Like coconut water? Ever wonder who picks the coconuts? Men and women in India climb 80 feet up bare tree trunks to harvest them

  • Climbing up and down tall coconut palms all day to harvest the nuts takes guts, agility, and stamina. Thankfully, new equipment has made the job safer in India
  • The 50,000 men – and increasingly, women – who do the job in Kerala state are also better paid thanks to unionisation and machinery that lets them work faster

Rajeev Thuruthipilly Ouseph has an unusual job. The 50-year-old makes a living climbing some of the tallest palm trees in Kochi, in the southern Indian state of Kerala, to harvest coconuts.

Nearly 50,000 people are employed in this work in Kerala alone. Ouseph remembers a time when coconut climbers had to rely on the strength of their arms and legs, wrapping them around the sturdy tree trunks and shimmying up the cool, smooth bark to reach the coconuts at the very top.

With some palm trees the size of mini-skyscrapers at 25 metres (82ft) tall, and with no safety equipment to speak of, it used to be a profession fraught with danger. One study, published in a medical journal in 2012, looked into 240 climbers under the age of 55 and found that eight had fallen from trees, and that four of the falls were either fatal or had caused severe disability.

Injuries and lacerations were common, particularly to the soles of the feet. Some climbers could no longer wear flip-flops because their toes could not grip. A climber’s life is different now.

After climbing to the top of a palm tree in Varkala in Kerala, an Indian worker cuts fresh green coconuts from it. Photo: Getty Images

In recent years the industry has seen sweeping changes that have been good for coconut harvesters, who now routinely use safety gear and have dramatically increased their earnings.

“Ten years ago, when I first started out in the industry, things started to change,” Ouseph says. “The industry unionised. Coconut climbers like us were trained to use protective equipment and metal machinery that could help us scale the tree quicker. We began to earn more.”

Many government schemes offer life insurance as well. Ouseph says he earns 2,000 to 2,500 rupees (US$27 to US$34) a day and he feels safer when he’s climbing, mostly because of the steady spread of professional tree-climbing equipment.

More than six billion coconuts are picked by hand each year in India. With production totalling 119 million tonnes annually, India’s coconut haul weighs in just behind the tonnage grown by Indonesia and the Philippines. Ninety per cent of India’s coconut produce comes from Kerala and its two neighbouring states, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh.

Such is the importance of the nut in the Asia-Pacific region that since 2009 World Coconut Day has been celebrated on September 2.Rajeev Thuruthipilly Ouseph’s job is to climb some of the tallest palm trees in Kochi, Kerala, to harvest coconuts.

In India, particularly in Kerala, there is a massive demand for coconuts. The freshly pressed oil is used in cooking, the shredded pulp is used to enrich stews and curries, an alcoholic drink known as coconut toddy is wildly popular, and the nut’s milk has many documented health benefits.

Kerala’s US$50 million ayurvedic health industry is critically dependent on a regular supply of coconuts: many ayurvedic oils believed to have medicinal properties are based on that from the nut.

Kerala is named after the tree that has defined life and culture in the state. The term “kera” means coconut in the local language, Malayalam.

Kerala’s 180 million coconut trees should be climbed and the nuts harvested every 45 days because they must be collected when they are still green and fresh. If they are left to ripen on the tree and fall off, it would mean they were too ripe and the quality of the kernel would be questionable, says Ouseph.

A man carries a long ladder to climb a palm tree and collect coconuts in Varkala, Kerala. Photo: Getty Images

Typical tree climbing equipment consists of a metal harness that clamps down around the back, fastening the climber securely to the trunk of the tree. There are hoops at the bottom for the feet, and the equipment moves in unison with the climber. A home-grown invention, this safety harness was developed over many years by the Coconut Development Board of Kerala.

Today, tree climbing is more accessible and much easier as a result of this equipment, says Ratha Krishnan, programme coordinator at the Krishi Vigyan Kendra (KVK), or Agricultural Science Centre, a government organisation in the Kerala district of Kozhikode.

The KVK trains a batch of coconut climbers every three months through a programme it calls the “Friends of Coconut”. The expenses of two of the programme’s training sessions are borne by the Coconut Development board of Kerala, another government organisation.

