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The many stories a swaying coconut palm tree holds

Intimately entwined with human dispersal in the tropics, the coconut fruit has enabled the development of trade routes and colonisation of lands

The coconut tree has transformed the lives of at least 90% of people in the world. Cultivated in more than 93 tropical countries, it occupies a 12.2 million hectare area, generating over 60 million nuts annually. (iStock)

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Taarai daeparre unda (Do you have any coconuts for plucking)?” the sonorous voice of the coconut plucker booms into my 11-year-old ears. Wiry and agile, he wraps rope harnesses called khaddum around his limbs and climbs the first of the coconut trees in my grandparents’ garden. A breeze, heavy with humidity, rustles the fronds, wafting down into our faces as we squint up into the tree he is climbing. Within minutes, he reaches the clusters of coconuts at the top, brandishing his koiti, or sickle, to chop them. “You kids get out of the way of those falling coconuts or your mandos (heads) will look like one,” yells my grandmother, referring to the three indentations on coconut shells. Côco, from which the Latin name of the coconut (Cocos) is derived, is an old Galician-Portuguese word which means skull. Within seconds, it’s raining coconuts as we scramble for cover.

The very same coconut plucker can transform into a toddy tapper, skilled in the art of collecting sap from the bud or spadix of the coconut inflorescence. The juice, Niro or Kalparasa, when fresh is extremely sweet, later fermenting into the alcoholic toddy. Distilling this sweet-sour ferment yields a Goan staple, Coconut Feni.

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Large parts of my summers as a child were spent in the warm, sweaty embrace of the Konkan coast in Mangaluru. And what is a coast without its quintessential palm — the coconut?

In my grandmother’s kitchen, de-husked ripe coconuts would be cracked open, their juice removed and the two halves passed over to a low wooden bench for processing. A complicated, Manglorean version of Russian Roulette decided which grandchild got to drink the coconut juice. Luck was sometimes on my side. The bench was outfitted with an old-fashioned scraper and the grated shavings were caught in a plate.

This was then ground on a ghatno – a large, semi-circular, stone receptacle carved with a hole in the middle accompanied by an egg-shaped grinding stone – to extract coconut milk. I vehemently believe that my grandmother was a witch because of the magic she cast in her food (as long as it wasn’t vegetarian). Luscious fish curries, pillowy-soft sannas, tongue-titillating pork, sharp dry-prawn chutneys. She made love potions of all kinds. And in most of these preparations, coconut played the role of “best-supporting actor.”

The coconut is a strict no-no for urban landscaping—falling fruits can cause serious damage to mandos. This, however, doesn’t mean that the trees are absent in cities

When I travelled on work in Goa, I learnt about a unique agro-ecological landscape, the khazans. Reclaimed from the sea through a traditionally engineered network of embankments and sluice gates, khazans are agro-aquaculture ecosystems. Salt-tolerant paddy grows within embankment-protected fields. As the tide washes in through sluice-gate mechanisms, small pools of saline water fill, bringing in fish, crabs and other aquatic animals that are harvested when the tide recedes. Coconut trees fortify the embankments, their fibrous root system holding tight to the silty, compacted soil. When times are tough, the coconuts supplement the incomes of small and marginal farmers, tenants of these khazans.

It’s not just Goa. Cocos nucifera has transformed the lives of at least 90% of people in the world. Cultivated in more than 93 tropical countries, it occupies a 12.2 million hectare area, generating over 60 million nuts annually. In southern India, coconut holds an important place in the domestic and religious spheres, finding mention in folk poetry, tales, songs, myths and rituals. Practically every part of the plant is used, from the entire fruit to the wood, leaves and sap.

When I set out to document this value chain, I discovered in north Goa that to process coconut husk into cordage, the husk must be cured through a process called retting. Traditionally buried in pits or hung by nets in running freshwater for six months, microbial decomposition and patience facilitate separation of the coir fibre from the pith. The fibres are then spun into twine for several products.

The coconut fruit, botanically called a drupe, is buoyant, an extremely portable source of both food and water.
The coconut fruit, botanically called a drupe, is buoyant, an extremely portable source of both food and water. (iStock)

Intimately entwined with human dispersal in the tropics, the coconut fruit has enabled the development of trade routes and colonisation of lands. Although hotly debated, the general consensus is that the coconut is native to the Central Indo-Pacific. The fruit, botanically called a drupe, is buoyant, an extremely portable source of both food and water. It allowed humans, and, therefore, coconuts to journey far beyond their homes and establish themselves in various parts of the tropics. A study published in PLOS One in 2011 found that coconuts genetically stem from two main sub-populations: the Indo-Atlantic, arising from the southern part of the Indian subcontinent, and the Pacific, from the Island South-East Asia. This explains the significance of the coconut, called “kalpavriksha” here.

The coconut crab’s distribution is biological proof for the theory that coconuts originated in the Indo-Pacific. The largest terrestrial arthropod, it is limited to the Andaman and Nicobar archipelagos in India. Like the coconut plucker, the crab is adept at climbing coconut trees, but unlike the former, it does so to escape predators. To access the inner flesh of a coconut, which is part of its diet, the crab will always de-husk fallen fruits from the side of the three pores/indentations, banging its pincers on them until the nut breaks.

On the mainland, the Indian Palm Squirrel is commonly associated with coconut plantations. Believed to consume tender coconuts, leading to losses for growers, the squirrel has got a bad rap. But a study, published in 2012, points to its role as an efficient pollinator that actually helps to produce more coconuts. In fact, the authors state that the squirrels might just be better pollinators than all the other coconut pollinators combined, making them ecologically important to coconut ecosystems.

The coconut is a strict no-no for urban landscaping—falling fruits can cause serious damage to mandos. This, however, doesn’t mean that the trees are absent in cities. In Mumbai, for instance, a 40ft-tall tree can be found on Sahar airport road. It can be seen along the backwaters in Kochi; on Chennai’s East Coast Road; on Visakhapatnam’s R K Beach. The list goes on. They also form part of the multistoreyed canopies common in the home garden, a rapidly-disappearing agroforestry system. Coconut trees offer partial shade, enabling the growth of spice crops, cocoa, pineapples and Colocasia while generating income themselves.

While the coconut really proves itself in the world of ethnobotany, it can disrupt food webs and biodiversity in natural ecosystems where it is introduced. Studies on the Palmyra atoll in the Pacific, where coconut is non-native, found that seabirds, important island ecosystem engineers, do not care for coconut trees, leading to nutrient deficiencies in the soil around the palms. This affects plants around them, altering the eating habits of native animals and eventually changing local food webs.

In India, though, the critically endangered White-rumped vultures like to nest and roost in coconut trees. In fact, farmers need to be compensated monetarily to deter them from destroying the nests, since vulture droppings and their activities affect coconut output.

In 2008, I reached Townsville, Australia, to begin a master’s degree in conservation biology. Dazed and homesick, I found the coconut palms of the city’s rocky beachfront familiar, offering quiet, reassuring community in a foreign land. As I explored food as a means to connect long-distance with my family in India, I found consolation in the warm embrace of a coconut fish curry, the tangy nuttiness of a coconut chutney, and the soothing sweetness of a coconut barfi. The coconut served as a reminder that when the going got tough, it was time to tap into those reserves of resilience, buoyant positivity, stored memories, to survive the new and the unknown.

There’s a running joke among Australians, that chilli flows through the veins of many an Indian. As an Indian from the coast, though, I would say coconut milk flows through my veins.

Rithika Fernandes is a Hyderabad-based urban ecologist at ICLEI South Asia, working with local governments on building sustainable cities

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