The news is that the Sri Lankan civil war between the Sinhalese Buddhist majority and the Tamil Hindu minority appears to have run its course, at least for this episode. The Sinhalese government has declared victory, the Tamil rebels – or what remains of the rebels – have admitted that armed resistance is futile. It is hard to believe that 26 years ago, when my wife and I arrived there for what turned out to be a two-year stay, this very same conflict had just broken out. Decades of war and a full generation of people have known nothing but this war.
Unfortunately, the roots of the problem go much deeper than this most recent chapter. The antagonism dates back thousands of years and reflects ethnic as well as religious differences. The Sinhalese are descendants of the Northern Aryan race who trace back to the Bengali coast of India, where the modern city of Kolkata (Calcutta) stands today. Before that, they are thought to have originated somewhere in the Punjab area, approximately where modern day Pakistan and the Indian state of Punjab form a border.
The Tamils once occupied most of what today is called India. But thousands of years ago, the Aryans swept down to the south and east, defeating the Tamils and driving them southward toward the tip of India, a region close to the island of Sri Lanka.
Sometime around the time of Christ, a disgraced Prince of Bengal was exiled to Sri Lanka by his father the King. This Prince appropriated the island from the indigenous peoples and established the Kingdom of Sri Lanka that eventually became one of the earliest Buddhist nations in the world. Subsequently, a series of conflicts arose with the periodic incursions from across the water by the Tamil forces. Eventually, after many centuries, the Sinhalese removed themselves from the northern part of the island, being replaced by Tamil settlers.
Although there were times of peaceful co-existence, the two groups never seem to have totally settled their differences. This most recent flare-up of the conflict was fanned by the legacy of colonialism. The British overlords ruled by the ‘divide & conquer’ method, skillfully playing off the ethnic tensions between the two to establish and maintain their dominance.
When the Brits withdrew in the 1950’s, neither ethnic group trusted the other and both harbored mutual grievances. The Sinhalese resented the fact that under the British and in the immediate aftermath of their withdrawal, although representing only ten per cent of the population, the Tamils still occupied a disproportionately high percentage of government bureaucratic, judicial and educational positions.
The Tamils, on the other hand, were sensitive to being dominated by the majority, resenting the recognition of the Sinhalese language in place of English as the official national language and opposed to plans for the establishment of settlement regions for Sinhalese farmers in traditionally Tamil dominated areas in the north.
Riots broke out when English letters were replaced with Sinhalese script on license plates. Tamil bands attacked a number of the settlements, killing many of the settlers and forcing the withdrawal of the rest. The government responded with reprisals, and the hostility of the Sinhalese majority increased.
Our stay on the island began not even a half-year after the strife was rekindled by an ambush in the north by Tamil guerillas that killed a convoy of Sinhalese police in the early 1980’s. These guerillas were led by Velupillai Prabhakaran, the somewhat mysterious and single minded founder of a militant organization that sought to create an independent Tamil state in the north and east of Sri Lanka.
Prabhakaran brought a hitherto unknown level of organization, violence and fanaticism to the conflict, training his cadre at the camps of Islamic fundamentals in the Middle East, introducing sophisticated weaponry that outgunned the Sri Lankan police (at the time, the government had no standing armed forces) as well as employing tactics such as suicide bombings and forced recruitment of both male and female children into their ranks.
It took the government many years to fully realize the determination and capacity of these fighters and then to create a military capable of facing them. By that time, the guerillas occupied the northern third of the island, establishing a de facto independent state.
Eventually, after a generation of warfare, it seems Prabhakaran’s refusal to negotiate a lasting settlement to the hostilities that would relieve the harsh siege-like conditions in the north bred discontent amongst the Tamil population. Amongst other things, a major guerilla commander defected, beginning his own insurrection against them.
With a weakening and divided foe, a newly elected hardline Sinhalese president sought to finally resolve the conflict militarily, unleashing a merciless offensive that ensnared many civilians as well as the guerillas.
Prabhakaran, along with his sons and most of the leadership are said to have perished in this most recent fighting. It is not known whether they died at the hands of Sri Lankan troops or by swallowing the cyanide capsules that the guerillas were famously known to have attached to their collars in order to prevent ever being captured alive.
Though not directly threatened by the conflict, our life as the sole foreigners in a village in the tropical countryside – some might call it ‘the jungle’ – of central Sri Lanka, exposed us to the fears and resentments of the Sinhalese majority. Living on a relatively small island a few hundred miles from the fighting creates a sense of vulnerability quite different from subsequent experiences as a citizen of a large nation that exported war abroad.
Although it was only for two years, on reflection – newly awakened by this news that the war is finally over – it was a very formative time in our lives.
The beginning of the civil war that just ended in Sri Lanka also roughly marked the beginning of my stay their… And the beginning of my experience of fatherhood. The first inkling my wife and I had that she was pregnant came with her sudden sensitivity to odors, especially a strong disgust with the smell of coconut products.
In some places that might not be a problem, but in Sri Lanka – a relatively small island that is 6th largest producer of coconuts in the world – and particularly in a rural village, that was nearly an insurmountable one. Coconut oil especially – and especially when it is heated, has a very pungent odor that was hard to avoid or ignore.
Coconuts, the seeds of a species of tree in the palm family, are everywhere and made use of in any number of ways in Sri Lanka, neighboring Southern India, Southeast Asia and the islands of the South Seas. There is not a part of the coconut that isn’t used for something by the villagers, and many of the uses related to some combination of food, skin care, or medicine.
The hard shell of the husk is carved and shaped into cooking utensils, tools or ornaments of various kinds. Then there is ‘coir’, a fiber derived from a layer between the husk and the outer shell of a coconut. Of two types, brown and white, it is used to make ropes (from the white) and twine, brushes, mats or other more coarse bristle-like objects (from the brown). Another use is in agriculture, where its anti-bacterial properties make coir a wonderful environmentally friendly replacement for the spaghnum found in peat moss.
Coconut oil is first and foremost a food, but is also a wonderful cosmetic used on the skin as a moisturizer and softener, in the hair to sooth and heal the scalp as well as styling hair. It is also a significant ingredient in industrial lubricants and is now being tested as a possible automotive lubricant and as a fuel, as a component in biodiesel mixtures for diesel, jet and generator engines.
The clear juice of the young, unripe coconut was drunk as a refreshing tonic, a wonderful antidote against the heat of tropical climate. The white ‘meat’ found on the inside of the ripe nut is used fresh or dried. There is also a sap that can be tapped from the tree known as ‘neera’ and drunk fresh or fermented to make palm wine.
Fresh meat, squeezed and strained makes the ‘milk’ that is used for cooking, as a medicine or even turned into an alcoholic drink. Virgin coconut oil is also made from it. The dried meat, known as ‘copra’, is also mainly used to make non-virgin or ‘refined’ coconut oil. The residues of this process are known as ‘copra meal’, often used as an animal feed.
As a food, Coconut oil as well as palm oil, both saturated fats have gotten a bad rap for decades, being thought to increase cholesterol and clog the arteries. Palm oil, which is rivaled only by soybean oil as the most widely produced edible oil in the world, is derived from the seeds and fruit of another species of West African palm tree and is characterized by a reddish tinge and its own distinctive aroma.
The reputation of theses oil suffers especially because of their association with margarine and many cheap processed foods. And certainly the fact that they are also major ingredients in many forms of soap doesn’t help - especially for those of us who remember having our mouths ‘cleaned’ after certain unguarded moments.
There are a number of reasons that the public has been warned about the dangers of consuming saturated fats, but as we have seen over and over, nutritional does and don’ts have a habit of changing. ‘Good’ turns to ‘bad’ or visa versa at the drop of a clinical study or the publication of a new diet.
It turns out that a good deal of the problems over coconut and palm oil revolve around the quality of the oil used and not about the oil itself.
Tropical oils produced from trees like coconut and palm are saturated fats that for over a generation have been generally deemed unhealthy. But, like so many simplistic, reductionist ideas in the world of medicine and nutrition, the decades old notion that saturated fats are ‘bad’ and unsaturated fats are ‘good’ appears to not be valid at all.
The problem with a great deal of nutritional analysis and theories is that whenever an attempt is made to explain complex phenomenon or sets of facts by simpler ones – this is, in fact, the very definition of ‘reductionist’ thinking upon which much of modern science itself is founded - a lot of mistaken or inaccurate concepts can take hold.
Misconceptions about saturated tropical oils, states Mary Enig, Ph. D, who is perhaps this country’s foremost authority on the nutritional value of coconut oil, were mostly formed some 40 years ago when researchers conducted an experiment in which animals were fed coconut oil and it was subsequently found that their serum cholesterol increased.
But what is often ignored about this research is the fact that the animals were fed hydrogenated coconut oil, not the unaltered virgin oil that native populations have consumed for centuries. The purpose of hydrogenation is to make a liquid into something solid or semi-solid by giving it a higher melting point, and thereby making it convenient for transportation, baking and extending its shelf-life.
Hydrogenation is an invention of mankind that does not occur naturally. And hydrogenated oils don’t exist in nature, either. They are made by heating and then passing hydrogen bubbles through oil. The fatty acids in the oil then acquire some of the hydrogen, which makes it denser. Fully hydrogenated oils are solid. Stopping part way with the process, partially hydrogenation, produces a semi-solid, partially hydrogenated oil with a butter-like consistency.
Hydrogenated oils are also favored by food producers because it is a cheap substitute for butter, not only giving the oil a similar consistency but also a rich flavor and texture. But it also changes the nature of the fatty acids in the oils and consequently changing the effect on the body.
The process of hydrogenation results in a high level of trans fats where the arrangement of the carbon atoms is artificially changed and the consumption of which is now being correlated with heart disease, diabetes, cancer, low birth weight, obesity, and immune dysfunction. (These are the types of fats that were recently banned in New York City.)
