Making money from senile coconuts

My ignorance knows no bounds, I’m pleased to say. Coconut wood, for example: I had no idea it was of any value. But a recent note alerted the Google coconut group to news of a project, funded by Australia, to develop “high quality veneer and veneer products from senile coconut trees in some Pacific island countries”.

Senile is their term, obviously, not mine. I’m far too sensitive to think that just because a coconut palm is 70 years old it is senile. The fact is, however, that old coconuts are not as prolific as youngsters, and may be worth more as timber than as a source of nuts. Certainly the wood looks very pretty, and Carey Smoot, the bloke who developed the industry sounds like quite a card.

Turning (almost) worthless coconut fibre into more valuable coconut doormats in Dodanduwa, Sri Lanka, a COGENT project from long ago.

What interested me about the story was the fuss it stirred up among coconut nuts. The big worry is how the smallholders who rely on coconuts as the foundation of their livelihoods would respond to buyers with big bucks. Top dollar now for an old tree might be irresistible; would the sellers replant? If not, what will they do when they’ve spent the cash? And, of course, are there other products, besides timber and commodity-priced coconuts, that would boost their incomes sustainably?

Indeed, people called the sustainability of the entire senile coconut timber project into question, and it was a comment in that discussion that really caught my eye.

it goes without saying of course that you DO NOT take more trees than can re grow sustainably otherwise you cut your throat so to speak … and deforestation of coconuts could be irreversible.

Actually, taking more trees than can regrow is exactly what you do do, if you are a normal, for-profit economic entity, especially when the growth rate of the trees is lower than the discount rate you use to decide among alternative investments. The point was made ages ago, largely in relation to fisheries, but is still not widely appreciated. In fact, the role of the discount rate in determining economic behavior is pretty much under-appreciated everywhere.

If you’ve got a great big gob of capital waiting to be put to work, you chop down and convert all the senile coconut palms you can, until that’s no longer profitable, and then you invest your much larger chunk of capital in something equally unsustainable, like whaling. Or intensively cultivated farmland.

5 Replies to “Making money from senile coconuts”

  1. Jeremy: The German Technical Cooperation Agency (GTZ) had a coconut palm sawmill in Tanzania in the 1970s. It was a sub-project of the main project for breeding and seed production to replace some very old plantations. The timber was ornamental but also resisted rotting and could be used for house piling. It needed special saws – I think from the high silica content of the wood.

  2. Coconuts are monocots; they don’t have woody stems. However, it sounds like their tough fibrous stems are quite useful even without being woody.

  3. Jeremy: Not at all touch̩. I think Phytophactor means that monocots do not have secondary wood, that is, the stems do not get thicker as they grow. But they certainly have wood РI once made my daughters bracelets out of polished bamboo wood, with spectacular internal diffraction of light from the bundle-sheaths Рfar nicer than ivory.
    In contrast to dicots, where the wood-forming living cambium is fairly superficial and can be killed by fire, the lack of cambium and the scattered vascular tissue in woody monocots makes the palms far more resistant to death by fire (also associated with fire-germination: Phoenix anyone?). Another monocot advantage of wood with scattered vascular bundles is that all the wood stays alive – unlike dicot wood, where after time most wood is dead and, even when protected by all those chemicals in that lovely tropical hardwood, tends to rot. Botany 002: tropical dicots push out buttresses of superficial living rot-resistant wood to maintain structural strength when the dead internal wood – without vascular tissue – is hollowed away by rot. Not many people know that. And in very rotty/threatening conditions both monocots and dicots can develop prop roots to replace the woody primary stem.

  4. I have a mighty fine dining table, chairs, bed and a couple of bed side tables made from coconut wood (not veneered). These were made in Kenya where they have a plant in Mombassa working to dry and cut the wood. The wood has a fabulous lustre and the scattered vasulature running through the wood gives it a fabulous and unusual grain. It is very hard wearing; the only downside is it weighs a lot!

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