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.