Coconut conference

This morning, the Ministry of Agriculture is convening a conference to move the coconut industry forward and to review a work plan for 2013.
In a statement on Saturday, the ministry said that stakeholders including those from the coconut water industry, coconut oil mills, copra producers, and other value-added by-products producers are expected to attend the conference.

The statement added that the coconut industry is an important component of an “aggressive” initiative by the government to diversify agriculture.
Initiatives of this type are very welcome. Most often, however, their enduring failing is the lack of structured and sustained follow-up. Therefore, for the purposes of today’s event, the Ministry of Agriculture should review what had been promised before so as to avoid an attempt at re-inventing the wheel or rehashing what has been previously complained about.

With a 20-year perspective, the government will have much accounting to do to stakeholders on what enabling policies it presented for the industry during this period and the scale of assistance provided.

A good place to start today will be what a similar forum in 2009 under the stewardship of then Minister of Agriculture, Mr Robert Persaud had signalled to the coconut industry. At the forum in August 2009, the Minister had adverted to the known problems of the industry such as diseases, drainage, a labour shortage and lack of technology. Over the years many coconut farms were abandoned and a pivotal problem was that much of the stock comprised old trees.

Participants at the forum in 2009 had complained about a drainage problem in the Pomeroon which accounts for an estimated 60% of the nuts produced. It had been stated that yearly, in December in particular, the area suffered from heavy flooding – a combination of rainfall and high tides. The need for the dredging of the Pomeroon River to alleviate this had been raised. Today’s forum should be told whether there had been any initiative to address this.

The 2009 forum had also heard from stakeholders about the scourge of the `coconut caterpillar’ and that a remedy offered by the ministry had not worked. The forum had also been told that a fundamental underlying problem was that the industry was mostly focused on exporting dry coconuts. This meant that the industry was not adding value to its output and the nuts were going no farther than the Caribbean where value was being added to those economies. This was where fundamental change was needed: how to transform coconuts into crude and refined coconut oil and put that added value to use right here.

Based on statistics provided on Saturday by the ministry, not much appears to have changed since 2009. The chief export from the industry has been the dried coconut. The tonnage exported has moved from a paltry 258 tonnes in 2007 to 8,413 tonnes up to November last year. The massive increase in export of the dry coconuts is an impressive development but what the industry really needs is to find a way to process those coconuts right here. Exports of marginal value-added by-products have not moved significantly. Crude coconut oil shipments fell from 426 tonnes in 2007 to 334 tonnes at November last year while copra exports also declined from 2,677 tonnes in 2007 to 915 tonnes in November last year.

Essentially, the 2009 effort has not moved the industry along the growth and value-added path. What had also been spoken of in 2009 was an effort to channel technical assistance from India into a turnaround plan. A plant nursery at the Hope estate was to be revitalized and a coconut water bottling plant was to get into full swing.  These initiatives should be reported on fully before any other promises are made by the ministry for future projects.

Farmers had been encouraged at the 2009 forum to get themselves organized into a group. It would be interesting to hear from them if there was any success at it because networking could be the difference between making progress and foundering at the primary commodity stage. The problems of the coconut industry here have been evident in other places such as Trinidad and Tobago but farmers there have banded together and taken matters into their own hands. Instead of depending on the government it may be instructive for the farmers here to take notice of what the Trinidadians are doing.

Recognising that the coconut industry was in dire shape, the St Patrick Coconut Growers Co-operative signed a Memorandum of Understanding in May last year with the Coconut Development Board  (CDB) of India. The MOU, according to a report in the Trinidad Express,  envisages the rejuvenation of the coconut industry with the CDB identifying and supplying in excess of 600,000 seedlings of disease-resistant varieties which are intended to be high yielding. The seedlings are to be supplied over a two-year period beginning this year and consultancy services are to be provided to reinvigorate 10,000 acres of coconut plantations. Much of this will be paid for by the farmers but they were expecting the Trinidadian government to pitch in and clear derelict estates.

This is the type of initiative that the local farmers should pursue on their own but it would require the coming together of all of the planters in the Pomeroon for instance.

Today’s forum is for the government to defend its record and outline the level of its commitment. This will give farmers and other stakeholders a real sense of the prospects for the industry.

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