Ever wonder where your coconut oil comes from? It might originate at the hands of Jean-Francois, a bulky man from Reao with a cleft lip. He is one of thousands of small landowners with coconut trees throughout the South Pacific who sell copra.
You’ve heard it in tales: “The schooners ply the waters, loading up copra from the natives”. It sounds so romantic!
Well, copra is just dry coconut meat. The coconut falls from the tree (they don’t have to climb up to fetch it!); it then gets halved and left in the sun to dry out. When rain threatens, the coconuts are swiftly covered. After 2-3 days of drying, the hard white meat is then scooped out – this is the copra – and is stored in large burlap sacks.
6000 coconuts makes a 1000kg of copra, which the ship picks up bi-monthly and takes to the Papeete oil factory, “Huilerie”.
One nice thing about copra is that everyone gets to be their own boss- all they need is a plot of land with coconut trees, and some basic infrastructure for drying out the coconuts. People work on their own schedule; and in turn, they are rewarded for their efforts.
The downside is that coconuts smell quite rich and I imagine they would get old quick! Also, the plantation is a monoculture that takes away from primary forest. In our drive around the atoll, we only saw one region of a few acres with primary forest – lush and verdant, compared to the sparse elegance of coconut trees. Little or no effort seems to be made to conserve a percentage of primary forest in these atolls, which are important habitats for seabirds and other critters.
The sale of copra does allow people to make a basic living and occupy virtually all the Tuamoto atolls. In addition, the coconut tree has myriad uses, which our crew still needs to learn.
At least, we are quite good at drinking the coconut milk. We do call ourselves “Green Coco” after all, not “Dry Coco” 😉