Asia’s signature tree is a senior citizen

Coconut trees on the Gulf of Thailand. The coconut palm is without question a symbol of the tropics in general, and also Asia’s signature tree. But coconut growing countries in the Asia Pacific zone, which stretches from Fiji and Samoa in the Pacif
Coconut trees on the Gulf of Thailand. The coconut palm is without question a symbol of the tropics in general, and also Asia’s signature tree. But coconut growing countries in the Asia Pacific zone, which stretches from Fiji and Samoa in the Pacific to the Maldives in the Indian Ocean, have just woken up to the reality that the vast stock of trees are middle aged, and yields are falling. -- ST PHOTO: NIRMAL GHOSH

The coconut palm is without question a symbol of the tropics in general, and also Asia’s signature tree.

But coconut growing countries in the Asia Pacific zone, which stretches from Fiji and Samoa in the Pacific to the Maldives in the Indian Ocean, have just woken up to the reality that the vast stock of trees are middle aged, and yields are falling.

Ficus trees, commonly known as Banyans, are impressive old giants, weather beaten and gnarled over life spans that spread across several human generations. But they are relatively few.

The coconut palm by comparison, liberally dots Asia’s landscapes. From the trees at the ancient brooding ruins of Angkor Wat, to the nodding fronds on the beaches of the far Maldives, coconut trees somewhat like punctuation, are taken for granted.

And so is the coconut itself, which supplies the daily nutrition needs of tens of millions across Asia. From sweets to curries, coconut is one of the most ubiquitous elements of meals in south and south east Asia.  

The market for coconut products is vast. India, Indonesia and the Philippines together produce 47 billion coconuts a year, accounting for 70 to 80 per cent of the region's production. The Asia Pacific region in turn accounts for 90 per cent of the world's production.

But most of the trees in the region were planted around the end of World War II, says the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) - and are now over 50-60 years old.

A coconut trees’ best years are from 10-30, during which it can produce up to 400 coconuts a year. After that, yield declines. India, Indonesia and the Philippines may still be top producers, but production is only growing at around two per cent, FAO experts said at a three-day conference on coconut trees in Bangkok last week.

But the market is growing at 10 per cent per annum, they reckon.  

The conference which drew 13 countries, eight of which sent ministers, decided on a strategy to boost the coconut sector: among other things to plant seedlings, and improve farming techniques to increase yield (simple inter cropping and better soil care can achieve that).

Apart from livelihood considerations, many of them have their eyes on the coconut water market.

Coconut water is a rising star. Pop stars Madonna and Rihanna have endorsed it, spurring a new craze. The humble roadside coconut, known for its hydration properties, has been repackaged to sell on Whole Foods shelves in New York and Los Angeles.  

According to at least one study by market research firm Mintel, the number of coconut water product introductions more than quintupled – that is, they rose by over 500 per cent – from 2008 to 2012. North America and Europe led the world in coconut water product launches.

According to another study, the global coconut water market was worth only US$450 million (S$559 million) in 2011, but is growing at the rate of US$40-60 million a year.  Little wonder that in his most recent state of the nation address, Philippines President Benigno Aquino said coconut water was one of the country's most promising new export opportunities.

But natural regeneration in coconut trees is slow. To feed the vast market – which includes the daily nutrition needs of hundreds of millions in the Asia Pacific – millions more seedlings have to be planted, said Romulo N. Arancon, Jr at the conference. He is executive director of the Asian and Pacific Coconut Community, based in Jakarta.

With such a market, it seems atypical that it is not dominated by big plantation companies. Here is where the coconut palm is unique: around 90 per cent of coconuts are produced by small land holders, says Mr Arancon.

“It is really a smallholder industry, and even if it is a minor contributor in terms of gross domestic product for some countries, the population involved in it is enormous’’ he said.

At the Bangkok conference, another good reason to boost coconut tree stocks with new plants emerged. Ministers and officials from island nations – Fiji, Samoa and the Maldives for instance – spoke of how coconut trees, which are saline tolerant, not only feed the population but bind the islands’ shorelines, slowing sea water erosion.

With global warming inducing a rise in sea levels, for those vulnerable countries the coconut palm could be the answer to climate change, they said. nirmal@sph.com.sg