Belize Boosting Coconut Industry; Buying Seeds From Brazil
Updated: Aug 26
Harvested coconuts in Belize
Belize plans to buy 36,000 disease-tolerant and high-yielding coconut seeds from Brazil, which is in keeping with the nation’s agricultural policy of expanding agricultural exports as well as becoming self-sufficient in feeding its own people.
The government plans to expand production by implementing a diversification project in the north, reported Love FM News (August 16). The project will assist small sugarcane farmers in branching out from their traditional crop.
The number of seeds has doubled from 18,000 when the Minister of Agriculture, Food Security and Enterprise, Jose Abelardo Mai, said that he was finalizing details of the purchase, reported Breaking Belize News (August 11).
In addition, the Belize ministry planned to sign a memorandum of understanding on technical cooperation with Embrapa (Empresa Brasileira de Pesquisa Agropecuaria), a public research company linked to Brazil’s Ministry of Agriculture, according to Breaking Belize News (August 12).
Minister Mai, who is an agronomist, led a delegation from his ministry and eight Belizean entrepreneurs to Brazil’s three-day National Coconut Fair, or Feira Nacional de Coco (Fenacoco), in the northeast city of Fortaleza, which ended on August 12, reported Portal da Luz.
Mai, who also grows fruit trees and raises beef cattle, told Love FM News:
“The value of the industry is growing. It’s growing, and it can grow more. We have demands right now from the U.S. and from Mexico for the supply of coconut water and coconut. So I believe that it presents an excellent opportunity for farmers who want to diversify, who are having a hard time in the sugar industry and want to diversify. I think it’s an excellent opportunity.”
Sir Isaiah Morter (1860-1924) became one of Belize’s first black millionaires by planting and commercializing coconuts.
The Coconut King
Coconuts have long been important in the lives of Belizeans.
Sir Isaiah Emmanuel Morter (1860-April 7, 1924) became one of Belize’s first millionaires by planting and commercializing coconuts, according to Belize.com (July 3, 2021). Born in Freetown in the district of Belize, he was of Igbo descent, coming from a line of slaves brought to the Americas from Nigeria. Among other properties, the Coconut King owned Caye Chapel, south of Caye Caulker, which has since passed through many hands and was sold for US$30 million in 2013, reported Amandala (August 30, 2013). Morter was a strong supporter of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association, which promoted racial pride, economic self-sufficiency and the formation of an independent black nation in Africa. He willed his entire estate to Marcus Garvey.
Traditionally, Belizean families have grown coconuts in their backyards for their own use as water and meat, and as a key ingredient in many delicacies, both savory (johnny cakes (biscuits or rolls), ducunu (corn dumpling), and rice and beans), and sweet (tableta, cuttobrute and stretch-mi-guts).
Almost a century ago, people sold coconut sweets on the streets of Belize City for pennies. My mother was one of them. As a young girl, she pulled the coconut water and brown sugar taffy into hardened stretch-mi-guts; grated coconut and ginger for tableta, and cooked diced coconut with lime, brown sugar and butter for cuttobrute. With her profit, she would buy a plate of food for herself and her younger brother in order to quiet the rumbling of their stomachs. It was a matter of survival.
For a long long time, Belizeans have been making value-added products but selling them for little. Today, the Ministry of Agriculture is encouraging production and maximization of profit. For example, food processing equipment, including those for coconut, are exempt from import duties, Mai said in an interview with the Government of Belize Press Office (May 17).
According to Belize Coconut Industry: Trade and Investment Prospectus (2019), Belize Trade and Investment Development Service (BELTRAIDE): “When it comes to mass production (of coconuts), most is further processed into oil or desiccated coconut, which is then exported. At the same time, there are growing numbers of farmers who focus on extracting the coconut water and then making it available to locals. Farmers also focus on the subsistence production of coconut oil.”
The coconut industry provides work for an estimated 600 people, according to Belize.com, and a domestic market demand valued at about $6 million for coconut oil; $5 million for coconut water; $4 million for coconut milk powder, and $1 million for other products.
The coconut palm, known as the Tree of Life because all parts of it -- from top to bottom -- can be used to sustain life, is not indigenous to Belize or the Americas. According to Independent Origins of Cultivated Coconuts (Cocos nuciferas L.) in the Old World Tropics (June 22, 2011):
“A native of the Old World tropics, the species was spread to eastern Polynesia and subsequently introduced to the Pacific coasts of Latin America, most likely by pre-Columbian Austronesian seafarers from the Philippines in the Indian Ocean, the composition of coconut populations was likely influenced by Austronesian expansions westward to Madagascar. Later, coconuts were introduced by Europeans from India to the Atlantic coasts of Africa and South America and to the Caribbean.”
