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Islanders look to coconuts as oil prices rise

Struggling with rising oil prices, Pacific island nations are increasingly looking to coconut oil, long a basic foodstuff and massage lubricant, as an economically and ecologically sound petroleum alternative.

Pacific island officials, who recently gathered for a UN conference on small islands, extol the virtues of the lowly coconut in reducing dependence on imported gasoline and potentially boosting ailing local economies.

Coconut oil is seen as an inexpensive and efficient renewable energy source particularly in Vanuatu.

The Pacific archipelago, which is inhabited by 217,000 people, spends about 20 per cent of its annual budget on imported petroleum.

"It's a huge cost for a small economy like us," Vanuatu's Environment Minister Russell Nari said.

"If we have enough funds to produce coconut oil and if we don't have to fight against the oil lobby, islands may reduce seriously their dependency."

Coconut oil was first used as fuel in the Pacific during World War II when a fuel shortage gripped the Philippines, forcing residents to look for alternatives.

"Some clever people discovered that you can mix diesel and coconut oil to run the engine," Espen Ronneberg, of the Marshall Islands, said.

Mr Ronneberg says the concept was abandoned with the end of the war but restarted several years ago as the price of oil began to skyrocket.

Last June, the idea got a boost when energy ministers from the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) urged that more priority be given to renewable energy sources, including coconut and palm oil.

Today, residents of Vanuatu, the Marshall Islands and their fellow Pacific nations, Samoa and the Cook Islands, all use coconut oil as fuel for diesel engines but still on a relatively small scale.

About 100 private buses in Vanuatu's capital of Port Vila are powered at least in part by coconut oil as are similar vehicles in the Marshall Islands.

Officials say in addition to reducing dependency on foreign petroleum, coconut oil offers several additional advantages.

Mr Nari says it does not pollute, and better yet, it has a "beautiful smell".

It is also cheap, costing about 80 cents per litre, compared with $A2.17 for the same amount of diesel.

If it catches on as a fuel source, it could rescue Pacific island economies that have been hard hit by plummeting prices for coconut oil, one of their chief exports.

"It's a disaster because entire families depend on coconuts," Mr Nari said.

"This could bring about a new life for the coconut."

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