Copra is the dried flesh of coconuts. Each mature coconut palm tree bears from 50 to 75 nuts that can be picked, split open with machetes and left in the sun to dry. The copra is then dug out of the shells and further dried on racks. It then is packed in burlap sacks for transport to a processing plant.
At the plant, the dried coconut flesh is pressed through rollers to extract the coconut oil it contains. The dried remainder is called coconut cake or oil cake. Oil cake is high in fiber and protein, and is considered a high-quality livestock feed. Coconut oil also is extracted by using hexane, a crude oil by-product.
The oil is refined and used for cooking and in margarines. It also is used for detergents, shampoos and soaps. Coconut oil contains lauric acid, which protects oils from turning rancid. Baked goods made with coconut oil have extended shelf lives compared to goods made with other fats.
The copra industry began in the 1860s when European businesses were looking for edible oils to address a shortage of dairy fats in Europe. They found their oil source in the coconut palm trees of the Pacific Islands. Pacific Islanders had been caring for the trees and harvesting the nuts as a cottage industry.
Jungle areas were cleared under the direction of the European copra trading companies so more coconut trees could be planted. Coconut trees are quick-growing and mature within five or six years of seeding. They are very tolerant of salt water and arid conditions.
Each family was responsible for its own trees. Family members would crack the nuts in half with a machete or by bringing the nut down on a sharp point. Then they would set the halves out to dry in the sun for several days. The dried flesh was manually scraped from the shells.
Copra traders would sail from one island to another, picking up the burlap bags the islanders would have ready for them. Their visits were on a schedule to encourage the islanders to work to get the most product possible ready for each sailing. The natives would bring their crop to the island’s trade station, where the transaction would take place.
Coconut harvesting and production continues to be a mainstay of life for families in the Pacific Islands. The islanders still use traditional methods to split and dry out coconut halves. They also continue to manually extract the dried flesh.
Copra harvesting is not without its drawbacks. For example, copra itch is a complaint sometimes found in those who process this product. It is characterized by redness and itching that starts on the hands and arms, and later spreads to the trunk of the afflicted person. A mite has been identified as being responsible for this skin condition, which clears up with treatment or by eliminating contact with mite-infected copra.