Landscaping Tetiaroa Atoll and coconut conservation

Tetiaroa is an atoll in the Windward group of the Society Islands of French Polynesia. The atoll is located 33 miles (53 km) north of Tahiti. The atoll stretches on a total surface of 2.3 square miles (6 square km); approximately 1,445 acres (585 hectares) of sand are divided in 13 motus (islets) with varying surface areas.

During the pre-European period, Tetiaroa was the summer residence of the chiefs of the village of Arue (now a municipality of Tahiti) and the royal Pomare family. In 1904, the royal family offered Tetiaroa Dr. Johnston Walter Williams (1874-1937), the only dentist of Tahiti and the British consul from 1916 to 1935. In 1965, in accordance with Polynesian property laws, the famous actor Marlon Brando leased the terrestrial part of the atoll for 99 years.

In 2002, two years before the actor’s death, Brando signed a new will and trust agreement that left no instructions for Tetiaroa. Following his death in 2004, the executors of the estate granted development rights to Pacific Beachcomber SC, a Tahitian company that owns hotels throughout French Polynesia and shared in Brando’s vision for an eco-luxury resort on the atoll. Beachcomber SC began construction on Tetiaroa in 2009.

In June 2009, the company Beachcomber SA and the Brando family gave their agreement to integrate the atoll of Tetiaroa in a project of conservation of Polynesian coconut varieties.

Here is our landscaping proposal to include rationale coconut conservation on the Tetiaroa Atoll (click on the picture to enlarge it). Practically, four small islands and a small peninsula will each be replanted with a single variety. Thanks to the geographic isolation of these places, coconuts palms will breed only between palms of the same variety, allowing conservation, production and dissemination of certified seednuts. Five varieties of coconut palms will be then preserved on Tetiaroa.

In this design, more coconut palms are cut than replanted. Indeed, we do not want to cover again the Tetiaroa Atoll with coconut palms. Large areas of the atolls (in red in the figure) will be freed of coconut palms to allow endemic vegetation to increase and birds to nest - although birds are also nesting in the coconut palms.

About 100 years ago, the coconut grove was planted on Tetiaroa by decision of Dr. Johnston Walter Williams, dentist of the royal family, in order to produce copra. At the time, the planting technique consisted, in most cases, cut off all the natural vegetation, to let it dry and then burn everything. Most of the coconut palms seedlings were imported from Tahiti. Maintenance of coconuts was done, at least to a certain period, by "vacuum cleaning", i.e.  by cutting and burning everything that was not coconut palm. These planting techniques were harmful to the biodiversity of endemic species (Dupon, 1987). There were also damaging for the coconut palms themselves, especially from the point of view of conservation of the coconut genetic diversity.

The current density of adult palms is very high, up to 450 palms per hectare, whereas the normal planting densities are about 100 to 200 coconut palms per hectare. The photograph attached compares the density of coconut Tetiaroa to that of a standard plantation of coconut hybrids. Only 20 to 40% of coconut palms  follow the original planting device. They are recognizable on the satellite photos to the fact that they are planted in a straight line, generally oriented north-south and east-west. These original coconut plantation are mainly localized on the motus Tiraunu, Hiraan and Horoatera.

Harvesting of coconut and copra production ceased in the 1970s. Many coconut fell on the ground have sprouted, others are eaten by rats, whose population has increased. Coconuts pierced by rats and partially filled with rainwater promote the proliferation of mosquitoes and flies. The total number of adults on Tetiaroa coconuts can be estimated at between 150,000 and 200,000 trees.

In April 2010, although no funding was dedicated to this activity by the local government, the first planting of the conservatoire began on Tetiaroa. Seednuts of the horned coconut variety were planted a a small motu of Tetiaroa. For more information on the horned coconut palm, please visit our Tetiaroa blog.


About the respect due to the coconut palm...

