A coconut plantation. Photo by: Frank / CC BY-NC-ND

CANBERRA — Australia’s aid program has taken a keen interest in advancing the protection of global coconut supplies, with the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade bringing together coconut conservation and use experts to revive COGENT — the International Coconut Genetic Resources Network.

COGENT is mandated to help protect global coconut diversity, with Biodiversity International currently hosting the network from its base in France. The past five years have seen funding for the network dwindle, at a time when crops are increasingly under threat from the impacts of climate change, despite global demand being at a high.

Annual global output of coconuts is estimated at around 67 million tons of copra, coir, water, and oil. Its gross value is estimated between $50 and $100 billion annually, according to COGENT coordinator Vincent Johnson. And coconut water is in growing demand for consumers, with PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, and Vita Coco among the leading vendors in this space.

Linked to this is the question of livelihood and food security. Coconut production, Johnson said, plays a role in the economic security of more than 10 million farmers, most of whom are smallholders. And more than 80 percent are within the Asia-Pacific region.

In Brisbane, Australia, on June 5, DFAT and ACIAR brought together key coconut conservation stakeholders from COGENT, the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research, Global Crop Diversity Trust, the Pacific Community, the Coconut Industry Corporation of Papua New Guinea and the University of Queensland. Together, they progressed the transition process for the European-based COGENT to a Pacific focus, with the Asian and Pacific Coconut Community slated to host the network secretariat.

Australian aid’s interest in coconut conservation

Discussions on COGENT transferring to being hosted by APCC began in Fiji last November, during an ACIAR and DFAT-supported meeting on the future of coconut genetic conservation.

Both DFAT’s and ACIAR’s interest in coconut protection and COGENT lie in the agencies’ strategic goals and objectives, closely linked to the foreign policy white paper released in December last year.

At its core, the white paper focuses on international engagement that bests supports Australia’s security and stability — domestically, politically, and socially. Improving the economic security of Australia’s neighbors in the Indo-Pacific region is key to these goals.

While Australia provides financial support to developing countries in the region, it sees the Pacific as a region commonly overlooked for funding in the global landscape. And it has been directing energy to encourage international development banks, donors, and other organizations to look at the Pacific region to invest funding, resources, and support.

Re-invigorating global activity on coconut preservation, with the leading network based in the Pacific, is a prime example of Australia’s aid policy at work.

“The transfer of secretariat to the Pacific region fits well into the objectives of the Australian aid program, focusing on leveraging opportunities where possible to enhance economic advancement opportunities in the Indo-Pacific region,” Johnson explained. “I do know that coconuts are an important party of crop production in the Asia-Pacific and I am confident that this support would align very well with what they want to achieve in the region over the coming decade.”

The benefits of a Pacific focus

With the majority of coconut production based in the Pacific region, an advantage of transferring the network secretariat to this region is a larger local community of stakeholders actively engaged in coconut preservation.

“With the network coordinated within the major producing region, and the APCC with so many members itself across the world who pay a subscription, it is likely we can develop a more sustainable funding mechanism in the Pacific,” Johnson said.

Coconut farmers in the Pacific in particular are in need of a support boost — in attention, funding, and knowledge. With the exception of well-run commercial plantations, most coconut plantations and smallholder palms are deemed by COGENT to be relatively unproductive, and need replanting. But many farmers do not know what variety they have planted, how to replace them, and how to get the best quality production from their crops.

Stakeholders from the region are also likely to be more engaged in the research required to breed varieties of coconut trees that are disease resistant and capable of withstanding changing environmental conditions — including rising sea levels and drought.

“What really needs to happen is we need to develop a breeding program to improve the source material for a new generation of coconuts and also to combat climate change as well as respond to the sea level rise,” Johnson explained.

He is hopeful the new interest from Australia and the Pacific will see investment supporting scientific research into breeding, including advancing coconut cloning research at the University of Queensland. He also believes that the leadership of Australia could see shared knowledge and increased Australian investment in research targeting the conservation needs of coconuts.

“I know that expertise available in Australia, including coconut agronomists, and with expertise like this we can help those smallholders across the Asia-Pacific improve their productivity by conventional means,” he said.

Negotiating the transfer to the Pacific

The transfer of ownership of COGENT to the Pacific would typically require two years notice, and a lot of complexity to deal with the range of agreements with international gene banks supported by the network.

But Johnson said the Brisbane discussions suggested this could be easier than anticipated.

“The meeting discussed how COGENT could be sustained within the APCC,” he said. “And the meeting delegates outlined a plan to support the transition over the next six to nine months.”

There will be other outcomes expected soon. A new coconut conservation strategy is expected to be launched in August, hopefully along with confirmation of COGENT’s new host.

The next steps for Johnson is to work with APCC to finalize budgets for the transfer, and the terms of reference. With retirement on the horizon, Johnson is keen to ensure coconut conservation is in the hands of experts, with a vested interest in ensuring protection for future generations.

“Of course, you can’t be sure … as there is nothing in black and white yet,” Johnson said. “But … they have expressed a great deal of interest for COGENT and for the producers within the region — and that is very exciting.”

About the author

  • Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Senior Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through news.com.au. Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.