1703967986 South Indian women also climb coconut trees

South Indian women also climb coconut trees

Mini Sugunan purses her lips every time she answers a question. It is a grimace of sweetness but also of pride. In Kumbalangi, a village among swamps and lush tropical forests 13 kilometers south of the city of Cochin (Kerala state, southern India), it is difficult to find a woman who climbs to the tops of coconut trees like her. Those who dare are called Maram Keri, a word with a double meaning that also means “woman who dares to break the rules.”

“My father has always been dedicated to this work,” Sugunan, 47, says in Malayalam through a neighbor who acts as a translator. “As a teenager, he taught me to climb to the tops of coconut trees to replace him when he couldn't.” She is married and has two children; Her brother works in another city and was initially unwelcome to his sister, who was climbing the coconut trees. “It has always been a man’s thing,” she continues, with the confidence of someone who has left convention behind to become the only woman mountaineer in her panchayat (the name of the self-governing council of each rural municipality in Kerala).

Women climb a coconut tree in Kuruvattoor village (Kozhikode, Kerala district, in a file photo).Women climb a coconut tree in Kuruvattoor village (Kozhikode, Kerala district, in a file photo).

Sugunan has had a broken leg for a few weeks, but he hugs the coconut tree that sprouts at the entrance to his modest home. “I climbed up to 30 trees a day,” he says. “I used to charge between 200 and 300 rupees (between 2.2 and 3.3 euros), always depending on the height. Generally, these are orders from individuals or people who have a plot of land but cannot collect the fruit.”

The economy of the state of Kerala (Kera means coconut tree in the Malabar region) has always revolved around the coconut industry. Of the more than 19 billion coconuts harvested across India in the 2021-2022 season, 5,522 million came from Kerala, followed by other southern states such as Karnataka (5,177 million) and Tamil Nadu (5,091 million). Climbers, an important link in the production chain, are a rarity and very few practice the traditional profession. Contrary to the general norm of harvest cycles of 45 to 60 days, fruits are currently only harvested every three to four months. For the industry, this means the loss of thousands of coconuts – and rupees.

The precarious situation led the Kerala Agriculture Department to develop “Friends of Coconuts” in 2011, a massive training program that began teaching more than 5,000 unemployed people between the ages of 18 and 40 to climb coconut trees.

“In recent years we have employed 68,000 people, 10% of whom are women,” Mini Mathew, head of advertising and public relations at the government agency Coconut Development Board, told Planeta Futuro. “This opens up the opportunity for many unemployed women to carry out this work, which is generally reserved for men. More and more people are being supported and contributing to the family economy.”

Through various recruitment initiatives, such as advertisements in local newspapers, a training program will help those interested learn more about the symbolic tree of Kerala, improve their leadership and communication skills with farmers, and empower other women. . “Although the program is called “Friends of Coconuts,” we sometimes call them “coconut doctors” because they learn to better understand the needs of the tree through training on pollination techniques, selecting ripe fruits, or care processes,” Mathew says with a smile .

Thanks to the program, women can contribute to the family's livelihood with an estimated salary of 15 to 25 rupees (17 to 28 cents) per tree, depending on the amount – an average salary in the agricultural sector in Kerala is around 840 rupees, approx. 3 Euro. In addition, through membership on the platform, employees have health insurance with coverage of up to 500,000 rupees (approx. 5,500 euros) in the event of an accident or illness.

One of the new workers is Suni Lee, 53, from Varkala village in Thiruvananthapuram district, the capital of Kerala. He shares dozens of photos via WhatsApp showing a young woman accepting prizes or climbing a coconut tree under the fascinated gaze of her neighbors. He can't hide his pride. “I lived in Bombay with my family until 2011 and when we returned to Kerala, we found a farm with several coconut trees from which we wanted to extract coconut water,” says Suni Lee via voicemail. “I had a hard time finding someone to climb the tree and then cut the coconut. That’s why I decided to learn on my own.”

Suni Lee went to Varkala Agriculture Office and joined the Coconut Development Board program. She was the first woman in her class. “It was a point of pride for me to not have to rely on a man for my needs. So I learned and was able to not only pick my own fruit to get coconut water, but I also set up a training center where I taught others how to do it, both men and women.”

The next step will be the opening of a customer service center to connect professional climbers registered in the program.

In Kumbalangi, climber Mini's village, the sky is overcast, the coconut trees hint at the planes landing at Cochin airport, and she hopes to climb the coconut trees again soon. Her father watches her from a distance as she drinks tea.

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