Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Copra Express

Copra is dried meat from the coconut - rich in oil (70 percent) that can be extracted and used to make soaps and cosmetics, lamp oil (once the primary source of lighting in parts of India), bio-diesel for powering cars and buses or generation of electricity, and as a cooking and baking oil high in saturated fats. Copra is mainly harvested by smallholders rather than on large plantations. It has long been a cash crop in the south pacific and we have learned that it is an important source of hard cash in economies (such as those of the Polynesian islands, Tonga, and Fiji) that are mainly based on subsistence.

In French Polynesia the government subsidizes copra production, paying far above the world price for the product. Unfortunately for the small Fijian copra farmers, this is not the case here and the prices we heard quoted were from 40 to 50 cents a kg. It takes about 7 coconuts to make a kg and these have to be removed from the tree (someone typically climbs the tree and harvests the ripe nuts), broken in half, the meat scooped out, and then sun dried or dried over a fire. Here in Fiji the locals use steel drums as the basis of stoves for drying the copra. Coconut husks and gathered firewood are used to fuel these stoves and it takes between 2 and 3 days to dry out a load of copra. Once dry the copra is packed in sacks and taken to a warehouse facility, typically run here by an island council, where the grower is paid for their product by weight.

The profits from copra gathering are not great when you take into account the labour required and the transportation costs. In the case of our friends on Rabi, they would have to pay $40 to move their 7 bags (about 280 kgs) of copra from their plantation to the nearby warehouse in the main village. This is a distance of only 5 miles, but gasoline is expensive here and there are few powered boats in the area to do the job. While $40 does not sound like much, it would remove nearly 40 percent of their earnings. When we understood this, we offered to take the copra and some of the family down the coast to the main village on our way south.

The day we chose to leave (Saturday) was overcast. I went ashore in the dinghy and we loaded four sacks of copra, transferring them to the deck and cockpit of Ladybug. Some of these sacks weighed more than Rani and it was no light matter to get them out of the dinghy, even with Kasipoa helping from the deck. Then the heavens opened and we put tarps and awnings up to keep our cargo dry. Rani was against going, suggesting we wait until Sunday when the weather should be better, so we told the families we planned to wait. Then, we saw our friends Tabeta and Rara wading along the shore, intent on going into town despite bad weather and high tide. They had run out of Fijian tobacco two days earlier and could not wait another day. We felt bad and I rowed over to head them off and tell the families we would go today anyway, provided we could take Samuel to guide us.

Our passengers huddle under the awning to stay dry
So - we loaded the remaining 3 bags of copra, 7 people, one dried octopus, and a large sack of clothes. We tied Samuel's outrigger canoe to the wind vane frame and raised the anchor. The visibility was poor, but with Samuel on the bow we weaved our way out of Albert Cove between the reefs. We towed our little dinghy with two sacks of copra as well as Samuel's canoe. As we headed south inside the reefs, Samuel guided from the bow, with Tabeta up the ratlines helping, and Rani watched our chart plotting program down below. We sailed for a while under jib but had to dowse sail in a vicious squall and proceeded under motor from then on. A large swell set in from the north and the motion soon made Teteke feel ill. We had her move outside and sit in the cockpit under an awning. The younger boys were told to lie down below and thankfully nobody was physically sick.

Chris rows our cargo and Samuel and Tetieke ashore. Samuel is sitting on a sack of copra.

The navigation was tortuous and we had some conflicts with what Rani recommended based on our charts and where Samuel was pointing us. I gave Samuel the benefit of the doubt and despite almost zero visibility in black (rain) squalls we did eventually make our way into a very tight anchorage off a beach at Nuku. We unloaded passengers and cargo, rowing our dinghy in and out to the beach 5 or 6 times. We were all soaked through and exhausted, and the copra had to be brought inside Samuel's house to be re-dried. However everyone made it to shore in one piece and seemed to be happy to be back at their village, so I guess our first cargo/passenger carrying trip was a success.

The weather cleared up a bit after we arrived and Samuel gave us a tour of his and the neighboring villages.

As usual, Rani was right - we should have waited until the next day when things were considerably calmer. These kids and one adult came out to visit us just before we headed south to Buca Bay. Yes that dinghy is as small as ours - designed to hold 2-3 people!

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