Hinano Murphy and members of the Atiti'a Association
During my travels in French Polynesia, I made several times a public lecture untitled: “Coconut, Sister of Mankind, the hunt for lost varieties”. It is indeed a challenge to come to this place, as a French man presently living in France, and to tell the Polynesians that you are a world coconut specialist.
At the beginning, they just do not believe you; and you need time and care to convince them. Anyway, I succeeded quite well in this challenge, as shown in the press releases available here.
Some of these lectures were conducted in large conference room, with more than 100 people listening, for instance at the University of French Polynesia. Some others lectures were released in small villages of remote islands, with no more than 20 people listening.
Patirita from Tatakoto Atoll
I must confess that, from both personal and anthropological points of view, the smaller lectures were the nicers. One of the most interesting talks was conducted in Moorea Island, at the Gump Research Centre of Berkeley University. We had an excellent contact with Hinano Murphy, the leader of the Te Pu Atiti'a cultural association. No more than 30 people attend the meeting; anyway, I had the great honour that the old Polynesian sages came and listen to me.
During the conference, I presented a short movie made in Africa at the Marc Delorme Research Centre. This movie shows the technique of assisted pollination for production of coconut hybrid seednuts. In this video, the inflorescence of a Malayan Yellow Dwarf (MYD) is artificially unwrap before its natural opening; then all the spikelets containing male flowers are cut; all the remaining male flowers are remove in order to keep only the female flowers on the inflorescence. When these female flowers become mature, a mix of talk and pollen of the West African Tall (WAT) is pulverized on the inflorescence in order to obtain seednuts of the Mawa Hybrid (MYDxWAT).

At the end of the lecture, we had some interesting exchanges with the Polynesian sages about cultural facts regarding the coconut palm. But nothing really important was said. Hopefully, one week later, I was lucky to meet again Hinano Murphy and to get an indirect feedback regarding the reactions and feelings of the old Polynesian sages.

In fact, when watching my movie, the sages were deeply shocked by the disrespectful and brutal way the coconut palm was treated.

The legitimacy of man's direct intervention, with instruments, on plant reproduction is not accepted in all the cultures : this is a fact of society. What seems to be decisive in the assessment of the planting material is not only its agricultural value or utilization value, but also the process by which it was created, its legitimacy and its consequences.

The issue of man's legitimate action on his environment was studied by André-Georges Haudricourt (1962). Haudricourt looked at two extreme types by comparing sheep and yam, to analyse the relations that man has with domesticated beings, be they plants or animals.

In sheep rearing, as it is practised in the Mediterranean region, the contact with the domesticated being is permanent, sometimes brutal: the shepherd accompanies and directs his herd with his stick and his sheepdogs, schedules watering holes and determines the routes taken. Without man, the herd could not survive, so that man's action needs to be direct for the effect to be positive.

Yam growing (Dioscorea alata L.) as practised by the Melanesians of New Caledonia illustrates the other extreme: positive indirect action. The Melanesians are never in brutal contact with the plant. Man intervenes around the plant by constructing ridges and spacing the tubers, which are then left to grow, because direct action would be prejudicial or negative for the plant.
Haudricourt goes on to quote the work by the Chinese thinker Mencius, born around 300 years BC:
"A man, troubled to see that his rice was not growing, pulled at the stems. On returning home, the fool told his household: ‘today I am very tired, I have helped the crop to grow’. His sons ran to see his work for themselves. The stems were already dry. (…) Those who use violent means …. do like this madman who pulled up his crop. Their efforts are not only futile, they are harmful".

Haudricourt puts forward a parallel between the treatment of plants and the treatment of others. He takes the example of traditional Chinese society, emphasising that good government depends here on the virtue of the statesmen and not on its actions "just as the virtue of the land makes for the rapid growth of plantations". Man is not placed in a position of cause, otherwise the effect is negative.

In the framework of the Polymotu project, we are proposing two new designs to produce coconut seeds: the first design is adapted to small islands. The second design is adapted the mainlands with landscaping pollen barriers. In both designs, hybrids seednuts can be obtained naturally, without human intervention on the inflorescences. So it fit more closely with Polynesian tradition and the "respect due the coconut palm"... .


Haudricourt, A. G. 1962. Domestication des animaux, culture des plantes et traitement d'autrui, L’homme, Tome II, 40-50.


