Five years of research

Agriculture has been in the news a lot lately. Most of the news items have focused on the myriad of challenges our farmers face as they seek to earn a living off of the land and move us closer to food security. If it is not the scarcity of water, it is bureaucracy. If it is not bureaucracy, it is one or more of a number of pests that invaded our land. And if it is not pests … well, speak to any farmer and they will give you an earful.

The Giant African Snail (GAS) has occupied much of the coverage and that is mainly because of the recent rains and the fact that they represent a clear and present danger to our entire agricultural sector. But there are other pests that have also wreaked havoc on our bit of paradise and continue to do so up until today. Two of these that immediate come to mind are lethal yellowing and citrus greening.

Recently, the head of the Plant Protection Unit, Dr Janil Gore Francis said, “The department is still carrying out research to ensure that no diseased palms are brought into the country when the ban is lifted.” Remember, we are talking about a ban that has been in place for over five years. It was implemented after the lethal yellowing disease began devastating certain palm species, including the coconut palms.

Dr Gore Francis stated, “The country is in contact with the US counterpart to get the necessary list of pests that might be associated with palms before they can be imported. It has taken a while but we have requested a pest list which is the first step.” We are not going to be too hard on the Plant Protection Unit because we have a deep respect for the work that they do with the limited resources that they have, but we have to ask the obvious:  How long does it take to get a list out of the US counterpart agency? Does the US ban imports of palm trees?

Maybe the five-year wait would make more sense if it was put into some sort of perspective and a bigger plan was communicated but on the face of it, five years seems to be an awfully long time to carry out research “to ensure that no diseased palms are brought into the country when the ban is lifted”.

Let’s be clear. We are not advocating for the lifting of the ban or for the Plant Protection Unit to unnecessarily hurry their research. What we are advocating is for better communication of the government’s plan to address the situation.

Palm trees, and more specifically, coconut tress are powerful symbols of the tropics. People dream of sitting on a beach, under a palm tree, drinking their favourite rum drink from a coconut shell. Very often that drink is a pina colada. Don’t believe us? That is literally what the author, Pay Reynolds, wrote in her book, An Older Person’s Guide to Traveling Lightly – Strange Happenings in a Sabah Rainforest. The book may deal with serious matters related to remote tropical travel, but one character imagines that their missing dear old mom “is really sitting out by the beach under the palm trees under a tropical moon, sipping a pina colada”.

That is the idyllic image that people have of a tropical paradise – like ours. So if it so happens that we do not have palm trees and coconuts, we will likely fall off the bucket list of desirous tropical paradises to visit. We cannot allow that to happen.

At this point, we would not be surprised if the folks at the Plant Protection Unit are seething and saying that we are speaking out of our backsides, but we want to assure them that we are on their side. Let’s us all work together to bring greater pressure to bear to ensure that our research is complete, and completed in a reasonable amount of time.

We understand the limitations faced by government departments but all of our eggs are in the tourism basket and this is a big issue if not resolved. We also acknowledge Dr Gore Francis’ statement that “There are other … pests that affect palms which we have concerns with and so we need to ensure that we keep that out,’ and sympathise with her and her team as it relates to the near impossible job that they are given.

That said, we are also hungry for a solution to the problem and are a bit dismayed that, on the face of it, there is no light at the end of the tunnel that we have been traversing for over five years. If there is, please shine it in our direction so that we can be informed and sleep a little bit better at night knowing that our paradise will be restored and the dead stumps and carcasses of our majestic palms and coconut trees will fade into the realm of distant, foggy memories.

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