Two Thousand Isles: Striking Oil

Freshly produced coconut oil poured into a jar. PHOTO/AISHATH NAJ

Freshly produced coconut oil strained into a jar. PHOTO/AISHATH NAJ

By Daniel Bosley

Before there was tourism, the Maldivian economy subsisted for centuries on little more than coconuts, fish, fish, coconuts and fish…and coconuts. Dried fish sustained trade with regional markets, and was supplemented by palm products such as the archipelago’s famous coir rope.

The products of the famous tree are what has made life in the islands possible, providing food, drink, shelter, light, transport, and even entertainment. The worth of an island itself was once measured by its number of coconut palms, the fruits of which were in abundance before the country’s population expanded rapidly in the last century.

By the 1970s, it became apparent that the worth of islands was better denominated in dollars (lots of them) and tourists started to flock to the country, drawn by little more than the palm tree’s symbolic swaying silhouette (with coconuts preferably removed, for sunbathers’ safety).

The subsequent rush of foreign currency has allowed for the diversification of the Maldivian diet, meaning that the back gardens of inhabited islands are today often littered with sad old kaashi, piling up unwanted on the scrapheap. In the ten years before 2016, customs records show that not a single coconut product was exported from the country.

A man husks a coconut. PHOTO/AISHATH NAJ

A man husks a coconut. PHOTO/AISHATH NAJ

It was in this year, however, that the global craze for coconut oil appears to have been noted by some local entrepreneurs, with around 50 litres of the stuff exported for just under US$2000. For while the Maldives continues to focus predominantly on tourism, the global price of coconuts has doubled in just five years as consumers crave its cosmetic and nutritional magic (now that scientists have decided saturated fats are…sort of…okay??).

A woman cracks open a coconut. PHOTO/AISHATH NAJ

A woman cracks open a coconut. PHOTO/AISHATH NAJ

This price spike has been exacerbated by a global drop in yields as an army of ageing trees – mainly in India, the Philippines and Indonesia – have been rushed out of semi-retirement and pressed back into active duty. So, can the Maldives’ tree of life perform another of its miracles and breathe new diversity into the country’s one-track economy?

Coconut milk boiled to extract coconut oil. PHOTO/AISHATH NAJ

Coconut milk boiled to extract coconut oil. PHOTO/AISHATH NAJ

Past experience would suggest not. The logistical difficulties of collecting kaashi from over 1000 islands has thwarted previous attempts to industrialise rope-making, while efforts to reform agricultural practices to increase yields are said to have found little local enthusiasm.

Extraction of coconut oil. PHOTO/AISHATH NAJ

Extraction of coconut oil. PHOTO/AISHATH NAJ

However, the resorts themselves provide a resident population in search of pampering, and guesthouses are making further inroads into local communities each year. So, while dreams of bolstering the national economy by searching for the black stuff persist, perhaps kaashi theyo could be making a real difference to household economies.


Editor’s Note: “Two Thousand Isles” is a collaboration between Maldivian photographer Aishath Naj and her husband, British writer Daniel Bosley in partnership with Mihaaru to document the untold stories of the Maldive islands. Exclusive articles will be published biweekly on Mihaaru every Wednesday and Saturday.

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