Garifuna women bagging cohune nuts into hundreds of Krucus sacks near the Stann Creek Valley railroad, 1910
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December 19, 2022

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Garifuna women bagging cohune nuts into hundreds of Krucus sacks near the Stann Creek Valley railroad, 1910

Garifuna women with sacks of cohune nuts loaded for export. This is hard work, the hauling - must have been backbreaking. Those nuts are hard to crack, best to roast them a little first.

This picture taken in the early 1900s shows Garifuna women stacking bags of cohune nuts alongside the Stann Creek Valley railroad to be transported to Dangriga for export.

The citrus industry was not yet as prominent in the Stann Creek Valley in the early 1900s compared to bananas, and cohune nuts were in high demand in Europe.

Around the early 1920s? to late 1930s there was a thriving cohune industry that was exporting cohunes to Europe. The main operation was based in the Toledo District somewhere around mile 5 to 7 from PG and run by a German-American company called TOPCO (Tropical Oil Products Company).

Around that time TOPCO was the largest employer in Toledo, even importing laborers from neighboring Guatemala and Honduras to harvest cohune nuts from the vast expanse of Toledo’s cohune filled forest and process the charcoal and oil for export.

The operation was so large that the company opened a school for the children of their hundreds of workers who resided around their base. My grandfather Andres P. Enriquez served as school principal at TOPCO for a short period in Sept 1930 to Dec. 1931.

Around that time, cohune was in high demand in Europe as the charcoal from the nuts was used in the manufacture of gas masks for use by soldiers during World War 2.

Such harvest as shown here by the women from Stann Creek would likely be loaded to ships at Commerce Bight going to or coming from PG before returning to Europe. Many PG folks found employment harvesting cohune at TOPCO.

Here is additional information about the cohune industry and TOPCO back then.
  • The Cohune palm was very widespread in British Honduras covering up to two million acres, particularly in the south.
  • The tree produces large bunches with up to a thousand nuts per tree although one tree was known to produce two thousand nuts.
  • The kernels were known to contain a fat that was very similar to that of coconuts. The oil content in the kernel was as high as 65 to 72 percent. The shell also yielded a high quality of charcoal.
  • TOPCO (Tropical Oil Products Co.) a heavily capitalized company from California decided to exploit this natural resource of the Colony.
  • Their operations started in February 1929, on a 46,000-acre tract of land in the Toledo District. Of this area, 22,000 acres were Cohune Ridge, i.e. an almost pure stand of Cohune. During the first year's operation, 16,000 acres were cleared of other trees and undergrowth in order to create a space of about 26 feet between trees. Some selection was also attempted for high bearing trees.
  • For the overseas staff, very comfortable camps were built with fine houses, complete with electricity and modern sanitation. For the locals, well… you know the usual.
  • At TOPCO an elaborate light railway system was also constructed for hauling the produce to river-side wharves on the Rio Grande. From there tugboats and barges were used for transporting the products to ships waiting off the Reef.
  • The preliminary cost of operations was $700,000 and 1,000 men were employed. Not long afterward an economic depression set in. The Great Depression along with some inefficiencies of production led to the failure of the company. Cracking the nuts seemed to have caused a lot of trouble at the time of TOPCO and has been given as the main reason for the failure of the project. Better machinery could have been used.
  • Large sums of money were borrowed from the Government and, when the Company went bankrupt in 1937, the property reverted to Government.
  • Some of the original buildings in the main camp at Machaca Creek remained standing in the early 1950s and were used as living quarters by personnel of the Forestry Department.

Source: Darcel, F.C. 1954. A History of Agriculture in British Honduras.

Gabriel Pate: My father worked at TOPCO in the late 30s. The company provided employment for so many Toledo citizens during the Great Depression. Life in Belize during that period was really "hand to mouth."

Bel Itza: TOPCO is Tropical Oil Products Co. of California. The failure of the company's project in Toledo was supposedly a result of the the lack of capital available during the Depression. What is less known is that in 1971 the Tropical Products Institute of Great Britain sent a representative to Belize to study the feasibility of a cohune oil industry, given the world shortage at the time and that Belize was a net importer of cooking oil. The Institute's feasibility study found a "cohune-based oil industry feasible" for the purpose of benefitting Belizeans. But for export it was recommended that no more work should be done and the GOB should not lease or otherwise convey land to companies or issue licenses for the exploitation of the cohune. In the 1980s we did have a widely-publicized cohune plantation near Belmopan. Not sure if it was ever explored in Toledo again.

Cornelius Patrick “Pat” Cacho: The three more significant of the Corporate concerns that established agricultural enterprises in the period up to the begin-ning of World War II are (a) the United Fruit Company which produced bananas in the Stann Creek Valley and bought and marketed bananas produced by other growers in the Stann Creek and Toledo districts; (b) the Tropical Oil Products Company which started a Cohune operation in the Toledo District and (c) the Empire Starch Products Ltd. which produced cassava and established a plant to produce starch for export. All three enterprises were afterwards abandoned, the banana mainly because of Panama Disease, the Cohune because of the depression in 1930 and of technical difficulties of cracking the nut, and the cassava because of unexpected low yields and the unreliability of local producers who were to supply the factory, resulting in insufficient throughput and consequent under-utilisation of the plant.

Maxi Caal: Cohune nuts make good firewood! If they ever need cohune nuts, we have them abundantly in Toledo. This is hard work, the hauling — must have been backbreaking.

Marty Casado: Very tough to crack. Heat them and then they crack a little easier.

Photograph courtesy Jeremy A. Enriquez

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