The word “copra” probably comes from the Hindi word “khopra” meaning “coconut.” Copra is the dried meat of the coconut, which is harvested primarily for the extraction of coconut oil. In the early nineteenth century, Western missionaries and colonists began to establish coconut plantations for copra cultivation to meet the increasing demand for oil in Europe. Although copra and coconut oil were traditionally used by native Polynesian islanders, the copra trade was, and is, not geared toward a local market. Europeans and Americans planted thousands of coconut palms on the islands across the South Pacific. Copra was a valuable cash crop whose production was controlled entirely by outsiders for export to faraway lands. This legacy of island exploitation continues today. Even as Polynesian copra production for industrial purposes declines, the marketing of copra derivatives, like coconut oil products for cosmetic use, depends on exploiting the timeless beauty of the islands of French Polynesia.
The coconut palm (Cocos nucifera) is not indigenous to the islands of the South Pacific. Coconuts probably floated or were carried to Polynesia by ancient voyagers from Southeast Asia. The coconut palm is perfectly adapted for the dry, sandy environment of the South Pacific islands. The central cavity of the seed holds a store of “coconut water” and a layer of meat (copra) which is actually the endosperm tissue. The seed is surrounded by a hard, protective shell called the endocarp, which is encased in a thick, tough, fibrous husk called the mesocarp which is finally covered by a thin outer layer called the exocarp.The coconut water and meat provide an ample store of food and moisture for the coconut seedling. The husk absorbs additional moisture and provides a medium for growth once shed.
Coconut cultivation is relatively simple. Because a coconut palm requires only about 1.5 cubic meters of water a year, coconut trees do not require watering unless the dry season extends longer than three months. Coconuts mature within five to ten years of planting; at its peak, between twelve and twenty years, a single tree may produce forty to sixty nuts in a year. Immature coconuts do not contain meat. The water inside of a young, or “tender,” coconut is the liquid endosperm; as the coconut matures the coconut water will transform into a layer of hard white flesh on the inner surface of the shell. At this point the meat is ready for harvest. If the coconut is allowed to germinate, the embryo will begin to digest the meat and absorb the remaining water, forming a large bulbous mass of spongy tissue. Coconuts usually do not fall to the ground until after the embryo begins to form, therefore coconuts intended for the copra market must be immediately collected from the ground or handpicked from the palm. After the mature coconuts are collected they are split open with a machete (husk and all). The meat and inner shell are scraped out of the husk using a spade-like tool with a short handle and a curved narrow metal blade called a “pana,” and the shavings are placed on raised platforms to dry in the sun. In larger production operations a fire is lit below the drying meat to further remove excess moisture. Finally, the dried copra is loaded into burlap sacks, which are then weighed before being sold and shipped to Tahiti or directly exported to oil refineries abroad. A typical bag holds fifty-five kilograms of dried meat which is equivalent to about one hundred coconuts worth of meat.
Copra is primarily harvested for the extraction of coconut oil. Oil extraction is not a western innovation. Coconut oil has been used traditionally in Polynesia for massage, hair oil, skin lotion, waterproofing tapa cloth, polishing artifacts, gloss on dance skirts, and even for anointing dead bodies. In the traditional oil extraction method, coconut cream is squeezed out of the copra and laid out in the sun. This exposure to heat causes the oil in the cream to separate and rise to the surface where it may be skimmed off. Another separation technique is to place hot stones in the coconut cream until it curdles and the oil rises to the surface. Today, most copra is brought to L’Huilerie de Tahiti, the oil mill in Papeete, Tahiti. The copra is crushed, heated, and pressed to generate crude oil and oil cake, a byproduct of the pressing process. The oil cakes are usually sold to a local market for use as an oil and protein-rich fodder for cattle or poultry. The crude oil is primarily exported (L’Huilerie de Tahiti ships its entire output to the European Union),) but a small fraction undergoes additional refinement for the production of “Monoi de Tahiti,” a traditional skin care product. Today, “Monoi de Tahiti” is also marketed outside of the islands, particularly in Europe.
