The Battle against the Beetle: Coconut initiative fights threat with knowledge
Thursday, 31 January 2019 12:48

Swaying palms, blue skies and turquoise seas have long been the image that characterized the Pacific. This image may soon change with no palms in the picture. With changing environmental conditions, adverse weather on the rise such as stronger cyclones due to climate change, and with the serious threat of varying strains of coconut diseases and pests, coconut plantations are being destroyed in the region.

How serious is the threat? So serious that as of 2018, a disease-resistant variety of coconut rhinoceros beetle has been found to be ravaging the Solomon Islands' US$38-million coconut and palm oil industry. In Fiji, a survey this year saw a 30% increase in coconut rhinoceros beetles around the country. And in Samoa, a recent survey showed that coconut plantations in 100 villages from Upolu to Savai’i are severely infected by this pest. Research indicates that uncontrolled infestations of the Coconut Rhinoceros Beetle – Guam Biotype (CRB-G) can kill entire coconut plantations within one year.

This particular beetle obliterates palm trees by chewing big holes through the growing tops of palms to feed on sap, making zig-zag cuts on the leaves, and eventually killing the trees. They are difficult and expensive to manage and control. It is just one of the many pests and diseases that are invading coconut plantations across the Pacific. As the coconut is one of the Pacific’s most useful and valuable resource at a commercial and a subsistence level, these pest and disease outbreaks can severely affect the sustainable livelihoods of farmers and their families, rural women, small producers, and ultimately, whole Pacific Island economies.

Knowing that the price of inaction is high, the Coconut Industry Development of the Pacific (CIDP) has developed a Coconut Pests and Diseases Toolkit that is easily accessible online and offline, and they organised a technical training in Apia, Samoa this late October.

The CIDP project, a Euro 4 million (FJD 9.3 million) joint initiative of the Pacific Community (SPC), the European Union, and the African Caribbean Pacific (ACP) states, in partnership with the Samoan government, organised this train the trainer workshop which was officially opened by Tilafono David Hunter, CEO of Samoa’s Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries. He said, “Although there has been significant research and technological advances in the coconut industry in our region, we should not be complacent with our collective development efforts in researching new technology for production, the propagation of improved varieties, and the control of pests and diseases destroying our vulnerable coconut resource.”

He asserted, "By training delegates who have the time and resources to reach wider communities in their countries, CIDP expects that the knowledge and experiences shared in the training will reach coconut-processing communities and enterprises, including young people and rural women.”

The training brought together over 30 experts, scientists, farmers, agro-processors, as well as government and private sector representatives, from 15 Pacific island countries. With the aim of participants delivering similar programs to farmers and other coconut sector stakeholders in their local communities; delegates studied the differences between pests and diseases, and why the difference is important; learned how to recognize symptoms; examined where to look and find information on the identification of pests and diseases; understood the importance of prevention; investigated the practical ways of preventing and controlling pests and diseases through examples; comprehended the importance of diversity to resilience; thought about ways that increased community awareness can help prevent and control pests and diseases; and found out how to find further information and assistance.

In the course of four days, the participants were trained in a classroom-style environment and were exposed to a number of field trips. Local farms in Samoa were visited for some practical learning, and the group were taught first hand how to make a coconut rhinoceros beetle trap using a PVC pipe, a bucket and some pheromones, through a demo in the farm. Participants explored the site and found many plants showing symptoms of pests and diseases, and healthy CRB larvae were found nested in decaying palm trunks.

Kokonas Indastri Koporesen’s Research Officer in Entomology, Sharon Woruba said, “This workshop has shown me so many examples on what I can do and what the industry can do in Papua New Guinea (PNG) to prevent further incursion and control of coconut pests and diseases. And also if that is an impossibility, then how can we live with it in a sustainable manner?”

Considerable feedback from a number of training participants shared two similar sentiments; there were two key factors experienced in the training at Apia that could be turning points in solving this Pacific-wide problem. First, the sharing of information and learnings by their counterparts from other countries contain critical details that could help them be one step ahead in tackling this crisis. Second, targeted resources such as the Coconut Pests and Diseases Toolkit, and PestNet, provide easy accessibility to information 24/7 to multiple coconut industry stakeholders who are at the forefront of this beetle battle.

Renwick Weilbacher, a Quarantine Officer from the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), reiterated, “Resources are very important because without them we won't know what to do.The toolkit itself really helped me and gave us so much information that we did not know previously about pests and diseases. The toolkit can help anyone.”

Clearly the regional approach is the way forward. Together we can strengthen our responses to these emerging risks. Together we can stop the destruction and the disappearance of our tree of life.

Training participants from fifteen Pacific Island Countries outside of meeting room at the Tanoa Tusitala, Apia, Samoa. 
© Maria Ronna Luna Pastorizo-Sekiguchi / Pacific Community (SPC)