Foresight on the evolution of farmers' varietal choices and coconut ideotypes

By Roland Bourdeix 

This prospective exercise aims to predict how and when coconut varieties chosen by farmers will evolve. The "how" is more easy to predict that the "When". The latest will depends on the willingness of countries to develop efficient coconut breeding programs. Changes described here under will probably require twenty to fifty years to occurs.

From Tall to Dwarf types
Risk associated with Tall-type coconut palms. From 6 to 12 years, their vertical growth generally ranges from 60 to 120 cm per year. Even if their growth strongly reduces with age, they generally reach a stem length of about 15 m at 25 years old. Fruits and leaves fall on people, house and cars and cause damage. People, and especially children, fall when climbing palms and are often severely injured. When planted closed to houses and when a cyclone occurs, uprooted stems damage roofs and cars. See the references and summaries cited at the end of this publication.
Many villages of the Pacific region are already forbidding to plant Tall-types near houses. In fact, in addition to their resilience, the main advantage of Tall-types seems for intercropping: their rapid vertical growth allows to install rapidly other crops under the coconut palms But as leaves of Tall-types are generally longer, they require lower planting density and their light interception is higher than other varieties. This is not a good characteristic, even in the case of intercropping.

Cultivation of Dwarf coconut varieties is very rapidly expanding. This expansion is presently based on a narrow genetic diversity, mainly the “Malayan Dwarf” type, characterized by thin stem easily toppled by cyclones, low resilience and sensitivity to drought. The Brazilian Green Dwarf, which presently represents more than 60% of the seed nut production in Brazil, belongs to this type. The use of compacts dwarfs and/or crosses between Compact and Malayan Dwarfs should be introduced within the global system as soon as is possible. These types have thicker stems, slower vertical growth and, apparently, a better resilience than “Malayan Dwarf” types.
In the Solomon islands, and especially in Guadalcanal, a new strain of the Oryctes beetle is rapidly destroying the coconut plantations. Most old Tall-type coconut palms seem doomed because it is almost impossible to carry out health monitoring and eradication of insects in leaf crowns on palms over fifteen meters high. This monitoring would be much easier on Compact Dwarf varieties whose trunk height does not exceed three meters in the first fifteen years of production.
Thus, taking into account the long delay needed to breed coconut varieties, there is an urgent need to integrate as soon as possible the Compact Dwarfs in coconut breeding programs worldwide. Pollen and/or embryos of Compact and "Super" Dwarfs could be collected directly from farmer’s fields and sent to the gene banks and to the coconut breeders working in various producing countries.

From heterogenerous varieties to uniform, reproducible and predictable cultivars

Our interactions with farmers showed that most of them would like to plant “real” cultivars, i.e. «often intentionally bred and selected subset of a species that will behave uniformly and predictably when grown in an environment to which it is adapted”. Farmers want precocious, high yielding varieties, adapted to markets needs, growing predictably and uniformly. Farmers prefer a diversity of planting material, but they want to control this diversity. For instance many farmers are fed up to see, in the same field, palms with bad and good yields, small and big fruits, germinating slowly or rapidly, with thin and thick kernels. If they have the choice, we trust that most of farmers will choose to plant more than one cultivar in their fields, as far as these cultivars meet their requirements.

About coconut fruits
Coconut fruits seem not to be fully convenient for human present-day uses. The fibrous coconut husk is hard when mature and, except in some very rare soft/sweet husk palms, it is impossible to remove it by hand. The shell is also hard and can be quite dangerous to break if a suitable tool is not used. The kernel is naturally attached strongly to the shell. It remains too thin, firm and fibrous and sometimes its consumption can harm gums. Regarding tender coconut harvested for water consumption, the husk is too thick and the water makes up only 15 to 26 % of the total weight of the fruit. Thus, there remains considerable work for breeders to upgrade the coconut palm to the status of a fully domesticated species.

The numerous, although disappearing, "sweet husk" coconut varieties existing in the Pacific region could strongly contribute to develop new coconut ideotypes. For some of the best sweet husk varieties, the husk can easily be removed only with bare hands; Observations conducted in French Polynesia show that the easiness on separating shell from both husk and kernel strongly varies according varieties. Well conceived breeding programs could address these questions within a period of 10 to 20 years.

