After being forced to drop out of school last year because his family needed more income, Gio Vakaloloma turned to the only job available — selling coconuts on the streets of Suva.
Early every morning, the slightly built 13-year-old climbed up the palm trees that grow abundantly in the Fijian capital and begins throwing down green coconuts to his friends below.
Vakaloloma is among the one-third of Fiji’s 840,000 population who live below the poverty line, in conditions far removed from the postcard idyll of beaches and cocktails normally associated with the Pacific island nation.
“It’s good to get money to give my family so they can buy more food,” said Vakaloloma, who joined a loose-knit group of about a dozen youths who sell coconuts to passing motorists at a roadside stall in the suburb of Raiwaqa.
He did not regret swapping the classroom for an often dangerous existence climbing coconut trees, saying he was proud to help his family survive.
Shinning up palms to retrieve coconuts, which contain watery milk that provides a refreshing drink when the top of the shell is lopped off, is a traditional test of endurance and strength for village youths in Fiji.
Guinness World Records says the fastest ever tree climb was performed by a Fijian, Fuatai Solo, when he a scaled a 9m coconut palm in 4.88 seconds during a competition in Suva in 1980.
However, the Pacific staple, found growing wild all over the islands, has also become an important source of income in urban areas for groups like Vakaloloma’s, as Fiji’s economy struggles after years of military dictatorship.
“We can earn 60 to 100 Fijian dollars [US$34 to US$56] a day, much more than what you get working in a shop,” said Ben Tiko, who at 22 is the informal leader of the group.
“Business is pretty good. People used to prefer fizzy drinks, but more people want coconuts now because they’re healthy. The men all come for them in the morning when they’ve had grog the night before,” he said.
He said police kept the groups of coconut sellers separated, dotted a intervals about 1km apart along the roadside to prevent them encroaching on each other’s territory.
The working day begins at 6am, when they scale the palms and fill hessian sacks with as many coconuts as they can carry, removing the outer husk with machetes before they are sold.
He said the operators of Fiji’s luxury resorts also hired his group and others once or twice a year to remove coconuts from their properties so they did not fall on the heads of unsuspecting tourists.
Tiko said the job was not without its risks, but was an only option in an economy the IMF said earlier this year had little prospect of growth in the immediate future.
“I’ve fallen down and hurt myself,” he said. “People break an arm or break a leg. The main thing is not to fall on your head.”
The most famous casualty of Fiji’s coconut trees is Rolling Stone Keith Richard, who fell from a palm while holidaying in the islands in 2006 and had to be rushed to New Zealand for surgery to relieve pressure on his brain.
Usaia Koroi, acknowledged by his peers as the Raiwaqa group’s best climber, laughs at the thought of any novice trying to get up the palms, let alone a geriatric rock and roll star renowned for his chemical intake.
The trick, he said, was to place one foot on either side of the palm’s ridged trunk and use your legs to propel yourself upward, rather than pulling yourself up by the arms.