The coconut palm generally has an economically productive life span of about 60 years, although it depends on various factors such as cultivar planted, soil type, climatic conditions of the area and the past and recent management history. Therefore to maintain the sustainability of coconut production the senile palms, generally over 60 years, are to [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

National Coconut Replanting Programme: An alarming scenario


The coconut palm generally has an economically productive life span of about 60 years, although it depends on various factors such as cultivar planted, soil type, climatic conditions of the area and the past and recent management history. Therefore to maintain the sustainability of coconut production the senile palms, generally over 60 years, are to be replaced and managed properly. In order to facilitate replanting, a government backed National Replanting Programme (NRP) has been in operation for the last four decades. This is implemented jointly by the Coconut Research Institute (CRI) and the Coconut Cultivation Board (CCB).

Prior to 1965, the annual seed nut requirement for the NRP was less than 100,000 and was met by superior mother palm seeds only. But with the growing demand for coconut seed nuts since about 1970 the annual requirement had increased to over 2 million nuts by year 2000. The current demand of seed nuts today is over 5 million including seed nut demand for new planting in non-traditional areas and for other various development projects such as urban home garden programmes and for the replanting and rejuvenation of coconut sector in the north and east which had been badly affected by the 25 years long war.

The NRP was initially implemented with an annual replanting target of 2 per cent of the total coconut growing area taking into consideration only the senile palms. It was expected that if that 2 per cent systematic planting had happened over a period of 50 years, the coconut in the country by year 2000, would have fallen equally between one to 60 years age strata and to be maintained within the said limits thereafter.
Planting of genetically superior planting materials is one of the key strategies in productivity increase.

An improved seed nut is the result of a cross between a selected pair of genetically superior parents. Initially it was super nuts resulting from artificial pollination between selected high yielders. Later on it was open pollinated nuts from mother palms, which is a high stringent selection of superior palms from high yielding estates. Seed nut production through this process, yielded only very limited seed nuts for the growers and hence CRI has been involved in mass production of improved seed nuts through seed gardens, initially from Ambakelle.

Increasing seed demand
The capacity of seed nut production from seed gardens too did not meet the total ever increasing seed nut demand and therefore the balance was met by open pollinated nuts from a pool of selected parent palms designated as “plus palm”, which was less stringent in selection compared to mother palms. This was at that time adapted as a temporary measure expecting to terminate it when the supply of total seed nut requirement was solely met by seed gardens. However, this never happened and instead seed nut production from seed gardens remained static at about 50 per cent of the requirement of the NRP at all times.

This happened as a result of the ever increasing demand for seed nuts year by year. The responsibility of quality seed nut production lies with CRI, while production and distribution of quality seedlings mainly remains with CCB. According to the diagnostic survey conducted by the CRI in 2005, 68 per cent of the growers of the sample obtained their seedlings from the CCB nurseries while 12 per cent and 14 per cent used their own seedlings and seedlings from private nurseries, respectively indicating that large quantities in excess of accountable figures are being produced annually in the country.

The published statistics of planting details indicated only the number of seedlings planted under the subsidy scheme which was on average 58 per cent per year planted as re-planting, under-planting or as new-planting from the total seedlings supplied to the NRP. Has the re-planting and under-planting carried out under the above subsidy scheme and/or by growers under their own initiative being carried out in an efficient manner? What are the criteria to judge the effectiveness of the NRP?

File picture of a coconut plantation.

Replanting of seedlings
An account of the seedlings planted during the last few decades and their subsequent growth provides sufficient evidence of the effectiveness of the NRP. Taking only the CCB seedling issues and the CRI seedling issues (only about 5 per cent) alone into consideration, a total of 63,162,000 seedlings have been issued during the period from 1950 to 1995 according to the statistics published by the Coconut Development Authority (CDA) in 1990, which is sufficient to plant approximately 313,000 ha of land (about 75 per cent of the total coconut growing area) at the rate of 80 palms per acre which was the recommended planting density prior to 2000.

If the replanting had been carried out effectively, 75 per cent of the coconut plantation should have had palms of a maximum of 45 years of age in 1995. If a maximum of an unacceptable degree of 20 per cent casualties (involves 12,632,400 seedlings) was allowed, the per cent of palms under 45 years should be approximately 66 per cent (ha equivalent is 263,175). However if large quantities of seedlings raised by the private sector were also taken into consideration, the percentage of palms under 45 years should have unambiguously exceeded about 75 per cent. However the diagnostic survey of the CRI (1994) revealed that around 48 per cent of the palms in Wet Zone, 47 per cent of the palms in then intermediate Wet Zone and 67 per cent of the palms in the intermediate Dry Zone are below 50 years of age.

