|Nourishment: Do Thanh Thuong waters coconut saplings in his garden. — VNS Photo Ngoc Tai
by Ngoc Tai and Thuy Hang
During the last days of June, Do Thanh Thuong was elated as he watched the growing coconut trees in his garden.
What he is about to do with them is a job that only a man like him, with a passion, mission and unlimited enthusiasm for the job could accomplish.
Thuong has been asked to plant coconut trees in the Truong Sa (Spratly) archipelago and other islands in the country under the programme launched by the Viet Nam Coconut Association, of "100,000 coconut trees for the islands in Viet Nam".
Leaving the Hung Phong ferry, we asked the way to Thuong's house in Hung Phong Commune, Giong Trom District, in the southern province of Ben Tre.
"His house is right there," an elderly woman said, pointing it out to us.
Cementing life with coconuts
As a title befitting the man, local residents have lovingly bestowed on Thuong the title of "Coconut King". Sixteen years ago, he had been awarded the prize of "The best coconut planter in Viet Nam" by the Asian-Pacific Coconuts. Just recently, the organisation gave the 78-year-old farmer the "Tree of Life" award.
"Looking up from the ferry, it is easy to spot my coconut garden. Every tree is healthy with yellowish leaves, and not very green," he says.
According to him the yellowish colour shows that the trees have enough potassium and protein. If the protein is superfluous, the coconuts will fall rapidly.
"Depending on different soil types and different tree ages, I have different manure. I research and then mix the fertiliser myself for the coconut trees," says the Coconut King.
At present Thuong's garden has more than 20 valuable coconut varieties, some of which underwent trials before being planted in the entire province, such as the green Siamese coconut and the cross-bred coconut.
Thuong remembers the moment his life became inextricably bound up with coconuts.
In mid-May 1965, he graduated from the physics faculty of the Ha Noi University (now Ha Noi National University), and was assigned to work in his native province of Ben Tre. Returning home, he witnessed the bombs slamming into his family's coconut garden. But the coconut trees with their injuries stood firm.
Some months later, the coconut trees shed their skin over and grew green. Since then, he devoted his time to studying the coconut trees and praying that he could preserve the coconut garden.
In the past 50 years, he has been thinking of different ways to enhance the value of coconut trees.
Thuong said that in 1993 coconut prices dropped sharply. Numerous coconut growers became destitute and were forced to cut down the coconut trees and plant other crops for their survival.
While he had not yet devised a way to save his coconut garden, Thuong picked up a very strange coconut in his garden which he called the coconut of "good omen".
"This coconut had the shape of a bird picking up a coconut and flying away. I thought that the bird would take the coconuts from my homeland to places around the world, and the price of coconuts would rise," he reminisced.
They may sound superstitious to some, but he is sure the prices of coconut will increase because many people cut down their coconut trees. As a result, there will not be enough coconuts to sell, leading to a rise in the price. It is simply the law of supply and demand," he explained.
From the coconut of "good omen", he nursed seed coconuts and unexpectedly after that the coconut trees bore rich fruit with very sweet juice. As word spread, many traders flocked to his garden to buy coconuts, and farmers also came to learn about his coconut planting experiences. His coconut garden was saved, and at the same time fellow farmers' confidence in coconut trees was also gradually restored.
Not just that, a delegation from the Oil Plant Institute (OPI) soon engaged him in planting coconuts. They came to his house to give him the cross-bred coconut PD 121 which had high yield and quality and asked him to breed and conserve it. Since then, his garden has become even more famous and its productivity has seen more and more growth.
Late in 1999, after summarising the data, the Asia-Pacific Coconut Association recognised his coconut plantation productivity as the highest in the country.
Just believe in practice
Softly stroking his grey hair with his calloused hands, Thuong sipped some tea and said, "To get the highest yield in the country is not easy. Many people rely on theory but I rely on reality. Observing, doing many tests and then summing up the experiences."
As he finished his tea, he led us through his garden. He told us not to step on the yellow ants he was raising in the garden. Surprisingly, we were shown the mass of shredded fish he had just bought for the ants.
"The ants do not have enough bait during the dry season so I have to buy food for them. But I do not have to buy food in the rainy season. Thanks to the yellow ants, my coconuts are not damaged by insects. Yellow ants are useful for a coconut garden," he explained.
In the past he used to catch the ants to raise them. Sometimes he was bitten by them, and it was so painful that he would go down to the river and let the water run over his hands.
His way of fertilising is also very strange. Each coconut tree has a different formula of fertiliser depending on its breed, age and the fertility.
He said the Hung Phong island has higher salinity than other regions, so he limited the use of fertiliser which would increase soil salinity.
"Although coconut tree needs salt, if we give too much salt, the coconut will be stunted," he said.
That is theory, but to know how much salt was needed, he had to carry out numerous tests.
"I went from one end of the island to the other to see which coconut tree did not receive any fertilisers but was still green and fresh, and the fruit was good. That meant the soil there had sufficient salt," he said.
He took the soil home and compared it with the soil in his garden and then concluded how much salt and potassium was enough.
At first, a lot of people, including agronomists, opposed Thuong's method. But he carefully analysed his methods and asked them what method they were using.
The agronomists showed him a document which had a method successfully implemented abroad and they proposed that it be applied in Viet Nam, but he refused.
"The soil in each place is different from the other. Then the agronomists got angry with me, but I only believed in facts, and refused to apply some vague theory," he said firmly.
Not long after that, the experts complimented Thuong as each coconut tree in his garden had 240 coconuts per year, much more than the gardens where they had applied their techniques. More interestingly, the cross-bred coconut trees he had planted bore fruit after just two years, startling not only the farmers but scientists as well.
Dr Diep Thi My Hanh, chairperson of the board of directors of the Research Centre for Natural Resources Conservation and lecturer of the University of Natural Sciences - HCM City National University, co-operated with Thuong on numerous projects.
"Thuong is a good, practiced farmer and makes very informative notes about coconut planting, which very few farmers can do. That is why I chose his coconut garden to conduct tests and start new projects and achieve the desired results," Hanh said,.
Currently, though he is grown old, he still very active about finding ways to support her project of improving the efficiency of the coconut garden.
Not happy just enriching himself, he willingly shares his experiences with other people. What makes him really happy is not the merit certificates, but the time he spends sharing his experiences, which then ensures higher yield and profits for coconut growers in his homeland.
"Yesterday a group of farmers came here to hear my experience," he said smiling.
Sipping some more tea, Thuong said, " I often wondered whether the Truong Sa (Spratly) Islands and Hoang Sa (Paracel) Islands of Viet Nam could grow coconut trees. I wished that all islands in our country could be full of coconut trees, but I did not know how to get it done."
Almost as if his prayers had been answered, the Viet Nam Coconut Association recently, ordered him to cultivate coconut trees, and invited him to visit the islands and guide local residents on how to grow coconut trees.
"I agreed immediately. It was an excellent idea, as I could share my know-how with the people there," he said.
Nguyen Thi Kim Thanh, chairwoman of the Viet Nam Coconut Association, said even if nothing changes, Thuong would be one of the first people to plant coconut trees on the islands. These trees would give cover even in storms and protect our beloved islands.
Thanh said the programme of "100,000 coconut trees for the islands of Viet Nam" had so far received 360 seedlings, 2.5 tonnes of fertiliser, VND2 million (US$95) and some coconut confectionery which were presented by residents. At first, 500 coconut trees will be planted in the Truong Sa (Spratly) Islands. — VNS