Whenever talking about Ben Tre, the people often think about a land well known for special food and products made from coconut palm. The coconut-palm has become close to the Ben Tre citizens, not only for its economic value but also as cultural trait of the southern province.
It is believed that the people in the central region, particularly in Binh Dinh where it is also considered as home to coconut palms, brought the tree to Ben Tre as they arrived in the land for settlement. Another opinion asserts that coconut seedlings drifted by sea from the Philippines and Indonesia to the beaches of Ben Tre and gradually proliferated over the land.
Research on Ben Tre’s historical development over the past 300 years indicates that the coconut palm had been planted here since first days the people reclaimed the land and the plantation area particularly multiplied strongly during the emigration phase in the first half of 19th century when the civil warfare between the Tay Son army and Nguyen Anh ended. The people enjoyed a peaceful life and started building more villages. By the end of the 19th century, Ben Tre had over 4,000 hectares of coconut palm. At the same time, the catholic priest Gernot brought seedlings of dwarf coconut palm from Thailand along with several other fruit trees, so local citizens called it the Siamese coconut. In 1930, the plantation area of coconut palm increased to 6,000 hectares. Since 1945, farmers found that earnings from a hectare of coconut palm was much higher than from a hectare of rice cultivation. Therefore, they eliminated rice fields to plant coconut palms. As a result, the plantation area of coconut palm reached 20,834 hectare by 1961. Up to now, the coconut palms grow abundantly, covering stretches of land throughout three islets.
Over the past century, the life of farmers has improved thanks to the coconut tree and related commodities. Local growers scrape coconut meat, dry and sell coconut copra for dealers to supply to processing mills in Cho Lon. The mills will extract the oil to make soap. The Truong Van Ben soap brand with 72 percent of coconut oil is very famous and has gradually beat the French brand Marseille (72 percent) to hold the market. In addition, the coconut oil is used to make cooking oil, make hair glossy or replace kerosene for burning.
After the south was liberated, there were merely 16,000 hectares of coconuts left. Thenceforth, the coconut gardens have recovered. The province even offered a policy called “coconut encroaches on the forest and the forest encroaches the sea” in order to encourage the plantation of coconut on salted-affected lands. Many saline forests have become coconut farms like An Nhon, An Quy in Thanh Phu District, Chau Binh in Giong Trom District, Tan My in Ba Tri District and Binh Thang and Thanh Tri in Binh Dai District. The area of coconut has increased again to 45,000 hectares. However, after a short time, it was found that the coconut palm only adapts to the moderate-salted land. Due to not being competitive to other animal breeding, some coconut areas have been transferred into aquatic breeding farms.
In late the 1990s, the area of coconut plantation was reduced once again due to the coconut price dropping sharply, standing at only VND600-850/coconut. Many growers cut down coconut trees to plant longan, causing huge economic damage.
The province’s coconut area reduced to 37,758 hectares in 2000 and to 35,540 hectares in 2001, providing an annual output of 231.7 million and 222.2 million coconuts respectively. The main reason was alleged to the wide spread of palm leaf beetles on over 500 hectares, seriously impacting the quality and output. In spite of the situation, the province promoted a series of insecticides spraying campaigns and particularly applied the preventive method by using Tetrastichus brontispae parasite, which was implemented in 2003. The method has contributed to reduce remarkably the density of palm leaf beetles.
In 2005, the coconut area gradually increased to 37,595 hectares with an annual output of 258.8 million coconuts. In 2008, the province’s area of coconut reached 45,631 hectares with an output of 311.5 million coconuts after the province promoted a project to develop the plantation of more than 5,000 hectares. In addition, the coconut price increased again, sometimes to VND65,000 per tens coconuts. Farmers cancelled the cultivation area of fruit, sugarcane and rice which saw low productivity to plant coconut palms. The consumption demand of coconut is steadily rising. Annually, the province produces 150-200 million coconuts for milk, meeting the people’s increasing demand for healthy refreshments particularly in big cities. Many production establishments in the province have produced coconut-related products like desiccated coconut meat, coconut oil, coconut agar, coconut candies, coconut matting, coconut yarn, active coal and approximately 100 fine art and handicraft products made from palm, coconut, coconut shell and stem to export abroad. Particularly, coconut stem is used to build house and make chairs, desks.
Nowadays, thanks to the electrification process in the countryside, many phases of the coconut processing have been mechanized, like handicrafts, desiccated coconut meat, coconut candies, coconut oil extract; significantly contributing to raise the productivity, improve technologies and models. Lots of coconut-related products, including fine art and handicraft products have been displayed at both domestic and foreign markets and have received consumers’ favour.
The coconut growing techniques are also more advanced, from seed selection to the proper distance between two palms. The intensive cultivation of other trees like cocoa, lemon, mangosteen, strawberry as well as the sufficient fertilization have helped increase the economic effect of coconut palm.
Nowadays, Ben Tre growers pay special attention to seed selection and succeeded in the hybridization of varieties like green coconut, yellow coconut, green Siamese coconut, yellow Siamese coconut, Tam Quan coconut, soft coconut, pineapple coconut and hybridized coconut breeds like PB 121, PB 141, JVA 1, JVA 2 and other speciality varieties.
According to experts, Vietnam may become the second desiccated coconut meat exporter in the world by 2020. Particularly, coconut oil can be used as a biological fuel to replace fossil fuels. Because of the high selling prices and its character of possibly producing many products for export, contributing to create jobs and improve living standards for farmers, coconut areas are expected to be expanded further in the future.