This month we want to talk about an agricultural product that transformed the natural world on Tetiaroa and virtually all the other islands in the tropical South Pacific.
Prior to the plantations, and prior to the arrival of people, the motu of Tetiaroa would have been covered by a variety of native trees including, Pisonia grandis, Calophyllum inophyllum, Thespesia populnea, Guettarda speciosa, Morinda citrifolia, Hernandia Sonora, and dense understory of Scaevola, etc. These trees and native ground cover would have provided excellent nesting sites for the millions of seabirds that called Tetiaroa home.
With the arrival of the Polynesians, native trees would have been thinned and coconut palms would have been planted near habitation sites, but they would still have been only a small percentage of the flora. As more people moved to the island, habitation and ceremonial sites expanded, and seabird were displaced and eggs were collected, the bird populations would have dwindled.
But when copra production became the focus, everything changed. Native trees were cleared to plant rows of coconut palms and understory vegetation was removed so that the coconuts could be collected easily. There were no plants left for the birds to use for nesting or cover.