An old debate, one that is sure to create controversy regardless of the outcome, has arisen in Kerala, India. This debate rages around a multi-billion dollar industry. At the heart of the issue are India’s 50 million coconut trees and the quickly rising literacy rate in the southern regions. While these two things may not seem to have much in common, they are inextricably connected.
At the root of the situation is the erosion of the centuries-old caste system throughout much of India, and especially in southern India, in states like Kerala. With increased prosperity comes more opportunity for education. More education breeds broader dreams and experiences. Broader dreams and experience lead many young men and women to seek work more fulfilling and less dangerous than climbing coconut trees. For Kerala, which boasts a literacy rate of 100%, this erosion is particularly evident. Kerala, which even takes its name from the coconut (kera meaning “coconut tree”), is India’s largest producer of coconuts producing over one third of the country’s crop.
Kerala has over 15 million coconut trees and a quickly dwindling roster of human pluckers that are required to harvest the 900 million nuts that are produced every 45 days. It’s impossible to understate the impact this workforce erosion is having on the area’s industry. “We have 3.5 million people growing them, and many others depending on coconut-related manufacturing for employment, it is a crucial part of our agricultural sector.” said T. Balakrishnan head of Kerala’s department of industries. According to the Coconut Development Board in Kochi, it requires over 40,000 pluckers to keep up with the demands of the coconut industry in Kerala.
The erosion of the caste system and the subsequent loss of laborers started two decades ago when more and more members of the untouchable caste began taking advantage of free education for their children. Now with their 100% literacy rate and unprecedented success, Kerala is facing a new challenge—getting those millions of coconuts plucked. “In a way we are victims of our own success,” Mr. Balakrishnan proclaimed. “Those who are educated don’t see it as a desirable profession.”
With trees arching to heights as lofty as 100 feet and often working with no safety measures beyond a palm frond tied around the ankles, a coconut plucker faces injury and even death with every tree climbed. Girija, the wife of a coconut plucker in Kerala sums up the situation well: “It is a risky job. Our people can choose now. Nobody would choose this work.”
So what is Kerala to do? Machine pluckers and robots can’t tell the difference between a ripe coconut and an unripe coconut. Motorized platforms to raise human pluckers to the fruit are not feasible on the terrain. The answer to Kerala’s problem may be an old one, one that has proven effective in Sri Lanka and Thailand, and one that comes with no shortage of potential controversy—monkeys. Animal rights groups may well object to the proposed solution to the labor shortage, but according to K.R. Vijayakumar, deputy director of the Kerala agriculture department, it’s like elephants trained to pick up logs or move heavy items and oxen being trained to plow fields, and in this case the math is simple. “A trained monkey can climb 500 coconut trees a day. A human cannot climb more than 50 trees a day since it takes a person over 10 minutes to climb. This also involves a lot of risk.”
Despite the potential protest Vijayakumar and others contend that a training facility set up with trainers from Indonesia or Thailand to train a force of coconut-plucking monkeys would be the most effective way of solving the coconut industry’s problem. After all, monkeys have been climbing trees millennia. Why not ask the experts?