Thereafter from 1996 till 2005, 18,828,000 seedlings have been issued and that quantity itself is sufficient to plant approximately another 90,000 ha after leaving 20 per cent of the total seedling production as casualties. When the total seedling issues, from 1950 to 2005 were taken into consideration, that amount was sufficient to plant about 353,175 hectare but the demand for seedling has never been turned around. By and large this indicates the ineffectiveness of the NRP and as such a critical investigation to the fate of a large number of valuable seedlings issued to growers is vital and timely. Adding to that in the recent past few years, a massive seedling production target was met, sometimes with over 9 million seed nuts laid in nurseries, the majority nuts coming from poor quality palms.

The 2014 data indicates that since 2002, the number of coconut trees added into the existing coconut tress over a period of 12 years was approximately 9.2 million (equaling to 60,000 ha in total). If seedling production was met at the lowest rate of 2 per cent replanting target (2.5 million seedlings per year), the total number of seedlings produced during the 12 years should be accounted for 30 million. Even if the land fragmentation and palm removal due to Weligama disease are taken into consideration; it indicates that a large number of seedlings produced have been utterly wasted in the field.

Poor management
It is observed that in the estate sector, smallholder sector and even home gardens, supplying and re-supplying of seedlings has been in practice year after year due to the high casualty rate arising from very poor management, poor monitoring and unsatisfactory aftercare. In some estates about 50 per cent of the young plantations planted during the last 10-year period has fallen vacant indicating that the demand for seedlings annually would have been for the same seedling hole repetitively. The high percentage of quality seedlings issued to the NRP must have been wasted in the field in this way.

According to a survey carried out by Sumith de Silva (1988) on the extent of coconut under replanting and under-planting based on a sample size of 1400 during 1977 to 1983 in three districts of the country i.e. Kurunegala, Gampaha and Puttalam, revealed that, the area in bearing as a percentage of the area expected to be bearing in 1986 based on the area planted during 1977 to 1983 was as low as 0.56, 3.47 and 2.04, respectively. The total area planted during 1977-83 in the sample was 24,458 acres whilst the area expected to be bearing was 4348 acres. However, the actual area in bearing was 59 acres (1.35 per cent of the expected area).

A similar study on new planting also showed that the area in bearing as a percentage of the expected area to be in bearing in 1986 in Kurunegala, Gampaha and Puttalam was 1.54, 3.82 and 2.62, respectively. With the recent recurrent droughts and poor management of plantations, the situation is no better than the past and probably is much worse than the past.  The possible reasons leading to the above unsatisfactory situation could be explained from different aspects. Adopting re/under planting and new planting in a large extent with meagre resources often leads to failure. Despite the CRI recommendation to plant a manageable area, (i. e. 5-10 hecfares in a 50 hectares estate) growers commit to plant large extents unmanageable with the available resources.

Due to this reason new plantation receives less attention for pests and diseases control, especially for Black Beetle, Plesiapa and rat damage. Weed infestation often leads to severe rat damage apart from competition for nutrients and water. Lack of mulching for moisture conservation and lack of irrigation during droughts largely contributes to seedling mortality. Combination of these factors often leads to a casualty rate as high as 25 to 50 per cent of seedlings. This situation aggravated by the improper timing of planting may be due to consequent constraints of labour and seedlings or perhaps mere negligence. Planting programmes extending towards the end of rainy season subject seedling to drought before the seedling is established.

Unproductive plants
Supplying and re-supplying of casualties arising from mix-management of the re/under planted area and supplying for vacancies in adult coconut plantation also often leads to high casualty rates or unproductive palms. It is not advisable to carry out infillings in an adult plantation over 10 years as the seedlings planted would suffer shade stress leading to very late flowering and funnel shaped crowns. Infillings in a scattered pattern carried out in a young plantation without adequate after care lead to a high rate of casualties in the following year. Planting seedlings in an adult plantation which is not senile (probably needing only rehabilitation), also often leads to the growers reluctance to thin out the old stand as the latter starts showing yield improvement because of the care and maintenance that is offered to the young plantation.

The occurrence of such under-plantings is very common in commercial plantations and even in small holdings especially when under subsidy scheme.  The diagnostic survey conducted by CRI in 1994 revealed that around 86.3 per cent of growers in the sample dropped out of the subsidy at the third installment due to non removal of the old stand. The diagnostic survey carried out in 2005 revealed that 45 per cent of the under-planting has been done in plantations which were under 45 years and 25 per cent of under planting has been done in plantations which were under 25 years old. This results in young seedlings competing with the adult palms for light, water and nutrients due to the high density. Such improper under planting too leads to a high casualty rate in the field which requires continuous re-supply.

