The Coconut Palm in Sri Lanka: From Yesterday to Today

WTJS Kaviratne, in Daily News, ….

Anthropologists, explorers, invaders and travellers had made numerous references on the evolution of this versatile palm grown in more than 90 countries across the world. Some of these were mere theories based on assumptions yet to be proved scientifically. Extensive research is still continuing on the origin of the coconut palm on the foundations provided  through gene analysis by scientists.

Since time immemorial, the coconut plant has been found growing luxuriantly along the beaches of tropical countries. And certain scientists argue that coconut palm is not indigenous to any of those countries even if they grow there. Fossil remains of coconut up to 35 to 55 million years old have been excavated in Australia and India proving that coconut palm belongs to the Kingdom of Plants in the Prehistoric era.


Historical records show that the Ambassador of Seleucus Nicator, Megasthenes in 300 B.C. reported to the Indian King Chandragupta about the existence of coconut palms in SriLanka. In the 5th century the renowned traveler Fa Hien who spent a considerable period in Sri Lanka and conducted extensive explorations made references to the availability of coconut palms and coconut arrack in the island.

The Arabs who engaged in trade and commerce in the Indian Ocean and the European invaders, namely the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British, too paid keen interest to the coconut growing in Sri Lanka.


The Great Chronicle Mahawamsa refers to King Aggabodhi-I who cultivated coconut land between Dondra and Weligama on the Southern coast of Sri Lanka in 589 A.D. King Parakramabahu II cultivated coconut in Bentota and Kalutara proving that royal patronage was given to coconut cultivation in the country.


Today, the manual weaving of coir twine is the major livelihood industry of women on the Southern coast. Even though modern machinery has replaced manual weaving these women have not given up their traditional practices and to this day one can find entire families involved in the business of weaving coir twine. They earn their daily wages by selling products at the village shops or to the fibre mills.

Desiccated coconut, coconut oil, coconut water, copra, coconut milk powder, coconut vinegar, coconut honey and coconut arrack are some of the direct products from coconut. In addition the coconut fibre is used to make; mattress fibre, bristle fibre, twisted fibre, mixed fibre, bio-fibre, fibre pith, coconut husk, husk chips, coir yarn, coir twine and coir ropes. These are used for horticultural purposes, soil conservation – erosion prevention and water retention.

Geo Textiles, molded coir products, rubberized coir products, compressed fibre pith, carpets, rugs, mats, grow bags, coir dust, ornamental items, door mats and wall hangings are some of the other products from coconut. In addition coconut shells (charcoal) are exported to manufacture activated carbon.

Over 70 countries import coir based products from Sri Lanka and 90 percent of coir based items are manufactured in Asia for consumers in the US, EU, Canada, Australia, Japan, Middle East, Korea, UK, Netherlands and Germany.


According to Dr. P. G. Punchihewa, former Secretary to the Ministry of Coconut Industries and the Executive Director of Asia and Pacific Coconut Community, the first desiccated coconut factory was built at Dematagoda in 1890 during the British colonial period and the first coconut fibre mill was established in 1853 and a consignment of 2380 tons of coir had been exported from it. Dr. Punchihewa further stated that Sri Lanka was the first country to export desiccated coconut but since 2013 onwards the other coconut producing countries in Asia such as the Philippines and Indonesia; competitors to Sri Lanka managed to occupy the first and second positions in the world as coconut exporters. Sri Lanka lags behind in third place and the reasons for this are many.

The majority of coconut factory owners in the country have now paid attention to the manufacture of coir based products. According to them there is a competitive demand for products used in horticulture, agriculture and soil conservation.

The Information Officer attached to the Commercial Department of Coconut Development Authority, Nisanthi Fernando when contacted by Daily News said as of September 2017, the total foreign exchange earnings out of coconut based products amounted to Rs. 63 million.

Long before the emergence of large factories, brown coir industry was mostly found in the South of SriLanka and these smallscale coconut factories produced copra. The byproduct of the copra industry was coir pith and brown fibre.


The coir pith in the past was dumped in coconut lands and water ways as waste material which then became a major environmental hazard. Huge mountains of coir pith dumped on river banks however prevented flood water during torrential rains. Fortunately, as a result of heavy demand for coir pith in the international market, the compressed coir pith now in various shapes is exported. Thus, a waste material in the past has become a money spinner in the present.

Coco Peat or Coir Pith is made out of coconut fibre and coir pith (coir dust) which could be obtained from the removal of the husk from a coconut. The coir pith thus obtained is considered as an environment friendly material. Both Grow Bags and Coco Peat are used in horticulture, as hydroponic system of planting and agriculture due its water absorbing qualities.


Chameel Samaranayake one of the leading coir factory owners in the Coconut Triangle exporting coir pith products said, regional competition from other countries has become a major challenge encountered by Sri Lankan manufacturers.

Another impediment identified is non availability of modern high-tech machinery in the country for the manufacture of high quality coir based products. Almost all other countries engaged in producing coir based products including India make use of ultramodern machinery, he pointed out.

  1. W. Zoysa, a small scale coir factory owner from the village of Randombe in the Balapitiya electorate said he started his factory in 1980. He possessed a husk removal machine, Torbo coir cleaner and twine machine. All machinery is electronically operated and a concessionary electricity bill is paid.

He sells coir products to large scale coir manufacturers and experiences difficulties in obtaining raw material. The buyers from Kurunegala are in the habit of collecting coconut husks for more than double the price.

Despite these issues, the solutions from the government are few and far between. The coconut industry which has much potential to expand is stuck at various junctures from the lack of technology to raw materials.

The coconuts however come into the limelight only when prices go up or when politicians in Sri Lanka whenever they are in the opposition continue to follow the unhealthy trend of breaking coconuts before Hindu Shrines as a way of vengeance and seeking the support of the God to come back into power.



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