Recalling When Copra was King

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In Dravuni–Rural Village Economy, I briefly referred to the copra industry being at death’s door after decades of prominence on the island. Like many islands in Fiji – large and small, the industry was the economic lifeblood for those islands and islanders.

I grew up in the village during the heyday of the copra industry. It so happened that it was also the heyday of the cooperative movement. The Dravuni Cooperative Society operated the only shop in the village at the time and also bought copra from all the villagers/cooperative members. There was also a barter system operating at the time where coconuts were exchanged for groceries.

Apart from buying copra from its members, the cooperative shop also bought coconuts which were subsequently processed to copra using the collective labour of its members. The cooperative society thus had its own domola or damola which fire-dried the freshly-removed coconut kernel converting it into copra. The cooperative then shipped the copra to Suva to sell to the end-buyers for the manufacture of oil, soap or for export.

I recall when there were a few individually-owned domola at both ends of the village. Two or three 44 gallon drums would be welded together for the wooden-fired furnace with the drying platform on top and everything placed under roof made from bolabola, long strips of woven halved-coconut leaves. A chimney was needed to ensure proper firing in the furnace. The cooperative-owned domola was much bigger than individually-owned ones, requiring three or four 44 gallon drums. The welding of drums was done in Suva and the welded drums transported to the island by inter-island boats. I recall the schedules of these inter-island boats at the time being fairly regular.

In those days, copra making was the main economic activity in the village. All the related tasks from collecting coconuts to drying the kernels to make copra would take up much of the days’ work from Mondays to Fridays. Saturdays were usually reserved for food preparation for the Sabbath.

My family had a domola. I recall having to carry logs for the furnace from all parts of the island. We would plan to do this at the end of the day, usually after bathing at the other side of the island. Those logs would fire the furnace for a good part of the night. The drying kernel would need to be turned over once at least before the owners retired to sleep. This was to ensure even drying and colouring of the copra.

People had their own ways of collecting coconuts and extracting the kernel. Some would collect coconuts into a heap at the plantation where they halved the nuts with an axe and extracted the kernel with specially-designed short-handled knives. They would then carry the green kernels in sacks on their backs to the domola for drying. Others would tie up the coconuts like a raft to float on the sea and which they pulled to the village whilst walking along the beach. They then extracted the kernels right next to their own domola. Those who had plantations on outlying islands transported their green copra by camakau, outriggers. There were no punts with outboard engines in those days.

Sun-drying of green coconut kernel was also practiced. One way was to split the coconuts and dry the two halves still in husks. The kernel would be extracted when sufficiently dried. The other way is to extract the green kernel first and have this dried in the sun. Either way however would face risks of damage if inadvertently left in the rain for too long. On occasions, slightly-damaged sun-dried green kernel would end up on the domola for remedial drying before selling.

In Romanticizing Village Life, published on 08.10.16, I reminisced about the subsistence affluence of my youth. That phase of the economy then transformed into semi-subsistence existence when increasing proportion of the produce found its way to the market. However, in Dravuni – Rural Village Economy, I reflected on the death of subsistence affluence and which has given way to what I have termed as the ‘Rural Village Economy’, which is the new form of economy for Dravuni today.

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