Gov’t injects $49M into palm mite fight

-coconut exporter says prices rising amidst decreased production

The government has approved a $49 million package to help fight the Red Palm Mite infestation affecting the coconut industry but one exporter says efforts to combat the pest will not be successful unless all farmers simultaneously treat affected plants.

At a post-Cabinet press briefing last Thursday, Minister of State Joseph Harmon announced the package to fight the pest and he explained that the money will be used to purchase chemicals, equipment, and safety gear which would be provided to farmers at a subsidised cost to combat this infestation.

On Monday, Director of the National Agricultural Research and Extension Institute (NAREI) Dr. Oudho Homenauth told Stabroek News that of the approved funding, $4M will be allocated for items such as mist blowers and safety gear, while $45M will be used to buy Inosan and Abemictin.

Inosan, a Monocrotophos-based pesticide, is used on the older, larger trees after the nuts are harvested, while the slower acting and more environmentally-friendly Abemictin is used on younger trees, especially those to be harvested for water coconuts.

The mist blowers, Homenauth said, are to be used for younger trees and other vegetation such as host plants, including sucker plants, such as plantain and banana, as well as the Wild Heliconia.

Homenauth said that the programme will see all coconut growing areas targeted, with a special focus on the Pomeroon area. “We hope to provide every farmer with the necessary chemicals and equipment so that every tree can be treated,” he said, adding that the progress of the project will be monitored over the next few months.

The coconut is currently one of the country’s key non-traditional crops, with the industry ranking third behind rice and sugar as a priority agricultural crop. Coconuts currently contribute about 1% of the total Gross Domestic Product (GDP), with exports pegged at US$3 million annually. There are an estimated 24,000 hectares under cultivation and an average of 92 million nuts are produced each year.

Coconut is grown widely on the coastal regions, primarily along the Pomeroon River on the Essequibo Coast, at West Berbice and on the Corentyne Coast. All of these areas are currently infested with the Red Palm Mite.

Red Palm Mite (Raoiella indica), a pest of several palm species, uses its stylet-like mouthparts (chelicerae) to pierce the plant tissue and extract cell contents. This action damages the guard cells of the leaves, leading to uncontrollable water loss from the plant. The leaves yellow, then brown before eventually dying and taking the plant with it.

The red mite, which was first identified in the Caribbean in 2003, has been identified by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) as the most damaging pest to coconuts in many Caribbean countries. Since then, it has spread, presumably by wind currents, to more than 12 Caribbean countries, including Guyana.

Wilma DaSilva, a representative of the Farmers Association of the Pomeroon and Vice-Chair of the National Stakeholders Platform for Coconut Industry Development, told Stabroek News that two extension officers have already visited the area and started distributing one gallon of chemical per farmer as a trial.


‘A good start but…’

DaSilva is, however, concerned about the scope of the programme. “It is a good start,” she said, “but it won’t work unless every tree is treated and several small farmers who are not registered won’t get the materials.”

She is calling on all farmers to become registered and work with NAREI and the larger farmers to combat the pest.

“You need to be registered with extension officer so as to collect and use chemical,” she said, while adding that farmers must also work on sanitising their farms and on keeping them clear of host plants and other debris.

Homenauth supported this call, while reiterating that NAREI continues to use an integrated approach for the management of the pest. This approach includes the use of chemicals, sanitation, and fertilisation so as to compensate for the nutrients lost due to the presence of the pest as well as the cultivation of the population of the lacewing beetle, whose larvae feed on the palm mite’s eggs.

Both DaSilva and Homenauth praised the speed with which Minister of Agriculture Noel Holder acted to provide assistance to the farmers. Holder, they said visited with the farmers two weeks ago and after hearing their concerns presented the proposal, which was approved by Cabinet.

“He moved quickly and got the approval in less than two weeks,” Homenauth said.

DaSilva is hopeful that these efforts will slow and eventually stop the effects of palm mite on the industry.

She explained that she normally sells more than three containers of coconut water per month, which means she buys in excess of 110,000 to 120,000 nuts per month. However, the palm mite’s presence has cut her production in half.

“One customer wanted two containers last month and another wanted three but they got one each because nuts were not available. Many of the trees have what is locally called ‘the wick’ (bearing branch) but no nuts,” DaSilva said.

She also bemoaned the fact that the reduced production has led to farmers raising prices to meet costs—a move which she says has threatened the foreign market.

“Before the infestation, I was able to buy a nut for $30; now $45 to $50. But when you have a fixed market, your price cannot fluctuate. If the price of the nuts continues to rise, we might not be to hold our foreign market,” she explained.

DaSilva further explained that the greatest impact of the infestation may be seen in the 2017 production numbers as the palm mite has devastated five-year trees used for the export of dry nuts more than it has the three-year water nut trees. “It’s sad because now that there is an increased international demand for coconut and coconut products, we get all these problems,” DaSilva said.

Meanwhile, as it continues its efforts to employ the most effective strategies to combat the palm mite, NAREI will be hosting a team from the Caribbean Agricultural Research and Development Institute. The team, which includes an agronomist, will on Thursday begin a research visit to the Pomeroon area.


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