When one thinks of the Caribbean it is almost certain that the coconut will flitter into the imagination in one way or another. It could be easily argued that it is one of the most prominent symbols of island culture and for good reason. Since its introduction to the West Indies it has deeply embedded itself into the lives of those who live here.
The coconut is in the Palm tree family. It can grow to be up to 100 feet tall with leaves that are up to 20 feet in length. It is a very hardy tree. The trunk is comprised of hard, dense wood. The branches and fronds are also very strong. The “nut” is actually a drupe. It has a thick husk on the outside and the inside is a fibrous layer that can be eaten or pressed for oil. The center of the nut is hollow and typically contains a drinkable liquid known as coconut water.
While it may be near impossible to think of the Caribbean without palm trees, believe it or not, it is not a native species to this part of the world. Its origin is disputed but it is most widely believed that it comes from the India-Burma region of the world. The coconut was introduced to the Caribbean very shortly after Columbus landed in the Bahamas and, like the people who brought it here, was highly invasive and spread rapidly throughout the region.
Here in the country of Saint Vincent the coconut is used in a plethora of ways. Historically, the hardwood of the palm tree has been used for building structures as have the fronds. Here is a photograph of a structure that we have here on campus, it is a good example of how the leaves can be used for shelter.
The fronds, wood, and coconut husks are often used as firewood or for making charcoal for heating and cooking as well.
It is also used in things like entertainment, sports, and crafts. When you go to markets in Saint Vincent you are likely to come across someone selling artisanal coconut products like goblets, bowls, carvings, and jewelry. One friend of Richmond Vale Academy shared with some of us his memories of using palm fronds to slide down hills on his rear-end with his friends when he was young or using them to play cricket. The wood is also used for making drums which are an extremely important part of the culture here. In fact, the majority of the drums that are made here are made from coconut trunks.
Of course, the coconut is great for eating and drinking too! It is a good source of healthy fats that provide the body with energy and vitamins A and E which help to lower cholesterol. Here in SVG coconut is always used in food at social gatherings. People put it in all types of foods from dumplings to bread to using the oil to cook with. It is also often eaten with breadfruit or avocados. Most Vincentians use it one way or another every single day. It is considered one of the major crops for food security in Saint Vincent by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
From 1950 to the early 1980s Saint Vincent dominated coconut production and exports of processed coconut products in the Caribbean. It is one of SVG’s longest standing agricultural industries. However, the prosperity of the industry drastically declined in the mid 1980’s. This was for a number reasons but the most notable cause was a change in public perception of coconut’s health benefits. It began to be marked as an unhealthy fat that was actually bad for cholesterol. This seriously damaged the demand for this product that was one of SVG’s most important exports at the time.
Currently, the country is trying to get the industry back on track. The demand for coconut and coconut by-products has increased by 800 percent in the last 5 years. SVG is hoping to benefit from a 3.9 million dollar program that the U.S. has developed to help revive the coconut industry in Caribbean countries.
While international demand for coconut products has wavered and fluctuated over the years, coconut never ceased to circulate within the local economy and culture. The tree plays a very important role in preserving the cultural heritage of Vincentians and continues to contribute to contemporary arts and culture in countless ways. It is also vital for food and income security within the country of Saint Vincent.