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Mulford, J. S., Oberli, H., & Tovosia, S. (2001). Coconut palm‐related injuries in the pacific islands. ANZ journal of surgery, 71(1), 32-34.
Falls from trees and other tree related injuries are the most common cause of trauma in some parts of rural Melanesia. A four year review of all admissions for trauma to the Provincial Hospital at Alotau, Milne Bay Province, Papua New Guinea, showed that 27% were due to falls from trees, and a further 10% were due to related injuries, such as being struck by a falling branch or a coconut. A questionnaire distributed to rural health centres showed that during the study period at least 28 villagers died from falls from trees before reaching hospital. Head and chest trauma were common causes of death. Many injured patients were boys. Forearm fractures were the most common injuries, but more serious injuries were also frequently encountered. Trees responsible for most deaths and injuries included the coconut palm, betel palm, mango, and breadfruit. There are many strategies for preventing such injuries; perhaps the most important is to stop small boys climbing tall trees. Such falls are a serious occupational hazard for many subsistence farmers.

Barss, P., Dakulala, P., & Doolan, M. (1984). Falls from trees and tree associated injuries in rural Melanesians. Br Med J (Clin Res Ed), 289(6460), 1717-1720.
Coconut palms are an integral part of life in the Solomon Islands, given the widespread dependence of subsistence agriculture. The present study reviews all patients referred to the Department of Surgery and Orthopaedics between January 1994 and December 1999 who had a coconut palm-related injury. This was possible due to the trauma epidemiology form, which records the patient details, cause of injury, fracture details and other injury information. A total of 3.4% of all injuries presenting to the surgical department was related to the coconut palm. Eighty-five patients fell from the coconut palm, 16 patients had a coconut fruit fall on them, three patients had a coconut palm fall on them and one patient kicked a coconut palm. The majority of patients who were injured by falling from a coconut palm were young (aged 6–25 years). Eleven of the 16 patients struck by falling fruit were under 25 years of age. The majority of injuries sustained were fractures. Patients falling from coconut palms sustained mainly upper limb fractures (60.1% of all fractures) or spinal fractures (16.3%). Patients injured by falling fruit sustained skull or upper limb fractures. All skull fractures occurred in patients under the age of 10 years.

Barss, P., Dakulala, P., & Doolan, M. (1984). Falls from trees and tree associated injuries in rural Melanesians. Br Med J (Clin Res Ed), 289(6460), 1717-1720.
Falling coconuts can cause injury to the head, back, and shoulders. A 4-year review of trauma admissions to the Provincial Hospital, Alotau, Milne Bay Province, Papua New Guinea, revealed that 2.5% of such admissions were due to being struck by falling coconuts. Since mature coconut palms may have a height of 24 up to 35 meters and an unhusked coconut may weigh 1 to 4 kg, blows to the head of a force exceeding 1 metric ton are possible. Four patients with head injuries due to falling coconuts are described. Two required craniotomy. Two others died instantly in the village after being struck by dropping nuts.

Index, B. M. (2012). Health of Coconut Tree Climbers of Rural Southern India–Medical Emergencies, Body Mass Index and Occupational Marks: A Quantitative and Survey Study. Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research6(1), 57-60.
Coconut plucking, a profession of a few communities in southern India, is an arduous calling now. Permanent cosmetic defects to the skin, apart from medical emergencies, have forced many to abandon this time honoured profession. The objective of the present study was to explore the health status and the casualties in traditional coconut tree climbers in southern India. A total of 240 male volunteers, all below 55 years, who were engaged in the profession, were interviewed between January 2006 and December 2008. 15% volunteers from group1 (<10 years of experience), 26.6% from group 2 (10-20 years of experience), 44% from group 3 (20-30 years of experience), and 41.3% from group 4 (>30 years of experience) fell down from trees, resulting in injuries. The histories of accidental cuts/lacerations from special knives which were used and those of skids/slips during the monsoon season in groups1, 2, 3, and 4 were 7.7, 15.0, 16.9, 12.0% respectively. The body weight and the BMI of the climbers in groups 2, 3 and 4 showed significant declines as compared to those of the non-climbers. Colles, vertebral and maxillary fractures, tendocalcaneus lesions and severe allergies, were among the medical emergencies which were listed.