In regard to coconut oil specifically, to paraphrase Enig, animals fed hydrogenated coconut oil become deficient in essential fatty acids. These are fatty acids that the body cannot make itself and must derive from food sources, the most important of which are fish and shellfish, flaxseed (linseed), hemp oil, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, leafy vegetables, and walnuts.
Essential fatty acid deficiency leads to raised cholesterol and blood restricted flow in the blood vessels. But this is not an effect that is exclusively seen just when tropical oils are hydrogenated. Research into other hydrogenated oils made from soybean or corn produce the same negative results.
On the other hand, there is also data available that shows that in studies where animals were fed natural coconut oil, cholesterol did not increase at all. Moreover, in studies on human populations, there is no evidence that the consumption of natural coconut oil has a negative effect on cholesterol levels or the circulatory system in general.
To the contrary, there is evidence that lowered intake of virgin coconut oil in countries like Sri Lanka and the Philippines has resulted in poorer cardiovascular health in the general population. In Sri Lanka, for instance, the incidence of heart and cerebral vascular disease has increased as the consumption of coconut oil is falling.
There is a plethora of information easily available detailing how the mistaken notion that saturated fats are unhealthy arose through faulty research exploited by corporate interests. Aside from benefiting some industrial agricultural concerns, the half-century old promotion of polyunsaturated fats such as soybean and corn oils as well as margarine and other hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated products has done little to foster a healthier population.
While there has been a fair amount of publicity about the unhealthy properties of artificially manipulated hydrogenated oils and trans fats, there is probably less appreciation for the harmful effects of unsaturated oil made from nuts and seeds. These oils, even those of the highest organic quality, are very unstable by nature and are prone to becoming rancid in the body because of the very nature of their unsaturation.
On the other hand, awareness of the benefits of coconut oil - at least in certain segments of American society, is spreading through the work of Mary Enig, Ph.D., Sally Fallon and the Weston Price Foundation (http://www.westonaprice.org/) and a number of companies such as Tropical Traditions (www.tropicaltraditions.com/ and its sister site www.coconutoil.com) that produce high quality oil.
For those seeking to delve into this in greater detail, aside from the above websites, the book ‘Nourishing Traditions’ for which Fallon and Enig collaborated is a wonderful resource both as a wonderful cookbook and a treasure trove of nutritional information.
Populations across a wide swath of the world from the South Seas to South and Southeast Asia have thrived on coconut oil for thousands of years with much lower incidences of heart disease and cancer, amongst other illnesses, than we see in modern populations that have largely shunned saturated fats.
Research has shown that there are several specific qualities of coconut oil that are in fact quite beneficial.
In contrast to the instability of polyunsaturated oils, coconut oil is wonderfully stable. Even without refrigeration it will not go rancid for years and it maintains its quality when exposed to high heat. This makes it ideal for cooking, better than olive oil, which is not stable when heated.
Secondly, coconut oil contains specific fatty acids that are known to be protective against viruses, pathogenic bacteria and protozoa. One of these fatty acids, lauric acid, is almost totally absent from the typical American diet. It makes up 40% of coconut oil and is also present in breast milk, conveying immunoprotective properties to the suckling infant.
The fatty acids in coconut oil are called medium chain fatty acids (sometimes called ‘medium chain triglycerides’ or MCTs for short). In contrast, fatty acids from plant oils are long chain (long chain triglycerides or LCTs). The LCTs are converted to fat and stored in the body while the MCTs are easily metabolized and quickly burned in the body.
This results in an increased metabolic rate in the body, or what is known as ‘thermogenesis’. Thermogenesis produces energy, stimulating the thyroid gland and promoting weight loss.
An interesting fact is that around 70 years ago, there was an attempt to fatten livestock using coconut oil that backfired quite dramatically. Instead, the livestock became leaner, more energetic and hungrier.
Anti-thyroid drugs were then used as a replacement, which had the desired effect of fattening them up with less feed. Unfortunately, the drugs were also carcinogenic, so these were replaced by soybean and corn feed. (The deleterious effects on the quality of meat, eggs and milk from soy and corn fed animals compared is a topic for another day…)
Another benefit of thermogenesis is lowered total cholesterol, especially the ‘bad’ cholesterol known as low-density lipids or LDLs. This is due to the fact when the thyroid gland is stimulated the LDL is converted to steroids that in turn have anti-aging properties and are protective against many chronic degenerative illness.
There is, in fact, research showing clearly indicating that when populations switch from a high coconut oil diet to one dominated by plant oils, LDL levels dramatically increase. In addition, coconut oil based diets have been shown to result in much lower incidences of cancer compared to diets using plant based, unsaturated fats.
Finally, it is important to bear in mind that not all coconut oils are of the same quality and are equally beneficial. It is best to find a virgin unrefined cold-expressed coconut oil while hydrogenated products should be avoided entirely.