Deep in the South Pacific on the fabled islands of Tahiti, for centuries the beautiful Tahitian women called ‘Vahines’ have used Monoi de Tahiti. Famous for their youthful skin and lustrous hair they used Monoi de Tahiti daily to hydrate, protect their skin and to condition their hair.
As illustrated above, the traditional use of coconut oil has been exaggerated and marketed by outsiders for their own economic benefit. This particular description comes from Tahiti-iti.com, which is one of the major sellers of “Monoi de Tahiti.” The site also explains how “Monoi de Tahiti” is not just another “glorified coconut oil” because its “unique documented properties and benefits cannot be compared to those of other ordinary coconut oil. The special qualities of the Gardenia Taitensis blossoms and the rich Tahitian coconut oil are certified by the prestigious "Guarantee of Origin" designation.” This statement is very vague in addressing how “Monoi de Tahiti” is actually superior to other coconut oil products; instead it emphasizes the importance of the oil being of Tahitian origin.
The rising demand for oil in European markets was a necessary prerequisite for the growth and success of the copra industry in French Polynesia. With the onset of the industrial revolution in the 1700s the demand for fats (especially for the lubrication of railroads and industrial machinery and for use as illuminants in lamps and candles) began to exceed the available supply. Rapid population growth during the early nineteenth century, along with the growth of a prosperous middle class, further increased the demand for candles. In 1814, a French organic chemist, Michel-Eugène Chevreul, discovered two different types of triglycerides present in lard. The first, which he called “stearine,” remained solid at room temperature, whereas the second, “elaine,” remained a liquid. Chevreul’s research paved the way for advanced production of candles and soap from a greater variety of oils and fats. On September 9, 1829, J. Soames took out a patent (No. 5,842) for “the making of a composite candle from cocoa-nut oil and tallow.” In the late 1860s there was a new demand for oil as a source of edible fat due to the scarcity of animal and dairy fats. The development of margarine in 1869, provided a substitute for dairy-based butter and opened the door to a new market for Polynesian coconut oil.
A 1913 London Times article highlighted the rise of coconut oil in European kitchens: “So similar is it in appearance and general properties to the animal product that it is exceedingly difficult to detect any difference between the two. From lard to margarine was, of course, but a short step” and “in place of doubtful animal fats, coconut oil is almost exclusively used, and margarine is making a place for itself in kitchens and bake-houses the world over.” Coconut oil was popularized by advertisements accentuating the superiority of the palm and romanticizing the tropical origin of the coconut oil. A German advertisement (probably from the 1860s when dairy and animal fats were in short supply) read “Just as the palm tree towers above all animals on earth, so coconut oil surpasses all animal fats in purity and quality.” The copra trade developed rapidly; by 1900, copra production accounted for 40% of the total exports from Tahiti.
The history of economic development on Christmas Island provides a microcosm for studying the expansion of copra trade in the Pacific. Captain James Cook discovered the atoll island on Christmas Eve, 1777:
On the 24th about half an hour after day break, land was discovered bearing NEBE 1/2E; which upon a nearer approach was found to be one of those low islands so common in this sea; that is a narrow bank of land incloseing [sic] the sea within; a few Cocoa nut trees were seen in two or three places, but in general the land had a very barren apprearences [sic].
