School puts students up a tree

By Rahul Bedi

India's southern state of Kerala has more than 500 million coconut trees covering around 40 per cent of its area. Photo / Supplied
India's southern state of Kerala has more than 500 million coconut trees covering around 40 per cent of its area. Photo / Supplied

A school for high achievers - more than 30m high - has recently been founded in India's southern state of Kerala.

To graduate, students are largely required to be in the treetops where they can reap the fruits of their achievements: coconuts.

So far around 1400 youngsters have graduated from the state-sponsored "Friends of the Coconut Tree" training programme that began in September and has since become part of the dial-a-coconut-tree-climber service available across the province.

Spread across 10 districts and backed by the provincial Coconut Development Board (CDB) the programme aims, during its six-day intensive course, to train by mid-2012 about 5000 coconut cutters - not only to harvest the precious and juicy nuts, but also to minister to a tree vital to the region's economy.

Kerala has more than 500 million coconut trees covering around 40 per cent of its area. But over the years, a shortage of skills had forced cultivators to employ unskilled migrant workers on high wages.

"The scarcity of skilled gatherers had also severely disrupted their harvesting cycles, leading to a loss of income for the growers," said Srikumar Poduwal head of the CDB's training programme based in the coastal city of Kochi.

Instead of the recommended harvesting cycle of 45-60 days, farmers were gathering coconuts only once every three to four months. The training programme would transform that situation, Poduwal added.

Kerala is a victim of its own success.

It has the highest literacy rate in India - 97 per cent - and many of its young, educated people have migrated overseas - mainly to the Gulf states - for better-paid work.

Those who stayed behind tend to seek office jobs.

Consequently, not enough hands were left to pick the vital cash crop, which on numerous occasions had withered at the root.

An array of coconut-harvesting devices to replace trained palm climbers were developed by individuals, research institutions, universities and non-governmental organisations, but proved woefully inadequate.

The only alternative was to revive the coconut harvesters.

Dressed in a loin cloth and armed with a "vattu kati" or machete, the professional tree-climbers race up palm trees 20-30m tall.

They hug the trunks, using the soles of their feet - hardened through practice - to propel themselves upward at great speed.

Once on top, a seasoned cutter trims the branches surrounding an average of 30 to 40 coconuts per tree and lops them off - taking no more than three to four minutes.

In an eight-hour, back-breaking shift, skilled climbers are capable of harvesting 50 palms or around 2000 coconuts, for which they are paid Rs 750-1000 ($19-26). Overhead costs for the training schools are negligible.

The "classrooms" are largely local coconut plantations, and many of the teachers are volunteers from the local Tandan tribe of traditional coconut-pickers and CDB experts.

The cutters also learn about spraying and pest control, plant protection measures and identification of tender nuts, mature coconuts and seed nuts.

- NZ Herald

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