Monday, July 11, 2011

When technology is humbled, rely on the traditional

EVER wondered how coconuts are plucked? If you grew up in villages, chances are that you have seen coconut gatherers at work. During my childhood, the village's coconut gatherer used a rattan loop strapped to his feet to climb the trees.

He would place his feet on the inside of the loop right up to the ankles. With the loop in place, he hops onto the tree trunk, straddling the loop over the tree trunk like a saddle. The rattan loop supported the feet and allowed the soles of his feet to grip firmly onto the slippery trunk. He then wrapped his hands behind the tree trunk, locked the fingers of both palms, and pulled himself up, two limbs at a time, frog hop-like.

Coconut tree climbing required not only strength and but also stamina and fearlessness of heights. The climber, who was in then his 50s, had all. He was able to climb over 15 coconut trees by late afternoon.

While coconut gatherers on the west coast of the peninsula used rattan loops, those in the east coast were smarter. Where I spent the earlier part of my childhood, coconut planters cut V-shaped notches onto the sides of the trunk as the tree was growing.

The notches, spaced out a foot or so all the way to the top, became a series of steps for tree climbers to gain a foothold on and get to coconuts easily. And that is why when you see a picture of a coconut tree in a photograph (or a painting) with notches on its trunk, you can bet that the scenery was captured in the east coast.

Old coconuts were usually twisted off their stalks and dropped from the trees by the gatherers. However, young ones had to be lowered to the ground using ropes because to drop them from 40 or 50 feet high would shatter their thin shells and spill the water for which they were prized.

Some also used beruk (pig-tailed macaques) and kera (crab-eating macaque) to pluck coconuts. Properly trained to identify ripe coconuts and how to pluck them, the primates could do a man's job twice as efficiently and at half the cost.

However, they can rarely be taught to pluck young coconuts without destroying half of their pickings should they decide to drop them from the tree tops.

A coconut supplier told me recently that the labour-intensive job of plucking coconuts is fast losing its appeal with the young these days. I know why. A few years ago, the prices of coconut and santan soared because of the shortage of manpower. Local suppliers had to import coconuts from neighbouring countries.

Last year, a competition to produce a mechanical coconut plucker was held in the state of Kerala, India's major producer of coconuts. According to news reports, such a contraption unfortunately will remain a distant dream.

With technology humbled by the coconut tree, I suppose if there is a real shortage of traditional climbers to pluck coconuts here, we can still depend on our beruk and kera.

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