Idyllic postcard images of swaying coconut palms are synonymous with this beautiful and useful tree that played an important role in human evolution, nutrition and migration.
The coconut was once a dominant export product as copra in Belize, and still plays an important role in everyday Belizean life in Belize and with coconut production contributing significantly to the national economy. (Coconut tree image credit Tony Donnelly),
Today the domestic market demand for coconut products in Belize is valued at coconut oil at aproximately $6 million, coconut water $5 million, coconut milk powder: $4 million and other $1 million. The coconut industry provides work to an estimated 600 people in Belize.
History of the Coconut in Belize
The coconut tree is not indigenous to Belize or the Americas.
“While the coconut fruit is naturally adapted for dispersal by sea currents, its pantropical dissemination was achieved with the help of humans. A native of the Old World tropics, the species was spread to eastern Polynesia and subsequently introduced to the Pacific coasts of Latin America, most likely by pre-Columbian Austronesian seafarers from the Philippines. In the Indian Ocean, the composition of coconut populations was likely influenced by Austronesian expansions westward to Madagascar. Later, coconuts were introduced by Europeans from India to the Atlantic coasts of Africa and South America and to the Caribbean. The species is typically found in areas of present or past human activity, and all or nearly all coconut populations worldwide have likely been influenced by human cultivation and dispersal.” – Source: Independent Origins of Cultivated Coconut (Cocos nucifera L.) in the Old World Tropics.
Migrants have always been eager to bring coconuts along on their travels, and for good reasons. Coconuts are not only a source of both food and water but different parts of the coconut palm can be used for other purposes. The first Belizean businessman to commercialise the coconut trade in Belize was Sir Isaiah Morter.
Sir Isaiah Emmanuel Morter Belize’s Coconut King (sometimes spelled Isiah and often misspelled Isaac) 1860 – 7 April 1924, was born in 1860 in the Freetown district of Belize. He was of Igbo descent (some say his parents were Ashanti royalty) coming from a line of slaves brought to America from Nigeria. Marcus Garvey wrote that “Morter grew up fighting the oppositions and difficulties generally surrounding one born to his condition, until he lifted himself to the highest pinnacle of service to his race and to his country. By planting and growing bananas and coconuts, Morter built a fortune and is widely regarded as Belize’s first black millionaire. He owned Caye Chapel and other plantations. For his achievements he was honoured with the award of Knight Commander of Distinguished Service Order of Ethiopia. He was also a strong supporter of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association. Caye Chapel island changed many hands since the passing of Sir Isiah, the most recent, allegedly falling into the hands of the Ashcroft Alliance according to the Amandala Newspaper.
The four coconut varieties found in Belize are: Malayan Dwarf, Maypan, Panama Tall, and the Chactemal variety.
Coconut Producing Areas in Belize
Belize perfectly fits the criteria for the cultivation and growth of coconuts. The natural planting, harvesting, and processing of coconuts along with its tropical climate makes for perfect growth conditions of this tropical delicacy. In Belize, coconuts are grown countrywide. These are grown for recreational purposes or as an income generator. In the 18th century, Belize exported dried coconuts to Britain to produce food products. However, there was a drastic decline in production due to natural disasters such as: hurricanes and the wide spread of the lethal disease. Therefore, there is now an estimated 6,600 acres of coconuts in Belize with its main cultivation locations being the districts of Stann Creek, Cayo and Orange Walk.
Currently, the main locations of coconut cultivation are in Orange Walk, Stann Creek and in the Cayo districts.
Degree of Value-Added Coconut Production in Belize
In Belize every part of the tree is used in the production of a variety of goods; however, they are mainly produced for subsistence purposes only. The many uses of the coconut tree include:
Coconut water is the liquid found inside the coconut. The water produced at an early stage is typically used. This is used as refreshment due to its many nutrients and minerals. This is also used for medicinal purposes in cases of kidney infections, diarrhea, etc. In Belize there are local producers who supply fresh coconut water; however, production and supply are not at large scale.
This is oil extracted from the ‘meat’ that is the kernel of the coconut. Unlike the coconut water which is extracted from young coconuts. The oil is extracted from mature coconuts. This oil can hold for various years before spoiling due to its high levels of saturated fat. There are two methods to extract the oil. One is traditional by laying the meat on a hot plate.
The other is cold-pressed. While more expensive to process, this yields a lucrative Virgin Cold Pressed Coconut oil product in high demand by health conscious consumers in Belize and for the export market.This process was introduced to Belize by Canadian engineer Peter Singfield, who helped design a commercial plant for the Pollack family, Michael Manley-era Jamaican immigrants to Belize, that eventually grew into the Glorious Belize Coconut oil company.
The tropical taste of coconut had to be used in the production of something very enticing to the Caribbean people, therefore, it is widely used in the production of coconut rum. This is the coconut extract which undergoes natural fermentation. Coconut rum is widely used in the mixing of drinks.
While the fruit can be of good use, the palm of the tree also plays a major role in income generation for some families in Belize. The coconut palms are collected then dried; after the drying process they are ready to be used in the construction of roof for cottages. These types of roofing are mainly used by resorts inland and in the cayes of Belize.
Article by M.A. Romero Chief Information Officer To The Government of Belize (RET), with research by Vilma Romero, the Morter family, the Belize City Council, the Belize.com Editors and BELTRAIDE