First plantation in Tetiaroa Atoll, French Polynesia

In June 2009, the company Beachcomber SA and the family of the late actor Marlon Brando gave their agreement to integrate the atoll of Tetiaroa in a project of conservation of coconut varieties from Polynesia.
Practically, four to five small islands or peninsula, will each be replanted with a single variety.
Thanks to the geographic isolation of these places, coconuts palms will breed only between palms of the same variety, allowing conservation, production and dissemination of certified seednuts. Four or five varieties of coconut palm will be then preserved on Tetiaroa.
In April 2010, although no funding was dedicated to this activity by the local government, the first plantings of the conservatoire began on Tetiaroa. Seednuts of the horned coconut variety were planted a a small motu of Tetiaroa. For more information on the horned coconut palm, please visit our Tetiaroa blog here.
This work was indeed not easy, because the coconut trees were planted in half barrels of metal; the bottom of the rusted barrels was pierced by the roots of the coconut palm, making it difficult to impossible for manual unloading of coconuts. This allowed us to realize the extreme strength of the roots of the coconut palm, which play an important role in the fight against coastal erosion.
The resident biologist Nicolas Leclerc removing seedlings from barrells
So we had to bring out the heavy artillery: we banged the drums using a machine pallet forks. Coconut seedlings were then "stripped": the reduction of leaf area limits the evapotranspiration and facilitates recovery. Then they were transported by boat on a stormy sea, to the place of planting.
It was decided not to publicly disclose the exact location of this plantation, to limit the risk of theft of this extremely rare material. There are currently on this motu a few coconut trees that will be gradually destroyed when the newly planted horned coconuts will come into production.
In order to create a new population of coconut palms of the conservatoire, we generally recommend selecting twenty to fifty coconuts from the same parental variety. Then, two to four descendants of each parent are planted in a geographically isolated place. The relatively high number of parents limit the rate of inbreeding in subsequent generations. This avoids generating crosses between relatives, causing deleterious effects and a consequent reduction in vigor and fruit production.
Given the extreme rarity of horned coconut palms, it will not be possible to find twenty parents showing the required characteristics. For now, only a dozen of horned coconut palms have been reported in French Polynesia. We recommend getting seed from at least four different palms, so as to limit the deleterious crossovers between relatives in the next generations.

Contacts have been made to get horned seednuts from Raiatea and Tahaa. We recommended to continue harvesting seednuts from the horned coconut palm growing on Tetiaroa. The resident biologist Nicolas Leclerc (on pictures) told us that all the coconut produced by this palm does not have horn; fruits with coconuts horns are sometimes stolen by some workers who take them back as souvenirs. We emphasized that the hornless fruits of the horned coconut palms could also be germinated. Around the fruit, which bears the stuffing horns, is a tissue of maternal origin only. The absence or presence of horns shall not affect on the genetic nature of the embryo of the seed. A hornless coconut seed from the horned coconut palm could give a horned palm, just as likely a horned coconut seedlings (phew!). To avoid confusion and promote self-fertilization, it is better to remove all the inflorescences and fruits of the five or six palms that surround the horned one. Thus all seednuts collected at the foot of the horned coconut will sure originate from this tree.

The horned coconut from Tetiaroa given by Teihotu Brando

Because of cross pollination habit of the coconut palm, seednuts harvested on the horned coconut palms will not give all horned coconut palms. Thus, then the progeny will fruit in the motu, it will be necessary to perform a selection among the palms, and to eliminate some of the hornless. Anyway, the genes will be preserved, even if they do not speak to one hundred percent. In future generations, we will come gradually to form a population where all individuals will bear horns.

Plantation of horned coconut palms on Tetiaroa


Polymotu project is starting in Fiji islands....

During our last trip in Polynesia, Two public lectures about coconut palm conservation were conducted in Fiji. The first one was held at the University of South Pacific in Fiji, with about 50 people listening although the heavy rain after Cyclone Tomas. The second lecture was held at a Regional Workshop held from 15th to 19th March 2010 at Novotel, Nadi.

This last meeting was attended by 20 participants from 8 SPC member countries. We also invited stakeholders of the tourism industry to attend our lecture, and we were very happy that they came !

Thanks for coming to Mr. Viilame Ratugolea (Waya Lailai Resort), Mr. Jerry And Alumita Sovatabua (Botaira Beach Resort), and Ms Elenoa Nimacere, Hospitality Manager (South Sea Island). Resort owners were interested to be involved in conservation and ecotourism programs.

Visit to South sea Island, from left to rigth:
Dr Roland Bourdeix, Dr Tevita Kete, Manager Elenoa Nimacere and another worker.

The following day, Elenoa Nimacere invited the research team (Dr Tevita Kete and Dr Roland Bourdeix) to visit the island where her business is located. She was very interested to plant traditional coconut varieties for both ecotourism and conservation purposes. 

South Sea Island is located in the Mamanuca Group. Natively known as Vunavadra (a traditional Variety of Pandanus), the island is now rented by South Sea Cruises and is used to host day cruisers. South Sea Cruises hospitality manager Elenoa Nimacere said the coconut tree planting project would help prevent the sand from being blown to different parts of the island when there were strong winds. This information was released by the Fiji times on line, as follow: