Authorities looking to rebound from impact of lethal yellowing disease
By Orville Williams
In a bid to restock the majestic coconut palms that once adorned Antigua and Barbuda in abundance, the government has already put plans in motion to import 100,000 coconut seeds from Costa Rica.
In light of this, the Plant Protection Unit is assuring that the seeds have been thoroughly vetted to prevent a recurrence of the devastation that nearly rid the country of the plant over the past years.
The lethal yellowing disease – first discovered in the island in 2012 – has decimated the coconut palm population, setting back beautification efforts and impeding the efforts of small business owners whose livelihoods depend on the sale of coconuts and/or its byproducts.
During the worst period of the outbreak, a solution was introduced and a formula – Oxytetracycline Hydrochloride (OTC) – developed to “control the amount of the disease agent in the plants”. However, that formula was rather costly and many trees were deemed too far gone to even consider the expensive treatment.
Fast forward to early this month, the government announced plans to import the seeds from Costa Rica, “for propagation of new coconut palms”. These seeds, the government said, are expected to “produce trees resistant to [the] disease, grow about six feet tall and begin producing fruit shortly after three years of growth”.
The idea to import and replant coconut palms is not new to the government, as consideration was given to acquiring seeds/seedlings/saplings, most recently from Suriname. The Agriculture Ministry’s Plant Protection Unit opposed that idea, however, amid concerns of pests being introduced into the island as a result.
Chief Plant Protection Officer, Dr Janil Gore-Francis, had aired those concerns back then, but speaking to Observer on these current plans, she said strict measures have been enforced to ensure safety.
“There has been a process of assessment, we have done our research and our risk assessment with regard to the seeds coming from Costa Rica via the US. [The seeds] have to go through a very stringent process, they have to be certified and so on, so there are specific requirements that have to be met for those seeds to come into Antigua, and that is what has been applied.
“Some of those seeds have come in already, they must have import permission, they have to be certified, they must be unsprouted [and] a number of [other factors] that would ensure they do not come in with lethal yellowing or any other disease that could be spread by the foliage – which is why we insist that they must come in unsprouted.
“So, all of that would have been taken into consideration with the risk assessment that would have been done, in order for us to arrive at the approval of those specific nuts coming through that process, under very stringent conditions,” Dr Gore-Francis explained.
She also disclosed that, based on their observations, the disease is not as prevalent at this point as it had been in the past.
“We have not really been having as many calls as we were having [for example] back in 2019, with respect to plants that are suspected to have contracted the disease. So, I think we have reached a sort of equilibrium, where I guess those palms that have some sort of tolerance or just have not been infected by lethal yellowing are what remain right now.”
In regard to the treatment formula – OTC – a programme was put in place to provide some relief to homeowners or business operators whose coconut palms were struggling with the disease.
The formula is injected into the trunk of the plants to keep the level of the phytoplasma down, to allow the plant to thrive. After a while, however, the amount of formula within the plant decreases, which means the plants have to be treated at regular intervals – three to four months – to maintain control of the disease and keep them alive.
These plants are assessed after interested persons apply to the programme and depending on the condition of the plants, they are either chosen to be treated or rejected if they are “too far gone”.
The plant owners are then allowed to import the formula under specific regulations, which include refraining from using the OTC on plants that are meant for consumption. These regulations, Dr Gore-Francis says, are closely monitored to reduce the various risks associated.
The entire importation and dissemination process of the new plants can’t come soon enough for many, including Barbara Japal, the President of the local Horticultural Society.
She told Observer, upon news of the importation, “The old saying is, ‘the palm is the charm’. Palm trees are part of the lifeblood [of the country], it’s the industry of so many people in Antigua. Coconuts provide food, they provide medicine to some [and] they provide a tourist attraction in every way.”
Similarly, ‘Granma Aki’ – who makes products including sauces and dips from coconuts – said getting the plants and the coconut industry back in full swing was vital to herself and many others.
“It’s very urgent and small producers like me, we are suffering. The products that we use coconuts for are in demand, great demand. So, I suppose, if we don’t have any coconuts, they have to come from abroad, the price is going up [and] the quality is not so good.”
As Dr Gore-Francis mentioned, some of the seeds have already arrived in Antigua, but there is no indication as to when the entire bunch will be on island.
‘Granma Aki’ would certainly hope that it’s sooner, rather than later.