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close this bookCERES No. 074 (FAO Ceres, 1980, 50 p.)
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New techniques for small-scale coconut growers

- incentives are important

The coconut tree is particularly suited for smallholder agriculture in the tropics. The crop can be produced with modest capital and with simple technologies, and its numerous end products can be readily consumed by the farmers themselves. The tree is grown around farmers' dwellings and in the field either as a single crop or intercropped with food and cash crops.

Monoculture is an inheritance from previous generations who practiced shifting cultivation and subsequently settled on planting coconuts following a few years of food crops. But whenever possible, coconut seedlings are planted out at distances that permit intercropping, a practice that a farmer knows will give him a sense of security, especially if labour is available, expansion possibilities are small, the land is fertile and rainfall is sufficient. Some of the crops often cultivated are bananas, pineapple, coffee, cocoa, cloves, nutmeg and pepper. Moreover, the coconut tree's long productive life, the growth characteristics of its crown and the way the roots are distributed lend themselves to intercropping.

However, productivity per hectare in traditional coconut farming is low. Since farmers often plant trees too densely, intercrops receive little or no sunlight during the trees' mid-life when the shade cover is closed. In addition, farmers are reluctant to cut down averaged or Jowproducing trees, but instead are inclined to offset productivity by fill-ups. Nearmonopolistic buying by village traders can further reduce farm incomes. Husbandry of both the main crop and intercrops is often minimal, and improvements in infrastructure, research and extension support are slow in reaching the farmers.

Some major coconut-growing countries are on the verge of embarking on large-scale, high-cost coconut replanting schemes. But P. Poetiray, an agricultural officer of the Plant Production and Prosection Division of FAO, notes that there are large tracts which for various reasons do not as yet qualify for these schemes. "We feel that selective felling and rehabilitation of the remaining trees may bring greater rewards," Poetiray says. "Traditional coconut farming is still compatible with the resources available to the farmer, and it's capable of providing him with a modest but dependable income; what we're trying to do is simply help the farmer organize himself better."

For starters, Poetiray says, farmers should be encouraged to plant trees further apart. At planting distances of 9 metres, two rows of intercrops will receive abundant sunlight during the entire life-span of the trees. But at the often-used planting distances of 6 or 7 m, tree cover closes within five or six years and opens again only about 50 years later, making it impossible to grow more than pasture grasses and certain legume species during middle age. Even in old age, when the trees become very tall and crown size diminishes, usually only one row of intercrop can be successfully planted.

It is generally known that farmers are reluctant to cut down trees, even if lowproducing or diseased, for a number of reasons. In some cases, absence of shade may harm intercrops. In addition, levelling a coconut tree is hard, timeconsuming work-meaning less attention for crops. But, perhaps more importantly, tradition in Southeast Asia and the Far East usually forbids cutting down any tree planted by ancestors. "The farmer must have an overriding incentive to outweigh that tradition and hesitation," Poetiray points out. "Besides, even if he only gets 20 nuts a year, it's still 20 nuts."

Naturally, the main incentive for any coconut farmer wishing to sell his product are the current market prices for copra, the dried endosperm of the nut, usually crushed to make oil and often used as an animal feed. But according to Poetiray, national governments could provide other strong incentives: easy repayment conditions on loans, fertilizer subsidization and manpower support.

Time and labour may be saved through zero tillage, a technique that has been tested in West Africa and which is being increasingly practiced in some of the temperate regions. Instead of ploughing, which exposes the soil to erosion and compaction, drills are used to sow intercrops. Herbicides are applied to control weeds, which can pose a serious constraint in efficiently using the space between trees.

The 1970s witnessed an upsurge in coconut breeding and the development of high-yielding hybrids. Considerable improvements in yields have been obtained; however, only those farmers who can afford the needed capital, labour and technology are likely to benefit from these varieties. In addition, the new varieties are best suited for monoculture, marl farmers are reluctant to change their traditional systems of intercropping drastically.

Poetiray stresses that coconut improvement for intercropping must instead keep in mind the low resource base of developing world farmers. "We need varieties with good yields but with high tolerance to pests and drought. There's a large variability of coconuts in Southeast Asia and the Pacific which still needs to be exploited; we need more introduction and safe and free exchange of plant material for those countries with limited variability. "

These and other topics were discussed at the fifth session of the FAO Technical Working Party on Coconut Production, Protection and Processing held in Manila last December. The purpose of the FAO body, which has been meeting every four years since 1961, is mainly to promote improvement of coconut production and use, and to serve as a forum for the exchange of ideas.