Lethal yellowing disease kills palm trees three to six months after the first appearance of symptoms, eventually leaving nothing but the tall trunk of the tree.
Lethal Yellowing Disease
Lethal yellowing disease appears as a blight that kills palm trees three to six months after the first appearance of symptoms (beginning with a premature drop of coconuts; then, blackened tips, male flowers are dead and black; lower leaves turn yellow, and the yellowing progresses upward from the older to the younger leaves; the older leaves die, turn brown; soon, all the leaves die, the top of the palm falls away and leaves nothing but the tall trunk of the tree, which looks like a telephone pole.), according to Plant Diseases Caused by Prokaryotes: Bacteria and Mollicutes in Plant Pathology (2005). The disease is present in Florida, Texas, Mexico, most Caribbean islands, West Africa and elsewhere.
Lethal yellowing in Belize and the rest of the Caribbean was first detected at the end of the 20th century, according to Review of Coconut “Lethal Yellowing” Type Diseases: Diversity, Variability and Diagnosis, OCL (March-April 2009).
“It was then, not until the very beginning of the 1980s, that LY (lethal yellowing) took a real leap to the tip of the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. In this case, the hypothesis most often put forward is human introduction of infectious vectors (insects) from Florida. In fact, that period corresponds to the hotel development of the future seaside resort of Cancun. Uncontrolled imports of planting material from Florida (palms and grasses for golf course greens – grasses that are propitious to vector development) may have enabled the introduction of infectious vectors.
“From the Yucatan tip, the disease gradually decimated the coconut plantings as far as Vera Cruz. Southwards, it spread to Belize. It was not until the beginning of the 1990s that LY was identified on the island of Roatan located off La Ceiba in Honduras, Central America.”
A coconut seed is planted half-buried in moist soil. If a sprout does not emerge in a month or two, the seed is sterile.
Coconut Types in Belize
Due to lethal yellowing and natural disasters such as hurricanes, there was a drastic decline in production, according to Belize Coconut Industry: Trade and Investment Prospectus (2019), Belize Trade and Investment Development Service (BELTRAIDE):
“Currently, the main cultivation locations are in the districts of Stann Creek, Cayo and Orange Walk.”
“Throughout the Caribbean and the world, there are many varieties of coconuts. However, there is only one type of coconut palm that produces coconuts. This main type is known as Cocos Nucifera.
“Under this main species, there are two main types, which are the Tall and Dwarf coconuts. Other varieties of coconuts are then the hybrid of these. Most coconuts are Talls, but there are also Dwarfs that are only several feet tall when they begin reproducing. The Dwarfs account for only five percent (5%) of coconuts. Dwarfs tend to be used for ‘eating fresh’, and the tall forms for coconut oil and for fiber. Almost all the dwarfs are self-fertilizing. Therefore, there are fewer varieties. These trees bear more fruits than tall trees; however, their average size is smaller. The Tall coconut trees’ flowers undergo cross-pollination. This, then, contributes to the wide varieties since their genetic material interacts with one another.
The four coconut varieties found in Belize are:
Malayan Dwarf – A variety of the Dwarf, it bears fruits as early as three years after planting. It grows up to 30 to 40 feet tall, and it has a thin trunk without a bottle-based base. Its nuts are smaller and its water sweeter than others. While it is relatively resistant to the lethal yellowing disease, it is prone to other pests and to unfavorable conditions.
Maypan – A hybrid of the Malayan Dwarf and the Panama Tall, its uniqueness contributes to its high resistance to the lethal yellowing disease. This tree bears fruits four years after planting. It bears 100 to 120 nuts per year. It may produce up to 12 bunches a year and a layer of meat that averages 200 grams. The tree is reasonably resistant to such weather conditions as floods.
Chactemal – A hybrid of the Jamaica Tall and Malayan Dwarf, the fruits are smaller than that of the Tall. However, it is not known whether they are resistant to the lethal yellowing disease. Since the tree undergoes cross-pollination, each tree is genetically unique.
Panama Tall – A well-known tree in Belize, it grows up to 85 feet. It bears fruits six to eight years after planting. It can produce up to 300 fruits per year. The fruit is meaty and the water not as sweet. It grows in almost any soil type, but its tolerance to the lethal yellowing disease is very low.