It takes only two to three minutes for an experienced tree climber to reach the top of the tree and harvest the nuts. They climb the tree with sickle in hand and after they harvest the coconuts they can check on the health of the tree

Ratha Krishnan, programme coordinator at the Krishi Vigyan Kendra, Agricultural Science Centre

“When coconut climbers started dwindling, we knew we had a problem,” says Krishnan. Because of a shortage of labour, nuts could only be harvested once every four months rather than the 45 days desired. Training new climbers became imperative.

“Coconut climbing isn’t just about scaling the tree,” he says. “We try to provide a far more holistic approach.” Yoga sessions are conducted for the climbers during their training at KVK, and physical exercise is incorporated into the programme to help them build stamina and fight exhaustion.

Still, there is a knack to climbing trees, even with protective equipment, and the job calls for agility and courage.

Krishnan says: “It takes only two to three minutes for an experienced tree climber to reach the top of the tree and harvest the nuts. After they harvest the coconuts they can check on the health of the tree.”

Some palm trees are the size of mini-skyscrapers at 25 metres tall, although this one in Varkala is a little smaller. Photo: Getty Images

A trained climber will check the tree’s crown – the very top of the tree. They look for dried, dead leaves that could fall on people and injure them. They also check for fungal infections and pests – both of which are only obvious in the palm fronds near the crown. If the tree does have such a problem, the climbers are taught to spray it with medication.

Climbers are also taught about value-added products such as coir – a natural fibre extracted from the outer husk of coconuts and used extensively in Kerala as a raw material for carpets and doormats, brushes and mattresses.

In one day, a typical climber can harvest the crop from 40 to 50 trees; each tree has between 30 and 40 coconuts. That equates to a harvest of between 1,200 and 2,000 nuts a day.Many women are now entering the profession in Kerala.

Today, women are entering the profession for the first time. Krishnan says 60 per cent of his recruits in recent years have been women, and the safety harness and tree climbing device have given them more confidence.

“It’s been a game-changer,” says Joshiba Panthirikara, 39, reflecting on the metal climbing equipment. “It’s sturdy, safe and easy for anyone to use,” she says. “My day begins at 8am and ends around 5pm. There are many women who do this part time too and it’s a good supplement to the family income.”

Panthirikara is one of the few women who have taken to the profession for the long term. She attended an intensive seven-day training course at KVK in 2010 and this has helped her succeed in a profession that was for years considered male-dominated, she explains.

Women trainees at Krishi Vigyan Kendra in Kerala.

Though a coconut climber can make the job seem effortless, there is a great deal of risk involved, says Anand Appukuttan, 40, a communications designer whose parents live in Kerala.

Appukuttan remembers an incident that shook his relatives one summer at his home in Kottayam district. His family had always hired a coconut climber to harvest the nuts from their palms. In the 1990s, the climber was paid 10 to 15 rupees per tree, and someone had to accompany the climber in the fields.

It was a chore that young Appukuttan, who was 10 years old at the time, had always disliked. “When the coconut climber was about to fell the nuts, he would shout out to me from the top of the tree, counting the coconuts in bunches as he dropped them,” he says. “It was my task to fetch each one.”

A group of newly qualified coconut climbers with their metal climbing machinery in Kerala.

One fateful morning, Appukuttan watched as the coconut climber lost his footing and fell.

“The poor man had broken his shoulder and legs,” he says. He recalls riding with the climber in a four-wheel drive vehicle over dirt roads to reach a medical centre.

A year after his terrible fall, the coconut climber returned to Appukuttan’s family home.

“I was alone at home and he came to me smiling, saying he was going to climb for the first time since his fall,” says Appukuttan. “I had butterflies in my stomach until he climbed down the last tree that day.”

Rajeev Thuruthipilly Ouseph has an unusual job. The 50-year-old makes a living climbing some of the tallest palm trees in Kochi, in the southern Indian state of Kerala, to harvest coconuts.

Nearly 50,000 people are employed in this work in Kerala alone. Ouseph remembers a time when coconut climbers had to rely on the strength of their arms and legs, wrapping them around the sturdy tree trunks and shimmying up the cool, smooth bark to reach the coconuts at the very top.

By : Kamala Thiagarajan – SCMP

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