Friday, 30 August 2013

IN THE FIELD - Going loco for cocowood

Forestry Research Program Manager Tony Bartlett recently visited Fiji to check progress on an ACIAR project on coconut wood (cocowood). The research is aiming to improve the livelihoods of people in the South Pacific through making use of senile coconut trees.
felled senile coconut tree
Senile coconut trees can make valuable wood products

Senility can be a good thing. ACIAR research is helping communities in Fiji, Samoa and Solomon Islands make the most of millions of senile coconut trees, which have outlived their usefulness for coconut production. These older trees (60+ years old) can instead be successfully used for the production of veneers and composite wood products. Regional and international markets for these products are expanding, providing a great opportunity for smallholder farmers in the South Pacific.

There are about 120,000 hectares of senile coconut plantations in the Pacific islands, which could provide a sound alternative resource to native forests and imported timbers. Making good use of these senile plants not only generates new income opportunities for smallholder farmers, it also frees up land to plant improved coconut varieties, or other food or cash crops. This project aims to develop the technologies, processes and in-country expertise to produce high-quality veneers and soil-improving materials (e.g. mulches) from senile coconut palm stems.

Peeling a coconut tree using a spindleless lathe
Veneers are made by peeling the coconut trees, using sophisticated lathe technology. These veneers can be potentially used for benchtops, flooring (it looks fantastic!) and other products, but the current preferred option is as formwork for concrete pouring, since the cocoveneer gives such a smooth finish. ACIAR has provided funds for a spindleless lathe to be installed in Fiji, and the first year of work has focused on optimising veneer production.

The lathing process is technically quite complex, because of the unique physical properties of coconut palms, which are actually not trees but grasses. The lathe trials have been highly successful, and a second stage will now further finesse the process. Project staff from all three Pacific Island countries will participate in these peeling trials to build up their expertise.
Tony says the results of the lathe research represent a significant scientific impact in themselves. In a more practical sense, they will help make the peeling of the coconut trees efficient, producing a high-quality product for market.

Tony attended the project’s first annual meeting in Suva, Fiji, and says the research is progressing very well, with all the partners clearly enthusiastic and engaged. The 4-year project started in May 2012 and is being led by the University of Tasmania.

By Dr Wendy Henderson, ACIAR's Science Communicator

More information:
Check out the Cocowood website 
ACIAR project FST/2009/062 Development of advanced veneer and other products from coconut wood to enhance livelihoods in South Pacific communities 
Partners magazine article: Pacific’s tree of life to rise again

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