The Minister of Agriculture, Jose Abelardo Mai (3rd from left), led a delegation from his ministry and eight Belizean entrepreneurs to Brazil’s National Coconut Fair (Fenacoco) in Fortaleza.
What Brazil Has
Minister Mai told Love FM: “In the past, Belize has had a hybridization program for coconuts. It is crossing the Malayan Dwarf coconuts to the Panama Tall (Maypan). You get a hybrid that is tolerant to the disease we got here in Belize. However, it is a hybrid. Therefore, the F2 (next generation) of the seeds that you get from the coconut tree is not the best planting material. People do plant it, but there’s a high possibility that you will not get the yields as you are getting from the F1 (filial, or first children, crossing of two pure lines), if you are planting the cross-hybrid.
“But in Brazil now, there’s what you call a variety, which is the Brazilian Green Dwarf. If you plant this out, and you get the seeds from it, you can plant that seed, and you’ll have good genetic quality. That is the advantage between the hybrid and the variety. So, we have identified that variety.”
Mai, who worked 19 years at various posts in the agriculture ministry, including Agriculture Extension Officer, told Love FM: “In the past, there have been people who have imported the same seeds from Brazil, and they were selling seeds at $25 for one unit. So imagine if you were to plant 100 plants per acre. . . Small farmers cannot afford that. So we are now planning to import seeds from Brazil, so that the price of those who have good coconut varieties, for example, the Brazilian Dwarf, so that the price can go down. And if it doesn’t go down, so that the Government can bring in seeds and make it affordable to the farmer.”
Minister Mai told Breaking Belize News (August 11):
“In Belize, we have 18,000 acres of coconut at this time, but that is not enough,” said Mai. “We have five companies that are purchasing coconuts from producers. The setback in Belize has been the lack of good seeds.
“We need a hybrid that is resistant or tolerant to lethal yellowing disease and is high-yielding, but we have not had enough of those seeds in Belize.”
“So, we have made contact in Brazil with the producers of seeds. We have sat down and looked at the numbers, looked at their growing conditions, all the diseases and the pests that they have,” Minister Mai, who received a Bachelor’s Degree in plant and soil science from Tuskegee University’s College of Agriculture with honors after graduating from the Belize College of Agriculture with an Associate Degree in Applied Science, majoring in Agriculture.
The minister said that they are working out the logistics for transporting the seeds to Belize. He told Love FM News:
“I believe that if we are to order seeds, we are supposed to have (the order) by November, so it will be here by December. If it’s here by December, you have 45 to 60 days for it to sprout and, then, you have it five months more in the greenhouse in the nursery, and then transplant it in the month of June next year.”
While in Brazil for the National Coconut Fair, two representatives of Embrapa, the agricultural research company, accompanied Minister Mai and his delegation. The concept for an agreement on technical cooperation came about at this time, reported Breaking Belize News (August 12).
Minister Mai said: “Wе’rе lооkіng аt thе еquірmеnt fоr thеѕе рrоduсtѕ. Wе’rе gоіng tо ѕее thе еquірmеnt, аnd wе’rе gоіng tо ѕее thе рlаnt thаt thеу uѕе tо рrосеѕѕ сосоnutѕ, сосоnut оіl, сосоnut mіlk, сосоnut wаtеr, аnd сосоnut соnсеntrаtе.
“Embrapa has tons and tons of research done in coconut and cashew, processing equipment, and so many other areas of agriculture.”
Dr. Fernando Arsco and Dr Adriano Mattos of Embrapa guided the Belize delegation at the Dikoko processing plant, also in the state of Ceara, but 90 minutes away from the coconut exposition in Fortaleza.
“They (Dikoko) do coconut water and coconut milk. One of the big ones here in Brazil. Brazilians don’t usually welcome visitors to their plants because of the technology that they have, but they made an exception to host us.”
The Brazil coconut industry ranks fourth in the world, accounting for a 4.5% share of coconut production, as Asian countries far outrank the South American country, according to Brazil Coconut Industry Market Overview (2020), Goldstein Market Intelligence. Analysts forecast that it is set to grow at a CAGR (Compound Annual Growth Rate) of 7.04% over the period of 2017-2030.
Belize's Developing Coconut Industry
Currently, Belize’s coconut industry is yet in its development stage, whereby production levels are on the rise, reported BELTRAIDE in Belize Coconut Industry (2019).
