NOEL KING, HOST:
Kerala is a state in the south of India. The name means land of coconuts. It exports its coconuts all over the world, but there's one problem. They have to be hand-picked, and very few locals want to do that kind of manual labor anymore. Here's NPR's Lauren Frayer.
MINI MATHEW: We are in our coconut museum. From all over, people are visiting...
LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: On a tour of Kerala's coconut museum, spokeswoman Mini Mathew rattles off all the uses of coconuts.
MATHEW: A cooking purpose, for cosmetic purpose, for medicine purpose…
FRAYER: People here even make houses out of coconut shells and fronds. India is one of the world's biggest exporters of coconuts, and most of them used to come from Kerala. That is, until the local economy started booming nearly a generation ago. Workers migrated to the Gulf. They send money home. People are more educated. They want office jobs now. They don't want to climb 80 feet up a palm tree to pick coconuts for a living.
VEENA: (Speaking Malayalam).
FRAYER: Veena, a housewife who, like many South Indians, goes by one name, recalls how, a few years ago, she couldn't get anyone to pick coconuts on her family farm.
VEENA: (Through interpreter) The few professional climbers left charge a fortune, and their schedules are always full. The coconuts rotted on my trees and fell.
FRAYER: It was dangerous for her son to play beneath the trees, so Veena took matters into her own hands. She signed up for a coconut-tree-climbing session.
In a coconut forest behind a municipal building, Ratha Krishnan helped start these sessions seven years ago. A labor shortage had sent the price of coconuts through the roof. Another state, Tamil Nadu, has overtaken Kerala in coconut production. Krishnan says they start with yoga.
RATHA KRISHNAN: And then slowly train them on how to climb the trees, for there may be fear.
FRAYER: In the old days, they used ropes, if anything. It was dangerous. Now the government provides life insurance and rudimentary climbing equipment. One of Veena's fellow graduates demonstrates.
So she takes these sort of metal halyards and wraps them around the tree.
These metal cables are connected to a small step which rests against the tree. As she drags the cables up the trunk, the metal platform rises, and she takes a step up. Up she goes, and down fall the coconuts, as she cuts them from the top.
You have to carry a knife up there.
Women make up a growing number of Kerala's new coconut climbers. Some, like Veena, had never worked outside the home before. Now she earns more than double India's average salary.
VEENA: (Through interpreter) It helps our family. I don’t have to depend on my husband. I can pay for my son’s education.
FRAYER: Some of the climbing equipment is also designed by women, engineers at Kerala's Agricultural University.
SHYLA JOSEPH: The main advantage of this equipment is safety is ensured. The operator can sit comfortably...
FRAYER: Professor Shyla Joseph demonstrates a bigger contraption with a bicycle seat and a seat belt, which she says practically anyone can master.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Stand on here.
FRAYER: Oh, stand on here.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Stand and hold.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Laughter).
FRAYER: OK. So I pull my legs up, stand up, pull this thing up. Bye-bye. (Laughter) Now how do I get down?
FRAYER: No, seriously. How do I get down?
FRAYER: Lauren Frayer, NPR News, finally back on the ground in Kerala, India.
(SOUNDBITE OF POMO'S "BLUE SODA, PT. 1")
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