In 2009, in the framework of a research project leaded by CRIOBE and funded by IFRECOR (French initiative for coral reefs), we had the opportunity to interview Mr. Vairaaroa Howaerd, Mayor of the Fakarava district of the Tuamotu archipelago, French Polynesia.
He told us that, on the atoll of Aratika whose mayor is a native, there is a Motu called “Tapu”. This Motu was exclusively planted with a Kaipoa variety (the fibrous envelope of the coconut is sweet and edible). A rahui (set of traditional rules with a sacred dimension) was regulating the exploitation rights of the motu. Thus, everyone was entitled to collect coconuts on the motu "Tapu", but not to make copra. For each harvested coconuts, residents were required to clean the vegetation growing at the base of the coconut palms, cutting with a machete or an axe, without using the technique of weed burning.
Notwithstanding its sacred dimension, this rahui is akin to management rules for a conservatoire of traditional coconut varieties. Polynesians have empirically used numerous small isolated islands to conserve and breed their coconut varieties. The geographical remoteness of the islets has ensured the reproductive isolation of the coconut palms necessary for variety fixation. Once planted in a limited number on a remote island, coconut palms only crossed with each other and it became possible to create new varieties. Then, by taking seednuts from those isolated islands, the ancient Polynesians were able to reproduce, in an empirical but stable manner, the coconut varieties they had created.
Indeed, people who took seeds on Motu Tapu were assured that those seeds replicate the variety they wanted. Unfortunately, in the 1980s, a series of hurricanes has greatly damaged the coconut palms. Motu Tapu was partly replanted with hybrid coconut trees. People who go to the motu Tapu to collect seeds will not get pure Kaipoa variety anymore. The traditional genebank is now threatened with extinction and not as effective as in the past. Following this interview, our recommendation was to avoid planting coconut hybrids in Polynesian islets. Islets should be devoted to the conservation of traditional varieties and to the conservation of biodiversity in a broader sense. Polymotu will consolidate the knowledge about traditional Polynesian genebanks.