I’ll shortly board a flight which will begin my journey back to New Zealand after a number of days here in Thailand visiting Trade Aid’s trading partner Green Net. I’ve had plenty of time to write in the past couple of days; it’s still early spring here but the temperature is already hitting the high 30’s, and I’ve had little enthusiasm for venturing outside my room except to eat.
I was last here just over five years ago and in the meantime Green Net’s business has grown strongly, largely as a result of increasing sales of coconut milk. It’s an excellent product, and we’ve seen its sales grow in New Zealand hugely since I hesitantly placed our first order back in 2011 for 10,000 cans (which seemed like a large quantity at the time, but is now a volume that we sell every five or six weeks). Meeting the coconut groups this time around I found that their farmer numbers have tripled, and will double again shortly once more new members become organic certified.
I’ve been asked to get good video footage during my travel, wherever I can, which shows how the food products we buy are harvested and processed. As coconuts are more or less continuously harvested this didn’t appear to be too much of a challenge on my current trip and I arranged with Green Net’s office manager in the coconut region to do this.
On the second morning of my visit, she loaded me and my camera into the sidecar of her motorcycle and we went in search of a coconut picking team. She knew roughly where they would be working and although they were not picking coconuts on the farm of one of Green Net’s own farmers that day I knew the footage would still be OK as the same picking process is used on all the farms in the area.
Finally we found the pickers and to my delight they were not only cutting down nuts using the traditional long poles with blades attached that I was already familiar with, but four of them were also using trained monkeys which are sent climbing up to the top of the taller trees (which the poles cannot reach) and from where they pick and drop these high altitude coconuts.
I am assured that these monkeys are well treated. They are certainly very interesting video subjects although I admit I find it difficult to film small animals at the top of tall trees, in sweltering temperatures. To improve my chances of getting clean shots of the process I ventured quite close to the base of the trees but this presented a new risk – that of being clocked by a falling coconut. The nuts, once dislodged, hit the ground with a solid thump from such heights and nobody was interested in the prospect of dealing with a concussed cameraman. Sometimes, too, the nuts hit the ground in a bunch, and when this happens they tend to explode apart sideways on impact. Hopefully, amongst the shots I managed to take, will be something we can use.
Interviewing both coconut and rice farmers, I heard a similar story. They enjoy working with Green Net and clearly lead better lives as a result of this relationship. For many of these farmers, too, the decision to switch to organic production came about as a response to health problems they were experiencing while using chemicals; skin rashes, breathing difficulties, headaches and other symptoms. Now they are organic farmers they are feeling much better, and their land is much more alive with insects and other life. If I needed any extra incentive to buy (or grow) more organic food myself, this was surely it.
The day is very warm, and with a light breeze blowing the coconut palms are swaying gently. Bird chorus fills the air with a soft and melodious background sound. The palms are spaced comfortably apart, so that plenty of sunlight hits both the trees and the grass-covered ground below. At the tops of the trees, clusters of light green and brown-coloured coconuts gleam in the sunlight.
The field forms part of Chayatorn and Chantima Tangmanakij’s organic coconut farm. Chayatorn and Chantima are members of a farmer group in southern Thailand which has been selling all of their coconuts at fair trade prices since 2011. They gained organic certification at the same time.
Moving to organic production became important to this couple for personal health reasons.
‘We were using paraquat and glyphosate as herbicides, and we were using chemical fertilisers as well’, explains Chayatorn. ‘I was developing skin rashes, and from using all these chemicals I found that my breathing was becoming irregular. The soil, too, was getting sick, and I realised that there were no worms here’.
Initially teaching himself with the help of a book how to grow coconuts successfully without using chemicals, Chayatorn later received formal training through his fair trade organisation, Green Net. His health is now improving and the family saves money by not buying chemicals any more. The soil, too, is recovering, and contains more worms and other life now.
By selling their coconuts to Green Net, the couple are also much better off financially. Through their farmer group, they feel they have a lot more power when negotiating prices and as well as receiving higher prices per nut these days, they are also paid the full amount and are paid on time (in the past, traders often found reasons to deduct extra hidden costs, and were slow at paying farmers). ‘Now I don’t have to fight the street traders!’, Chayatorn exclaims.
They have also increased their productivity with Green Net’s training support, and by sharing knowledge between members of their group. With a higher family income from coconuts, more money is now able to be spent on the education of their two sons, who are aged 13 and 18.
Chantima has also been able to significantly reduce the amount of time she spends earning extra income.
‘In the past I used to work at least eight hours every day of the week, with the help of other family members, making brooms which I would sell on to traders. I still do make these brooms, but now just for two or three hours in the evenings. Now I can spend more time with my children!’
Plastic-handled brooms are the most common type she makes, and from each of these brooms she makes a profit of around 30 baht (NZ$1.25)
As well as producing coconuts, Chayatorn and Chantima are starting to grow other kinds of fruit organically. They have planted a trial crop of pineapples this year, and have also planted durian and mangosteen trees which they expect to start fruiting within the next five years.
For now, coconuts will continue to provide them a solid income. The nuts can be harvested every 45 days, all year round. Once cut from the trees, hulled, and processed into coconut milk, this couple’s healthy produce will be shared with customers throughout New Zealand and we, too, can enjoy the benefits of their chemical-free lifestyle.