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Drying coconut with fire

Homemade copra ovens help get the job done

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Photo by Eric Guth

Nicolas Haiti lives in the valley of Taipivai on the island of Nuku Hiva. We heard about him and his family because of their oven.

Copra, or dried coconut, is an important industry in French Polynesia, including the Marquesas Islands and here in Nuku Hiva. Coconut is dried and then shipped to Pape’ete, Tahiti to be pressed into oil. In the sun, coconut takes about three days to dry, but it rains quite a lot here, which makes drying anything more complicated.

 

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Photo by Eric Guth

When the oven is working, it’s easy to spot Nicolas’ house as tall plumes of smoke reach skyward. Ovens are rare, and they have become a social enterprise.

Nicolas and his wife Teura purchase coconut from up to 50 families in their region, which ups their profit but also makes it possible for those who don’t have adequate space or infrastructure to make some money. It also helps during rainy periods.

 

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Photo by Eric Guth

With an oven, coconut can be dried in one day. There’s a big contrast between fresh coconut (on the right) and copra, the dried stuff (on the left).

 

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Photo by Eric Guth

Nicolas’s son Naura lights the oven, which mostly burns coconut husks, a byproduct of the industry. Temperature and timing are key. It’s easy to start a bigger fire than intended, and several ovens have been lost to their own flames.

 

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Photo by Eric Guth

Nicolas and his son work side by side. When they are together, they only speak the Marquesan language, which means the labour that pays their bills also reinforces aspects of their culture.

 

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Photo by Eric Guth

There’s a lot of preparation to do on the days when the product will be shipped to the factory in Tahiti, 1,400 km away.

 

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Photo by Eric Guth

Work starts very early to pack and load thousands of pounds of copra onto the delivery truck that will bring their product to the dock and wait for the ship to arrive.

 

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Photo by Eric Guth

When the Taporo comes, the dock becomes very busy for a few hours as all of the bags, from all of the local producers, are tagged, recorded, loaded, and paid for.

 

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Photo by Eric Guth

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