Climbing coconut palms is by no means child’s play!
From the social and economic point of view, it is very challenging, especially for those who do it as part of their daily work.
The multitude of palm-climbing techniques used demonstrate amazing human inventiveness. These range from: climbing the palm with bare hands; climbing with just a piece of wild vine, rope, or fabric attached either to feet or hands; climbing with a system of two ropes as in Brazil, climbing with spikes attached to feet or legs (the spikes generally damaging the trunks); climbing with various kind of ladders; turning the trunks into kinds of staircases by carving steps in the trunk (damaging) or, as in Sri Lanka, by attaching coconut husks with ropes to the trunk; using a system of two platforms, one controlled by arms and the other by legs; using equipment based only on human power; using equipment with an extra source of power; using monkeys to climb the palms; and even harvesting the coconuts with a robot, as tested in India.
It seems quite simple to climb the coconut palm in order to stay beneath the leaf crown to harvest fruits and/or cut old leaves. It proves much more challenging to climb up the coconut leaf crown in order to reach the young inflorescences. This is needed for making controlled pollinations with bagging for research purposes, and for harvesting the ‘toddy’ (the sweet sap from coconut inflorescences) which serves to produce sugar, vinegar, wine and spirits.
For the purpose of conserving coconut genetic resources, the palm-climbing technique has a significant human and economic impact. For instance, for climbing the palms in Côte d’Ivoire, workers of the coconut genebank use large triple aluminium ladders which can reach a maximum height of 14 meters. Workers need to climb the palm to make controlled pollinations by bagging the inflorescences. Coconut varieties in genebanks need to be regenerated using this controlled pollination technique. This is the only way to ensure these varieties be conserved true-to-type during successive regenerations.
The International Coconut collection for Africa and Indian Ocean, located at the CNRA Marc Delorme Research centre, in Côte d’Ivoire is the most active provider of coconut germplasm at the international level. The height reachable with ladders is the main factor determining when palms in this genebank must be regenerated. Palms must be regenerated before their stems extend beyond 14 meters. If taller, it will be impossible to conduct controlled pollinations. Most of Tall type varieties reach this size at 25 to 30 years.
A global regeneration of the genebank was recently conducted though a COGENT/Bioversity project funded by GCDT (the Global Crop Diversity Trust) and CNRA (National Centre for Agronomic Research in Côte d’Ivoire). The total budget of this project was more than US$ 660, 000.
Using triple ladders to climb the palms, this regeneration needs to be conducted every 25 years. Were another method available for climbing higher palms, this regeneration could be conducted only every 50 years. From a financial perspective, it is quite different to spend more than US$ 600, 000 every 25 years or every 50 years. During this regeneration process, at least two workers have already fallen from the ladders and been severely injured. So, to find a more efficient and secure way to climb the coconut palms is also important from a health and safety perspective.
COGENT needs to develop an International project to assess this problem, to secure the coconut workers and increase the interval between regenerations in coconut genebanks. Probably the technique using two platforms from Hawaii, or some of the climbing machines from India could provide effective alternatives. Another way to solve this problem could be to reduce the growth of the palms.
The farmers of the Mekong Delta have developed a technique to reduce the growth of tall coconut palms by removing them from the ground at two years old and then replanting them again. These Tall-type coconut palms then grow as Dwarf-types. This technique should be tested in the context of coconut genebanks.
Generally and from the farmer’s points of view, it would be good to use varieties with slower growth that facilitates the safe and effective management of coconut plantations.
In many villages from the Pacific region, it is now forbidden to plant Tall-type coconut varieties. Tall-type coconut palms and Tall x Tall hybrids are considered as dangerous because of their rapid growth and their height. People may fall when climbing the palms. Fruits and leaves may fall on people. Coconut palms can fall on houses and people during storms and cyclones. A study conducted in the Solomon Islands has shown that 3.4% of all injuries recorded at the main hospital surgical department was related to coconut palm. Another study conducted in India showed that, among workers climbing coconut palms for more than 30 years, more than 40% have fallen and been injured. One of the most famous people to fall from a coconut palm is Keith Richards, the Rolling Stone guitarist, who tried to climb a palm on Wakaya, Fiji in 2006. Half-way Richards slipped and fell to the ground, severely banging his head in the process. He was then transferred to Auckland, New Zealand for a brain scan.
Coconut varieties with slower growth are well known. Two distinct different dwarfism syndromes exist within the species: Dwarfs with thin stems and reduced boles (like Malayan or Brazil Green Dwarf), and compact dwarfs with thick stems and large boles more resistant to cyclones (like Niu Leka). Dwarf coconut varieties are considered as less resilient than Tall type, but Brazilian farmers obtain very high yields by using advanced management techniques. Preliminary surveys recently conducted in French Polynesia and Fiji indicate that many amazing compact dwarf varieties have not yet been collected by scientists. Although some countries (India, Thailand, Philippines) have succeeded in re-creating Dwarfs from Dwarf x Tall progenies, the genetic inheritance of these two dwarfism syndromes remains unknown.
COGENT will contribute to conceive and promote research projects devoted both to understanding the genetic inheritance of Dwarfism and to collecting and characterizing the compact Dwarfs varieties which will probably play an important role in the future of coconut breeding.