The coconut, Cocos nucifera, is the sole species of the genus Cocos, a palm tree grown around the world for its fruit and fiber. The origin of the plant is still debated: some scientists believe the tree is from India or the Asia-Pacific region, while others contend they’re from South America. Either way, the tree has been cultivated and used for food and building materials by humans for centuries. And on the Island of the Holy Spirit, near Bahia de Jiquilisco in El Salvador, the coconut is a way of life. A little more than 10 percent of the island’s 1800 residents are employed in the coconut industry; approximately 9 million coconuts are harvested from the island’s trees each year. On the island is a cooperative that transforms the coconut into edible products, industrial products, or items of ornamental value.
Forty-five men cut, transport, and split about a thousand coconuts each day and thirty-five other people (primarily women) separate the “meat” of the coconut from the husk. Historically, most of the edible portion of the coconut has been used for industrial oil production. For this to happen, the women spread the meat out on the cement patios of the cooperative to dry – for six to fifteen days, depending upon if it is the rainy or dry season. Once dehydrated, the coconut meat is crushed in a mill, treated to clean it, and then sold to a factory that produces it into oil. This has been the most prominent activity, and the longest-running, on the island, but it is not consistent because contracts have not been created with the buyers; their needs fluctuate and they might not request a shipment of coconut for oil for two months. So, the islanders are changing the industry; they are looking for new avenues to sell their product. Fresh sales have been up: around 4,000 coconuts (only the meat part, removed from the husk and hard shell) are sold every few days to vendors who make it into food products.
On the island, locals have started initiatives to make preserves, sweet bread, and crafts from the coconut. Today, nearly 800 pieces of coconut candies are made each day in ten different flavors and varieties, such as coco con dulce, coco rayado, coco pina, etc. Coco Art is also gaining popularity as women are making items from the hard shell of the coconuts, such as jewelry, mobiles, candle-holders and other ornamental items. The cooperative is still looking to invest in equipment that will allow them the ability to refine the oil themselves, and also for a machine that would allow them to bottle the coconut water in a sanitary method. Right now, the coconut water is just wasted, dumped out.
What is not being wasted is the natural fiber around the coconut fruit. For the past four years, this “waste product” has been made into planting substrate, liners for plant baskets, and as cropping bags. This sector of the coconut industry employs ten people who formally made a living fishing and collecting small mollusks in the mangrove swamps – jobs that were often back-breaking and low-paying. This sector is hoping to ramp up production by creating coconut coir – a substrate used for sowing seeds in greenhouses made from the pith of the coconut (the part of the husk around the spindly fibers). They also hope to increase sales of the plant baskets, but recently realized that people have become so accustomed to the plastic liners that even though the coconut liners will last seven years, consumers do not realize this and are therefore biased against them. With some strategic marketing, they should be able to improve sales.
This seems all good. But is it? Having a coconut plantation naturally means that you have one large monoculture of nothing but C. nucifera growing for as far as the eye can see. But in this country, having something growing all the time, holding the soil in – particularly in coastal areas – is a lot better than the otherwise rampant deforestation. Coconut plantations are certainly better for the environment and human health than sugar cane plantations. Yes, there are insect pests – as one would expect in a monoculture – and those are managed by insecticides, although I cannot say specifically what kind or how often they spray on this island. So, unlike in other countries, in El Salvador, coconut plantations are not the cause for deforestation because the whole landscape was already deforested where coconuts are planted! Additionally, from personal experience, I have seen how coconut plantations are not just used for coconut cultivation; the land is used for cattle. Cows roam around in the thin shade of the palm trees, eating vegetation around the base of the trees, keeping the weeds down and adding fertility to the soil. Overall, it seems to be a reasonably sustainable industry for El Salvador.