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Nine things I discovered at the Guyana Coconut Festival

Popping into the inaugural Guyana Coconut Festival – even just for a few hours – proved an enlightening experience. Here are just nine things I discovered along the way.

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1. Quinches

During a break from the festival talks, delegates were offered a bottle of coconut water and a taste of a quinch. These sweet snacks are made from two circles of cassava bread, filled with shredded coconut and sugar – died purple like the mixture in the more ubiquitous coconut rolls. More please.

2. Discarded husks are a health risk

The husk makes up about 70% of coconut waste, according to Dr Maria Urbana Correa Nunes from Brazilian agricultural research organisation Embrapa. But it breaks down right? Yes, but that takes a long time. Years in fact. In the meantime, the husks have a habit of encouraging infestations – bugs, flies, scorpions, you name it. Dr Urbana showed us a photo of a discarded husk full of mosquito larvae. Suddenly having piles of husks at the side of the road doesn’t seem like such a good idea – in Brazil, apparently, it’s forbidden.

3. Coconut waste is not rubbish

Rather than throwing away used husks, leaves and fibres once you’ve extracted the water or jelly, use them. There are all sorts of things you can make: stuffing for chairs, pointer brooms, bowls and hats (see pic above), carpets, insulation, fertiliser, fuel… One tonne of residue can generate at least 400kg of organic fertiliser according to Embrapa. This was a revelation for me, but in Guyana I think people are already on the case and could show the rest of the world a thing or two about what to do with your coconut materials – without even needing fancy machinery and processing treatments.

4. Mechanisation is coming 

At one booth, visitors were enticed to stop by two shiny, Brazilian-made machines (see above). One had a mounted blade used to cut coconuts – with a funnel for collecting the water inside the nut. Street vendors in Guyana seem to make do perfectly well with a cutlass, strong arm and sharp eye – but who knows, we could start seeing these pop up in the future. With the used shells, vendors could employ the second piece of machinery: a CocoShredder, used for processing coconut shells for use as fuel, fertiliser, packing and soundproofing and landfilling.

5. You can do a coconut tour in Guyana

Dagron Tours, I learned, offers one-day and extended trips to coconut plantations in Pomeroon, Berbice and Linden. According to the blurb ‘the tour is geared to provide the visitor with a first-hand look at the farming technique, processing and extraction of this vital agricultural resource.’ If that sounds a bit technical for your tastes, there’s also the Coco Loco Tour of Sloth Island Nature Resort and the Sunset Coco Cruise along the Demerara – both offering coconut-infused drinks and dishes to sample on your way.

6. India is the largest producer of coconuts in the world

…and they are not just exporting the stuff. A stall of India’s Coconut Development Board was packed with all sorts of slickly packaged coconut treats. Coconut water, coconut milk powder, sweet treats made from Neera (a type of sap extracted from coconut palms), even coconut vinegar.

7. Guyana is getting its own Coconut Development Board

With 1,454 coconut farmers in Guyana (according to the Ministry of Agriculture), there is a need for best practice to be shared and greater cooperation. And so steps are under way to create a Guyana Coconut Development Board in the next three months. Mr Willett (?) spoke of the need to get cross-party approval (presumably so it doesn’t get shut down if the opposition gets in at the next election) and how the body would be funded (initially a MOA stipend but the plan is to become self sufficient within a few years through, for example, the sale of seedlings, a coconut store similar to the one in Jamaica etc)

8. The Dominican Republic imports 80% of the coconuts Guyana exports

Good news. But what happens when the DR starts stepping up its production and no longer needs Guyana’s stocks? It only takes four years for trees to start bearing…

9. Coconut fuel is HOT

Ok, this wasn’t from the festival itself but came out of a subsequent conversation with a friend and taxi driver from “the country”. Coconut as fuel, he said, was great – it doesn’t blacken the pot and cooks fast, with a blue and red flame that would burn you like a blowtorch if it caught you.

It’s clear there’s plenty of local expertise already in Guyana – but also lots of people who want practical, clear advice on how to manage, sustain and develop their coconut crops (whether big or small). Hopefully the next Guyana Coconut Festival and the imminent Guyana Coconut Development Board will take note of that and make good use of the knowledge that exists here, particularly in country areas, and involve both small-scale coconut farmers – as well as international organisations and mass producers.

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Homelessness

A fresh approach

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(The Pavement, 1 October 2009) You might have walked past an Emmaus shop and wondered what lay behind the pale green sign with the emblem of a dove holding a flower. It may look and sound like a religious organisation, but Emmaus is a secular charity with a simple aim: to “give homeless people a bed… and a reason to get out of it”.

