It's a pioneer life at the copra plantation

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It's a pioneer life at the copra plantation


Second of a four part series on the state of Palmyra in 1979, when attention was drawn to it as a potential storage site for nuclear waste. Part two describes daily life for the copra plantation workers, and what the plantation hopes to achieve, as well as other ways might be used in the future.


Bob Krauss


Hawaii State Library


The Honolulu Advertiser




© The Honolulu Advertiser, used here by permission



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Palmyra: It's a pioneer life at the copra plantation (Part 2 of 4)

Photo Caption 1: An evening party sings a song titled "Boys of Palmyra." There are 18 such "boys," mostly Gilbertese teenagers, who live and work at the Palmyra copra plantation, helping to harvest an expected annual yield of $250,000.
Photo Caption 2: Teratapu Tetaake, above, collects coconuts for copra processing. Kapikea Teinaiu, below, broils fish on a grill made from a 55-gallon drum.

SEOUL (UPI) — South Korea has decided not to accept a U.S. government offer to Jointly store and manage nuclear waste from Korea's atomic power plants on a Pacific island, a Seoul newspaper said yesterday. Quoting concerned government sources, the newspaper said the U.S. proposal costs too much and makes it difficult for South Korea to reuse the waste under Washington's nuclear non-proliferation policy. The newspaper said that South Korea does not think it necessary or urgent to accept the U.S. offer because Korea's nuclear power plants now in operation or under construction have good safeguard facilities to stockpile waste for at least 10 years.

Palmyra Atoll has been in the news since being named as a possible site for storage of nuclear wastes. So little-is known about the remote island that The Advertiser sent columnist Bob Krauss on a chartered flight to Palmyra. Here is his report. The day begins on this tropical Pacific paradise when 22 people crawl out from under their mosquito nets as pale sunlight filters through the coconut groves. One of these early risers is a 36-year-old Scot, John Bryden, who was once a London bobby. The other 21 are Gilbertese (or Kiribatis): three women and 18 men, mostly teenagers. They wash and brush their teeth with rain water which runs off a tin roof. To flush the toilet, they fill a 5-gallon plastic bucket with salt water in the lagoon and carry it to the lavatory tank.

All of these Palmyra inhabitants are pioneers living on a scrap of land 3 miles long and 4 miles wide and made up of only 14,000 acres. When they arrived on the atoll in April, the island was uninhabited, except for brief periods, since World War II, when 6,000 U.S. troops manned a small air base and a submarine station here. The air strip was overgrown. Buildings were rotted. All the U.S. Navy plumbing was a rusty ruin. But copra had increased in price from $400 per ton to a high of $760 per ton last year. That was incentive enough for Bob Nielson, former purchansing agent for the Gilbert Islands (now the nation of Kiribati), to form a partnership with Bryden. Bryden is former manager of the largest copra plantation on Christmas Island, 300 miles away from Palmyra in Kiribati. Together, Nielson and Bryden formed Palmyra Plantation, which leased the copra and fishing rights to the island for 30 years from Leslie, Ainsley, and Dudley Fullard-Leo, brothers of a Hawaii family that owns Palmyra.

The atoll is U.S. soil — although the Fullard-Leos don't pay Hawaii state taxes or U.S. taxes, because Palmyra is under temporary jurisdiction of the Department of Interior under an act signed by President John F. Kennedy in 1961. Visitors from the United States who visit the island must return through U.S. customs. Nielson and Bryden said they flew to Palmyra for the first time last January with a U.S. State department official named Theodore Monroe and an Army engineer. "While they were there, they took some Seismograph tests," said Nielson. "We thought they were working on a new molehole project." It wasn't until several months later that the partners and the Fullard-Leos learned from newspaper reports that the U.S. government was considering Palmyra as a possible site for nuclear waste disposal.

Ainsley Fullard-Leo said he was as much in the dark about the government inspection trip as his lessees. In spite of the possibility of nuclear waste storage, Palmyra Plantation plans to make the island produce a modest income. Nielson said, "Because of the heavy rainfall, lohn believes the island should yield 500 tons of copra per year. We should be able to sell it for $550 per ton less $50 per ton freight. That's a potential of $250,000 per year." In addition, an American developer, Mike Shay, says he wants to put up a small luxury lodge on Palmyra which would cater primarily to sport fishermen. While the resort is still in the talking stage, the copra plantation is already functioning.

The Gilbertese workers were hired under the supervision of the Kiribati government, Nielson said. When they arrived, they had to cut away jungle to clear a place to live. Giant hermit crabs kept climbing into the bunks and falling into the food. Rats and mosquitoes, inherited from the Navy occupation, were everywhere. The rats ate the coconuts and the mosquitoes bit the people. But living conditions improved as work progressed. Hermit crabs don't like the open space of a cleared plantation compound. A rat eradication program is underway.

The Kiribati's said they like Palmyra better than Christmas because there is less sun and more fish. They seem also to enjoy the freedom of pioneer life. Teratapu Tetaake, a Christmas Island teenager, took time out from husking copra to explain that he earns $24 a week, of which he sends $20 home to his parents every two weeks. Much of his paycheck goes for cigarettes because he smokes at least one pack a day and he pays $6 per 10-pack carton at the plantation store, 'He said he might be able to take home $200 when his one-year contract is up. John Willie, an 18-year-oId apprentice driver, said he hopes to take home $1,000.

The plantation foreman is Henry lotepa, who was born on Tarawa, capital of Kiribati; worked on Christmas; and is now on Palmyra. This makes him the most widely traveled of his Gilbertese companions. They are a well-mannered, very clean, hard-working and good-tempered crew. While one gang is hacking at underbrush and tearing away rubbish, another crew is harvesting and still another works with Bryden to repair an old Army truck. Meanwhile, Black Joe Burakitio sets out for the lagoon with his net to catch fish for everybody. Three women cook for the Gilbertese — fish and rice one day, rice and fish the next. The fish is broiled on a 55-gallon oil drum from the fuel dump.

The workers eat in their own mess hall. Bryden says he does his own cooking because the Gilbertese girls aren't interested in making dishes he likes. As a result, he's learned to bake bread, make fish curry and concoct a cheese sauce for fish, the staple food on Palmyra. Heart of palm is another common dish. A specialty of the Bryden bachelor pad is the Palmyraburger, made of corned beef, rice, soy sauce, kim chee. black pepper and grated coconut.

Bryden, who was captain of the rugby team back in Ayr Academy in Scotland, is a jack of all trades. He planned and built the living facilities on the plantation and installed the wiring and the water system. He can repair a motor, recognize plant diseases, treat injuries. He keeps a weather log for the island and speaks fluent Gilbertese. How does he keep from being lonely on the little island? "By keeping busy," he said. "This is a tremendously big job. My list of things to do keeps getting longer. No. I don't do much reading. In the evening, I catch up on paper work. "It's only when I'm not busy that I get lonely. I can't stand having too many people around." TOMORROW: Paradise island

Original Format



Bob Krauss, “It's a pioneer life at the copra plantation,” Palmyra Archive, accessed July 6, 2020,