Cook’s account portrays the coconut’s rugged persistence to prosper where all else fails. Christmas Island is located in the Northern Line Islands, on the border between the wet and dry belts north of the equator, where prolonged drought is common. At the time of Cook’s discovery, there was no indigenous human population living on the island, probably due to the scarcity of water (Cook noted that there was “not a drop of fresh water was found on the whole island.”) and vegetation apart from the few lonely palms. In the late 1800s, Messrs James Morrison and Co. Ltd. of London began planting coconuts on Christmas Island. By 1897, there were 6,600 coconut trees on the island but no attempt to harvest coconuts for copra. Then, in 1898, the Pacific Islands Company obtained a ninety-nine year lease of Christmas Island to export copra. Four years later, the island had changed hands once more; William Lever established Lever’s Pacific Plantations in 1902 and bought Christmas Island as part of a scheme to stimulate copra production so that prices would decrease. It is said that Lever’s Pacific Plantations planted 70,000 coconut trees over the next three years but a severe drought killed seventy-five percent of them and the island was deserted in 1906. In 1912, a French missionary, Father Emmanuel Rougier, began negotiations with Lever’s Pacific Plantations to purchase the balance of the leasehold of Christmas Island. On January 1, 1914, Rougier acquired an occupation license for eighty-seven years under his new company, Central Pacific Cocoanut Plantations Limited.
In the early 1900s, the yield of a single coconut palm was estimated at one dollar per year; Emmanuel Rougier dreamt of planting one million trees to bring in a one million dollar annual profit. When Rougier bought the Christmas leasehold there were an estimated 17,000 coconut palms on the island. Rougier’s dream was never realized; under his management 568,000 coconut palms were planted (other sources claim Rougier planted as many as 800,000 trees).) Emmanuel Rougier died in 1934, and his nephew, Paul Rougier, inherited the plantation. Rougier Sr. left behind a legacy of settlements including London and Paris (separated by a channel) as well as Poland, all inspired by their Europeans namesakes. Rougier’s legacy is limited today; modern inhabitants of Christmas Island are only familiar with the past sixty years of the island’s history. Rougier’s home lies in ruins, forgotten in the abandoned town of Paris. Copra production throughout Polynesia has decreased substantially since the early 1900s. Historical records from L’Huilerie de Tahiti show a conspicuous decrease in production from over 10,000 tons in 1957, to less than 6000 tons by the year 2000. Data provided by the Institut de la statistique de la Polynesie francaise indicates that the decline in production has continued into the twenty-first century; the sales of local copra fell from 5,466 tonnes in 2007 to 4,904 tonnes in 2008 and 4,713 tonnes in 2009. This decrease can be attributed first and foremost to the decline in the world market price for copra. Between 1950 and 1990, the average annual price for copra fluctuated but decreased overall from just over US $1400 per tonne cif (including cost, insurance, and freight) to under US $400 per tonne cif. The depressed price of copra is in part due to a lower demand for coconut oil with the availability of other edible oils (primarily fruit and vegetable oils derived from olives, peppers, soybeans, corn, and pumpkin). Because the price for copra is so low, former producers have begun to favor more profitable crops. Consequently coconut plantations are not maintained, which leads to increased levels of senility, or palms which have surpassed optimal production, usually around sixty years of age. During the beginning of the twentieth century, entrepreneurs like Emmanuel Rougier planted thousands of coconuts on Polynesian islands all around the South Pacific, contributing to young, robust, and very profitable plantations. Today, because of the low return for copra and other coconut products, producers have not planted young, fruitful palms to replace the senile trees. Some farmers have even removed coconut palms to clear space for the cultivation of more valuable agricultural products.
Another serious threat to Polynesian copra production is the rise of powerful global competition, predominantly in Southeast Asia. Coconut plantations in countries like the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and India are able to utilize a greater area of land and they can easily outgrow comparatively tiny island plantations. Thus they are able to export their products in bulk and accommodate lower prices. Meanwhile, in the South Pacific, copra is produced on small islands throughout and exporters are faced with the high cost of transportation from remote Islands to export markets. Large and small producers alike depend on barges to bring their product to the outside market; bags of copra are often stored in warehouses for months at a time until a ship finally arrives. Furthermore, low-lying atoll islands are responsible for fifty percent of copra production in French Polynesia. Their vulnerability to cyclone destruction and other weather damage means local storm events can be devastating for copra production.