The situation is aggravated with damages to the seedlings caused by falling dried fronds of the adult palms on the growing young seedlings and during picking. Furthermore, diseases spreading such as “bud” rot in shady areas also cause casualties during the rainy season. In addition to the casualties, these malpractices lead to uneven and unproductive plantations. It is also observed that, seedlings distributed among farmers by NGOs and various other organisations and to mark occasions, die in the field without proper monitoring. This is worse in the dry zone; seedlings often die in the peak of the drought when even drinking water is not available. It is reported that in certain instances nine out of the 10 seedlings planted die at the end of the year demanding another nine seedlings for infilling in the next year.

Changing weather
It is reported that the changing weather patterns and related prolonged dry spells also have contributed to the high casualty rates during the recent past. Only very few growers are able to irrigate their seedlings even at irregular intervals and have a preparedness programme for drought. The survival rate of polybagged seedling is higher than that of bare-root seedling. However, a large proportion of seedlings are still raised at the government nurseries as bare-root seedlings. The recommendation for transplanting a pre-germinated nut from the pre-nursery bed to the polybag is when the sprout is just about 1 inch in size. This allows the pre-germinated nuts to be established in the polybag for 6 to 7 months.

However, it is often observed that transplanting of pre-germinated seedlings to the polybag is done late to very late, sometimes exceeding six months from the date of seed nut laying in the pre-nursery. This leads to un-established seedlings in the polybags are distributed to farmers, leading death of seedlings in the field. The diagnostic survey of the CRI (1994) revealed that the coconut cultivation was the main source of income for only 31.8 per cent of the sample of growers. Others were either employed or had other sources of income. Data also indicates that the majority of growers (71.4 per cent) cultivated coconut on a part time basis especially with the decreasing land class sizes (in small holdings).

As such many growers do not pay sufficient interest in cultivating and managing coconut, and often plant coconut seedlings because of the fact that the price of nut increase. In smallholdings the rate of casualties tends to increase due to cattle and goat damage and also due to black beetle damage. These casualties are caused by the grower’s negligence.  Considering the above facts, a concerted effort to save the coconut plantations of the country is of utmost importance probably a different approach to encourage and educate the grower and the officers of the concerned organizations is imperative. Otherwise, the expected target of three billion nuts by 2018 cannot be achieved just by monitoring the progress of the replanting programme and by counting the number of seedling issued.

Furthermore as the supply of genetically superior seed nuts and resulting seedlings through seed gardens are almost constant, saving of seedlings planted in the ground is imperative to production increase. The key to high productivity of coconut in Tamil Nadu in India, despite the limited rainfall and excessive temperature, is the planting of genetically superior seedlings with proper aftercare and subsequent proper plantation management. The contribution of nuts from poor estates, unselected palms and nuts from heaps as balance seed nuts demand can be curtailed, which otherwise will have a very serious repercussion in the long run for the coconut industry. As such it is timely and advisable to think of a well planned and a long term national coconut development programme with a set yearly target of successfully field established coconut seedlings for the country for a better future in the coconut sector.

In this regards, it is vital to consider, a) implementation of an efficient and effective technology transfer methodology, b) strengthening the extension programme through increasing the staff and motivating them to frequently visit growers to provide required technology at the doorstep of the growers, c) giving priority in subsidy schemes to the improved management practices, d) increasing production of polybag seedlings in coconut nurseries and discourage planting bare-root seedlings at least in the dry zone, e) planning seedling distribution and sales corresponding with favourable weather conditions, and f) increasing availability of genetically superior seedlings through increasing the capacity of existing seed gardens and developing new seed gardens in an accelerated phase.

It is also important to think about public-private joint ventures or private sector involvement in seed nuts and seedlings production and acquiring private sector involvement in other technical services such as laboratory analytical services such as the leaf and soil nutrient analysis, the synthesis and sales of pheromones, chemicals and bio-control agents in pest and disease management, new coconut product commercialization and the disease diagnostics and advisory services for coconut growers. The poor attention of growers to the desired level of management of coconut estates seems also to be associated with unstable and poor farm-gate price for coconut for the producer. Thus an effective mechanism needs to be developed and implemented in the country in order to regulate the price of coconut in the local market. A steady and better price for coconut will motivate growers to manage their coconut lands healthy and thereby increase production.

[The writer is the head of the Genetics and Plant Breeding Division of Coconut Research Institute, Lunuwila. Some of the concerns, suggestions and recommendations given by him in this article are his own thoughts based on his long experience in the coconut sector and does not represent the views of the institute).

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