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project manager Tony Bartlett is looking to
meet by developing a project through AusAID's
Pacific Agribusiness Research for Development
Initiative (PARDI) to help establish a system to
deliver coconut logs to processors.
Although there is not yet a broad business
model in place, Mr Bartlett is upbeat about the
prospects. "I'm quite optimistic because there
are a lot of senile coconut plantations in the
Pacific and the science that has come out of
this project really does demonstrate that there's
a valuable product that can be produced from
these palms," he says.
"And that could generate enough income
for the landowners to get the senile palms
cleared and then to decide whether to replant
them with improved coconut trees or some
other high value use such as taro production or
The ACIAR-funded project was the first
important stage in the development of a new
industry, says Dr Bailleres. Its science went back
to basics, beginning with the palm itself.
Previously, he says, the coconut palm had
been processed as if it was classical timber,
but it is different and has to be treated as such.
First, he says, the palm is not technically a tree
(instead belonging to the grass family) and
second, its 'wood' density varies so dramatically
that one single stem covers the entire density
range found across the whole timber industry
from balsa to ironbark.
"This variation causes problems with
Cocowood from these palms not only
offers a distinctive building product but, in a
reinforcement of the coconut palm's status in
the Pacific as the 'tree of life', it could provide
a new income stream for farmers from
unproductive older palms that would cover the
cost of removing the senile palms and free up
land for more productive uses.
In a secondary outcome, the project has
revealed the soft, nutrient-rich core of the palm's
trunk makes an ideal mulch that could be used
across the Pacific to improve poor soils and further
increase agricultural prospects for islanders.
Leading these efforts to assist Pacific
island communities is Dr Henri Bailleres from
Queensland's Department of Employment,
Economic Development and Innovation (DEEDI).
Dr Bailleres says he is constantly amazed by the
fact that every part of the tree can be used. "Each
time I work with it I find new uses," he says.
With senile palms providing little to
farmers but a hygiene risk and a waste of
land resources, the completed 4-year project
analysed cocowood's material properties,
developed suitable processes for producing
high-value products and provided hands-on
training in those processes.
Cocowood has proven to be such a success that
the fledgling industry's biggest challenge now is
to create a secure supply chain to meet demand
for the product, which is already being used in
upmarket homes and hotels in the Pacific.
It is a challenge that ACIAR forestry research
machinery and drying, so that's why we
decided to go right back to basics and look at
the cocowood properties and what that means
in terms of processing," Dr Bailleres says.
The close examination of its properties
revealed the cocowood's dramatic grain angle
variation was the product of an interlocked
and layered grain structure, formed in a spiral
resembling a triple helix. It is a design feature
evolved over millennia that makes the palm
resistant to cyclonic winds, but prone to
twisting in the kiln.
By identifying the cocowood's triple-helix
structure, light has been shed on how to most
efficiently saw boards from the trunk and
master problems of twisting during drying.
The drying process that has been developed
now not only meets moisture content
specifications for export markets, but combats
the tendency of the wood to warp by using
weights to minimise distortion.
"First of all you have to cut the boards in the
right direction and when you dry them you
have to weight the stack to make the board
stay straight," Dr Bailleres says. "This is very
important because flooring people can't accept
Training sessions on these processes, part-
sponsored by the Crawford Fund, have been
held in Brisbane and Fiji with local processors,
who also learned on the job as the researchers
were trialling the systems. A practical user
manual on cocowood processing techniques
was also produced as part of the project and is
Measuring growth strain in cocowood, Fiji.
Engineered, pre-finished cocowood
flooring ready for installation.
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