Indian growers in Kerala can get together like the grape growers in Maharashtra as we are really seeing a trend here which must be allowed to become an accepted trend. Then the marginal cost of a coconut plucker should fade into oblivion!

Maddy said...

I can imagine the red shirted union dadas shaking their closed fists at the bunch of monkeys climbing coconut trees, and the monkeys mimicking them from atop the trees!!

Ajith said...

Hopefully the monkeys will not set up a union and strike.

Abraham Tharakan said...

Jacob matthan, maddy, sorry I missed responding to your comments. Saw them when I was about to reply to ajith

Abraham Tharakan said...

Thanks for the comment, Ajith.

Ashvin said...

I remember seeing coconuts rotting on the ground on a very very exclusive island resort in the Maldives (it could be termed a 6 star resort though there is no such classification) while the kitchens there used dessicated coconuts and coconut milk from Nestle (I think ?) probably the Maldivians also have caught a whiff of the Malayali air....

Abraham Tharakan said...

Ashvin, that is interesting.

The problem in Kerala (and in countries like Maldives) is that there is hardly any value adding to the coconuts. The centuries old pattern of nuts to copra to oil is still followed.

A few years back I visited a research company named Scarab in Stockholm. I was impressed by the work they were doing, particularly on coconuts. The CEO of that organization told me that the income from coconuts can be increased twenty-fold by value adding.

One example he mentioned was that though coconut oil is the best natural suntan lotion, no effort is made to market it in that form.