On many of the small atoll islands the government subsidizes the price of copra to encourage continued production. For instance, in the Tuamotu Archipelago the subsidized buying price for copra is twice that of copra on the market from the Society Islands. The motive in most cases is to maintain populations on the small atoll islands and discourage migration to the more highly populated cities, or towns as the case may be. In 2003 and 2004, the government of the Republic of Kiribati increased the subsidized buying price of copra as part of an integrated conservation-development program (ICDP). The purpose of an ICDP is to “create or enhance alternative incomes as a way to reduce resource extraction and improve local welfare.” In this case, the copra subsidy aimed to reduce extraction of marine resources and increase income by increasing labor in copra production. Unfortunately, a 2007 study conducted by Sheila Walsh of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California, San Diego, demonstrated that subsidizing the price of copra actually had negative effects on the marine ecosystem and on long-term welfare for Christmas Island inhabitants. Walsh suggests that in this case, the role of non-monetary benefits of fishing was not taken into account and concludes that future copra subsidies should be complimented by fisheries regulations and/or the creation of marine reserves or marine tenure systems where the community is more directly invested in the conservation effort. Walsh’s research showed that the inhabitants of Christmas Island are not motivated by profit; they follow a subsistence-based lifestyle, providing for their families one week at a time. Furthermore, “they are not cultivators, they are people of the sea.” The community of Christmas Island depends on the sea and fishing is something they like to do. The copra subsidy allowed people to work less for the same income and spend more time fishing.
Despite the decrease in production over the last several decades and the minor role of copra in today’s global economy, it still holds an integral place in Polynesian agriculture. Coconuts have long been an important “pillar of agriculture in the Pacific.” According to 2009 statistics from the Statistical Institute of French Polynesia, copra had the highest annual profit, 1,451 million French Polynesian francs, among the major commercial agricultural products. In terms of value, copra accounted for 21.1 percent of total commercial agricultural production. Before the Western cultivation and commercialization of coconuts for the copra trade, coconut palms were utilized as not only a source of food and drink but also for building-frames, thatch, screens, caulking material, containers, matting, cordage, weapons, armor, cosmetics, and medicine. The story behind the arrival of the coconut in the Pacific illustrates its historical importance to the islanders. As legend has it, there were once two lovers forced to be apart. The man, Tuna, turned himself into an eel so that he could swim across the sea to the village of his beloved Sina. Alas, upon finally reaching his lover, Tuna was killed. But before he died, he instructed Sina to bury his head in the earth and promised that a great tree would grow from it and provide many of the peoples’ needs. True to his word, the first coconut palm grew from Tuna’s head. To this day, one can discern the face of an eel on every coconut – two eyes and a mouth formed by the three holes on the base. When people drink the milk from a coconut they put their lips to the “mouth” and are in fact kissing the eel!
Polynesians have valued the coconut for centuries but the local islanders have never really been invested in the copra trade; it has always been an outside affair. Two centuries ago, copra exportation provided the foundation for European involvement in the Pacific. Today the once-lucrative cash crop has been weakened by competition, senility, and the Western preoccupation with the tourism economy. University of Southern California student, Brooke Thomas, wrote in the Spring 2003 edition of USC’s Journal of Film and Television Criticism, “Westerners still intrude on Island cultures, consuming the idealized image of tropical paradise which is dependent upon the icon of the coconut palm, but which actually requires the coconut to be removed.” It is ironic that the coconut, which was once so carefully cultivated and harvested by Europeans for the production of copra is now viewed as a potential lawsuit, since coconuts pose a potential threat to unwary beachgoers (the likelihood of being killed by a falling coconut is statistically fifteen times that of death by shark attack). Regardless of Western dissociation from and abandonment of the coconut, copra is a crucial component of Polynesian colonial history and will continue to be an important element of Polynesian culture.
Heidi Hirsh, University of San Diego
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