Orlando Albinho spent much of his 40 years collecting coconuts from the tops of leafy palm trees and selling them in the local market or to nearby factories that made soap and oil from the dried white flesh.
Three years ago, everything changed.
What used to be miles upon miles of coconut groves in and around Quelimane, the provincial capital of Zambezia in central Mozambique, are now forests of matchsticks, their slender trunks barren and stripped of their leaves.
“Now all [the coconut trees] have died…and [with them] all of the jobs,” Albinho says, gesturing towards what remains of his livelihood—a modest pile of some two dozen small coconuts stacked up by the sandy roadside. “Now it’s all bad.”
He sells each one for no more than eight meticais—the equivalent of 25 cents. The smallest and least developed coconuts go for even less—about 17 cents.
A native of Madjimanos, a small, coastal community in Zambezia, Albinho is among tens of thousands of people in Mozambique who relied on coconut trees—or coqueros as they are locally called—for their livelihood and food security. That is until an insect-borne infection known as Coconut Lethal Yellowing Disease spread across the country, reducing entire coconut groves to bleak graveyards of a once thriving industry.
Mozambique was once one of the largest coconut producers in the world. According to a report from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), in 2011, Mozambique produced approximately 62,000 tons of copra, dried coconut meat, which was used for export, oil production, and local consumption.
Today, reports estimate that as much as half of the country’s coconut trees have been destroyed, making it impossible to sustain the same level of production. Many of the coconuts that are harvested today are also dramatically smaller.
The disease, which has been found across the world from Jamaica to the Philippines and even southern Florida, is caused by a virus-like bacterium that is spread by insects. In Mozambique, the problem was exacerbated by rhinoceros beetles, which laid their larvae in fallen trees and attacked newly planted saplings.
“When the disease begins, the leaves become yellow and then the coconuts fall to the ground,” says Alberto Simão, 45, who like Albinho, relied on coconuts to provide for himself and his family. Then the top falls off and it just leaves the trunk. We lost a lot of coconut trees.”
Abandoned coconut plantations that used to export copra now dot the landscape around Quelimane, their windows and doors shuttered, their lawns littered with the skeletons of coconut trees. And Albinho and many of the more than one million people estimated to depend on coconut trees in Mozambique are struggling to adapt to a new reality of dramatically fewer coconuts to collect and sell.
While some investments have been made to curb the spread of Coconut Lethal Yellowing Disease, what farmers urgently need is support to grow a wider variety of crops so that they are no longer overly reliant on just one source of food and income. Concern Worldwide is providing seeds, tools, and training to farmers throughout Zambezia Province to cultivate tomatoes, sweet potatoes, and lettuce as well as staple crops like sorghum and rice.
But of all the plants and techniques introduced, Barbara Hladka, an agronomist working for Concern, believes that the plant with the biggest potential to replace the lost income from coconut sales is sesame. The organization has been providing seeds to farmers and supporting them with best practices on growing it.
“We are seeing buyers coming to some of the most remote communities in Zambezia to purchase sesame directly from growers for as much as 40 meticais ($1.30) per kilo,” says Hladka. “This is much higher than what farmers used to sell coconuts for—even before many of the coconut trees were wiped out, one kilo of copra only sold for about six meticais.”
Gastene Nhamadinho, 46, started producing sesame three years ago with Concern’s help—a shift that he says more than tripled his income from 2012 to 2013. And this year, he predicts his income will be higher still. “I lost some because there was too much rain [this year],” he says. “But I still expect to earn about 27,000 meticais with sesame this year.”
Other farmers in Zambezia are seeing their household incomes rise as a result of sesame, and plots of beans and other crops cover the ground in between the sticks of dead coconut trees. Meanwhile, lethal yellowing disease continues to infect coconut trees, dramatically changing the landscape of Mozambique and the lives of people who call it home.
“First we have to take all of the [dead] trees out of here,” says Simão. “Then we can start with other plants, like manioc and sweet potatoes…Then [the land] will give. But if we don’t take [the dead trees] away, it will not given anything.”