There are an estimated 5,600 acres of coconuts in Belize, according to BELTRAIDE in Belize Coconut Industry (2019) as compared with the present estimate of 18,000 acres by Minister Mai, who did not make a distinction between acres in production and those not in cultivation. BELTRAIDE also estimates 300 coconut producers in Belize. The biggest farms are as follows:
TexBel Farms has 1,400 acres of coconuts. A total of 60 acres are in production, and the rest gradually will be in production. The main variety is Chactemal, which is a hybrid imported from Mexico. Located in Stann Creek District, TexBel was founded in 2012 by Lindsey Short and Alan Arsht.
Sids’s Farm has about 75 acres of coconuts in production. Located in Orange Walk District, the American investor plans to export coconuts to the United States.
Sergio Marroquin’s Farm has 450 acres of coconuts, 100 of which are in production with Maypan, Chectemal, Yellow Malayan Dwarf, Brazilian Green Dwarf and Colima Tall. Located in Orange Walk District, Sergio Marroquin is constructing a processing facility and seeking markets.
Outback Farm has 250 acres of Yellow Malayan Dwarf. Located in Cayo District, the farm sells coconuts and coconut water.
Fruit Processors Ltd. produces Glorious Belize extra-virgin coconut oil through a cold-press process as well as coconut water. Located in Stann Creek District, it was established in 1997. Its export markets are Jamaica and Barbados.
Belize Citrus and Cattle Farm has 800 acres of which 400 are in production and the other 400 are newly planted with Chactemal, Oaxaca and Colima (all from Mexico). Located in Stann Creek District, the farm exports coconut oil to Jamaica and Canada.
Caribbean Coconut Project
Belize is one of many Caribbean nations working toward increasing productivity and profit in the coconut industry.
Since 2015, the International Trade Centre (ITC) and the Caribbean Agricultural Research and Development Institute (CARDI) have been working with 12 partners across the Caribbean to revive the coconut by building and strengthening alliances and partnerships along the value chain, according to Coconut Industry Development for the Caribbean.
Since then, 25 nurseries have been established and/or supported serving 5,000 farmers; 30 agro-processors have had linkages with smallholders; 60 private and public institutions have provided technical cooperation and in-kind contributions; numerous regional and international partners such as Centro de Investigacion Cientifica de Yucatan (CICY), CIRAD, the French agricultural research organization for the tropical and Mediterranean regions, Embrapa, India, Sri Lanka and the Philippines have transferred knowledge to project participants. In addition, there has been a revision of the regional standard for coconut water.
The Caribbean project, funded by the European Union, is scheduled to end in 2023.
Belize Export Market
On the Belize export market, Belize Coconut Industry: Trade and Investment Prospectus (2019), Belize Trade and Investment Development Service (BELTRAIDE) reported:
“Agriculture has long been the backbone of Belize’s trade with agricultural products such as bananas, sugarcane and citrus. Collaboration among various ministries and trade entities is pushing for further diversification for the export market by enhancing development of industries such as: honey, cattle, poultry, turmeric, cacao, coconut, furniture of exotic woods, soybeans and others.
“With the appropriate amount of arable land to supply the large markets in the neighboring countries and the CARICOM (Caribbean Community) marketplace, it is only practical for Belize to expand its production lines of goods to accommodate while becoming less vulnerable on a handful of goods and few traditional markets in the process.
“In 2017, the United Kingdom (UK) and the United States (US) have absorbed approximately 54% of Belize’s goods. Traditionally, these two markets are and, continue to be, the most significant import trade partners for Belize. Emerging importing markets include the following countries: Ireland, the Netherlands, Germany, Spain, CARICOM member states and Central America.”
In the month of June, Belize's exports were valued at BZ$59.7 million with the U.K. and the U.S. accounting for BZ$47.4 million, according to the Statistical Institute of Belize. (One Belize dollar is equal to half an American dollar.) Markets comprised the United Kingdom (BZ$33.3 million); CARICOM (BZ$8.2 million); European Union (BZ$6.7 million); Central America (BZ$5.3 million); United States (BZ$3.7 million); Mexico (BZ$1.0 million); Rest of the World (BZ$1.5 million).
In the interview with the Government of Belize Press Office (May 17), Minister Mai:
“We have enough land. We have enough farmers. We have enough willpower to produce for ourselves . . . and for export.”
The author's mother sold coconut sweets.