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ECS professor studies novel uses for coconut fiber
ECS professor studies novel uses for coconut fiberApril 06, 2004Kelly Homan Rodoskikahoman@syr.edu
As a civil engineer, Shobha Bhatia is involved with the design and construction of materials that form the very backbones of the communities in which they are used. Her current research highlights that intersection of engineering and social policy, as she and Syracuse University graduate student Jennifer Smith explore the use of coir fiber-extracted from coconuts soaked in salty water and beaten flat-for erosion control. The two are looking at the ways that the generations-old coir industry in India has been affected by technology and the choices made by the developed world.
Bhatia, professor of engineering in the L.C. Smith College of Engineering and Computer Science; and Smith, a Ph.D. candidate in civil engineering, traveled to India in January 2003 to take an up-close look at the country’s coir manufacturing industry and the effect it has on its workers, 90 percent of whom are women. Their trip was supported by a Women’s International Science Collaboration (WISC) Program grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Foreign Language Area Studies (FLAS) Fellowship Program in South Asia from the Department of Education.
India is one of the largest producers of coir in the world and accounts for more than one-fifth of the world’s coconut production. There are many uses for and products made from coir fiber-such as roofing material and ropes-and India is at the forefront of developing new products using coir and other natural fibers.
Bhatia and Smith began their four-week trip in the state of Kerala, which is considered the heart of the coir industry. In the city of Cochin, Bhatia gave a lecture on the status of erosion control materials for university professors from all over India. Bhatia and Smith also met with the director of one of the oldest coir manufacturing companies in the state.
Their research then took them to the small town of Alleppey, where they visited several small-scale coir factories and watched village women at work. They also conducted personal interviews with several of the women about their jobs. Most expressed a high level of satisfaction.
“They seemed very proud of their jobs and liked that they could work eight-hour days and still take care of their families,” Bhatia says. “They did, though, seem to be worried about changes in technology that could force them to work outside their village.”
Bhatia and Smith also visited a village where women work in the coir fiber industry independently through exporters or middlemen. They say the village seemed much poorer, but they were impressed with the innovative ways that the workers approach their jobs. They also toured the site of a future coir cooperative in the city of Trivandrum.
“It was fascinating to see how ingrained the coconut has been in the basic fabric of society, from traditional meals to large construction projects,” says Bhatia. “After this experience, it will be difficult to simply specify a coir product for a construction project or to eat a coconut without wondering about the life of the one who picked the coconut or prepared the fiber.”
Smith is currently analyzing the interviews done and data collected on the trip. That information will be synthesized with the results of the field testing on coir erosion control products that have been installed in sites around Central York and lab testing. Bhatia will present findings from the study at a conference in Bombay in December. She and Smith are also working toward developing collaborative projects with their contemporaries in the social, political and technical fields aimed at advancing the industry while meeting the needs of its workers.
“We hope the results of this study will shed light on how technology and choices made in the United States affect developing countries at the rural level, such as in India, in this global economy,” Smith says. “We also hope to draw comparisons between the coir industry in India and other countries that are just entering the coir market at the rural level.”