While most homeless charities focus on one need – be it providing jobs, housing or food – Emmaus offers all three. Its members (known as ‘companions’) live, work and eat together in small, self-sufficient communities. There are 19 groups in the UK, everywhere from Glasgow to Brighton, plus branches in 36 countries around the world.

The pioneering charity was founded 60 years ago in Paris by Father Henri-Antoine Groues, better known as Abb?© Pierre – a Catholic priest, MP and former member of the French Resistance. One night, he was introduced to a homeless man named Georges who had tried to commit suicide in the river Seine after being released from prison after 20 years, only to find his family could not cope with his return. Abbé Pierre asked Georges to help him, and together they set about building temporary homes, initially in é Pierre’s own garden, for people living on the streets of Paris. Later, Georges said: “Whatever else he might have given me – money, home, somewhere to work – I’d still have tried to kill myself again. What I was missing, and what he offered, was something to live for”.

As more companions joined, they decided to raise money by becoming “rag pickers”, collecting and selling things people no longer wanted. The same principle is used today, with Emmaus shops selling second-hand items donated by the local community. As well as providing a constant source of funds, this has gained new significance as the ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ mantra gathers pace.

In the last issue of The Pavement, we published a letter from the new general manager of Emmaus South Lambeth (ESL), James Hayes, in which he told readers about the spaces up for grabs at ESL. Despite some high-profile supporters (Terry Waite is the Emmaus UK president, and ESL alone has been visited by celebrity chef Antonio Carluccio, Joanna Lumley, Jerry Hall and MOBO award-winner YolanDa Brown), Emmaus is still relatively unknown. This means that although it has 25 en-suite rooms, ESL currently has (at time of going to press) just 18 companions – 15 men and three women, with an age range of 23 to 63. However, it’s unlikely the rooms will stay empty for long – and just as well, since ESL will need plenty of help when its new furniture and electrical superstore opens this month.

Construction of the Beadman Street store, part funded by the Emmaus UK Federation Office with a small donation from Lambeth Council, has cost £753,000. It is a sizeable chunk of money, but it is hoped that the new addition will bring fresh opportunities for the companions.

The electrical shop currently squeezes in a selection of giant TVs, small electrical appliances and – somewhat bizarrely – a motorised scooter. The new store will allow space for larger white goods, such as washing machines and dishwashers. One level of the two-storey development has been earmarked for use as a workshop, where companions will be able to do furniture restoration and PAT Testing on electricals.

Like many workplaces, a typical day at ESL begins with a staff meeting. Ideas are shared, grievances aired and jobs allocated, before everyone heads off to their respective posts. As a new arrival to ESL, James was impressed with the enthusiasm of the companions: “they’ve got strong points of view; they really care and have so much passion.”

As well as frontline work in the furniture superstore and bric-a-brac and electrical shops, the companions have plenty of behind-the-scenes work to do. Furniture donations have to be collected and purchases delivered, while all new stock must be sorted, cleaned and priced. Electrical items are also safety checked by one of the four companions trained in PAT testing.

Over in the kitchen, the chefs prepare three square meals each day for their fellow companions, using ingredients grown on ESL’s own allotment when they can. And at 5pm, after a hard day’s work, the group gather at the large wooden tables for dinner before spending the evening as they please, whether that’s at the local gym, watching TV in their room or relaxing in the comfortable communal room, with its separate TV, board game and computer areas.

The few house rules include no drugs or alcohol, no pets and no smoking in common areas. Although companions do not sign on while working with Emmaus, they continue to collect housing benefit, which goes towards funding the shops. As well as full board, companions receive a weekly allowance of £33 and a one-week holiday every three months, plus £100 and £50 for travel. An additional £5 per week is saved on behalf of each companion so that by the time they decide to move on, they have a tidy sum saved up.

There’s no time limit on how long companions can stay. “Some see it as a temporary measure to keep their CV up to date,” says James. “Others see Emmaus as their way of life and might stay five, 10 even 20 years”. The companions gain confidence, experience and skills on the job. In addition, they can attend workshops and courses in everything from food hygiene to computing and carpentry at Lambeth College. Many also bring skills from previous employment or life experience, which – combined with the help of ESL’s dedicated volunteers – makes for a rich talent pool.

Personal support is provided by a counsellor who comes once a week and a monthly support plan gives companions a chance to raise any issues, get advice and plan their next step. Additional support and guidance is provided by the two deputy community leaders, plus the four ESL companions have taken on extra responsibilities as ‚Äòcompanion assistants’.

And the inspiring principles of Abb?© Pierre remain at the heart of everything Emmaus does: acceptance, sharing, working for others in greater need and self-respect. Like Georges, companions today recognise that a reason to live is the best thing anyone can give you. ESL is holding a benefit gig at the Windmill in Brixton on 17th October, entry ¬£5.

http://www.thepavement.org.uk/story.php?story=817