We have gone to visit coconut plantations in Sanculo and Cabaceira where the macuti roofing tiles are made. Bounamate Surviro lives with his seven wives on the plantation in Mussengere, Sanculo and sells the macuti in Ilha. To arrive at the plantation, we drive to the end of a winding road and park the car by one of the salt mines. We hitch up our trousers up and wade through a small delta where the water level reaches up to our thighs. We are following groups of ladies on their morning walk to the sea to collect mussels, crabs and other sea creatures and to visit the well at the coconut plantation.
Chali Asafe is one of four workers living on the plantation, all part of the extended family taking care of the plantation. He is busy making macuti tiles when we arrive. The tile makers produce ca 1000 tiles in a season, which is the time between the harvests of coconuts, normally 3-6 months. The tiles are sold in bundles of 5 which cost 20 meticais in Ilha – ca 75 US dollar cents. When the leaves turn red, they have matured enough to be used as waterproof roofing. They may be cut or fall naturally and are then left to dry in the sun for two weeks before immersion in water to be tied to a stick which is made out of the central spine of the leaf. A plant fibre from another type of palm, dried and immersed in water, is used to tie the tiles. From one coconut palm leaf you can make two roofing tiles if they are well made, Buonamate tells us.
Buonamate doesn’t know how many palm trees he has or how big the plantation is, but suggests it takes two hours to walk from one end to the other. Chali suggested three hours. The palms nearest to the workshop area are hybrids planted in the last 15-20 years. Many of the very tall natural variety, bred on site, are 80-90 years old and dying. In the three cyclones since 1994, 200-300 palm trees fell. The hybrids mature a couple of years faster than the natural variety, give fruit earlier and are today the preferred species. In the south and also some parts of Nampula, the yellowing disease killing palm trees have affected the old variety rather than the new hybrids. The quality with respect to the macuti is the same as the natural species, and in fact the young trees have a better oiliness and thus give the best macuti roof.
The seeds are bought in Nampula and come from coastal areas further South. “The palms are dying faster now because of the intense heat”, Bounamate states. There is not enough water to keep all the young trees from drying up or not enough people to continously bring water to the plants. Running a nursery within the plantation might help to groom the seeds from the trees which are best adapted and facilitate replanting on a bigger scale. But this is difficult, since it requires more water, more personnel and control, which again needs more money. When selling the macuti and the coconuts, the family receives a meagre profit, which when divided among all the people living on the plantation doesn’t leave money for investments in improvements except buying some 30-40 seedlings to plant, of which less than half mature and give fruit. In colonial times you could get work teams of convicts to do the extra work for a small sum of money and cheap contract labour. Running large teams of workers was not as complicated as it is now.
There is not enough macuti to cover the houses in Ilha, and there is less of the coconut palm tiles around now than in colonial times, the general consensus in Ilha says. The palmeiras are dying because they are old and not maintained. The suppliers prefer to sell to a growing number of tourism developments, and the prices have gone up since the opening of the important resort of Carusca using construction based on improved local traditions. The current generation doesn’t know how to take care of the plantations, and family members don’t join forces to help run decaying plantations. One of my informants in Ilha is an old widow with a big house in ruins and a big decaying plantation which nobody in her family will help her with. There is a consensus among people that if rented out, the tenant farmer will only overexploit the plants and not plan for the long term, so only if the owner takes care of the plantation himself, you will find a properly run plantation.
The dunes along the bay of Mussoril opposite Ilha and the bay of Lunga further south, used to be full of coconut palms. There were coconut oil factories in Cabaceira, and all the coco used in cooking and the macuti used for covering the roofs of the houses in Ilha, used to come from Cabaceira. Now the coconuts come from Inhambane and Quelimane. The general trend among house builders is to change the roofs to corrugated iron sheets, but those who would like to keep the macuti roofs due to its superior climatic characteristics or because of tradition, complain about the increased price of the material and its lack of supply. Some of the areas with the largest coconut plantations in the region are in prime tourism development areas, and it remains to be seen whether investment in lodges and hotels may be combined with reinvigorating the plantations and carrying out the meticulous maintenance and nursing work.
Bounamate Surviro’s land does not reach the beach and is thus not yet a tourism investment area. Before sending one of his workers to fetch coconut juice, jumping up the tree trunk with nothing to secure him, Bounamate tells us how he has one wife for each day of the week. Putua the driver and my research assistant Fefé have been very curious about this. All the seven wives have one day a week, the same day every week, when they expect him to eat and sleep in their house, the seven houses distributed along the edge of the plantation. If during that day, there is a lot of work at the plantation, the wife of the day will bring his lunch to Bounamate at his workshop. Struggling to improve the productivity of the plantation, there is a very well organized family life at the plantation at the end of the road past the river.