Harsh dry weather conditions are triggering an increase in the red palm mite which has devastated 80 per cent of coconut estates in T&T.
Seven years after India’s top biological expert Dr Avvaru Sujatha made attempts to fight the red palm mite, Cedros coconut growers say their estates continue to offer low yields because of the spread of the devastating predator.
The produce is so minimal that smaller estate owners are using the coconuts mainly for oil production and bottled coconut water. A few supply grated coconut to bakeries for the production of pastries.
During an interview with Guardian Media, coconut producer Ivor Alfred said his 12-acre estate has been destroyed by the mite.
“A few years ago they brought experts from Indian and African to fight this red palm mite. We had hope that the estates could be revived but our trees are continuing to die,” Alfred said. He added that two years ago, he attempted to replant the trees, some of which were almost 100 years old.
“It made no sense because the new trees shrivelled up and died,” Alfred said. He said he has now started to do inter-cropping.
“I use the estate to plant pawpaw, pumpkins and figs. I sell whatever little I get to the coconut oil producers,” he said.
There are about 10 coconut oil producers in the southwestern peninsula among them Roopah Maharaj and her daughter Nirmala. Maharaj said the mite has wreaked havoc on coconut production.
Manick Joseph who works in the production of oil said the coconut industry once powered the economy in the southwestern peninsula. He said since the destruction of the estates, some people migrated while others went into the fishing industry.
In an interview, local government councillor for Cedros Shankar Teelucksingh said the several coconut estate owners in the peninsula were now transforming their once arable lands into housing developments. He said while coconut was a lucrative crop, it was dying in Cedros, mainly because of the mite.
“We need a complete upgrade of the industry. The trees which are over 100-years-old need to be ploughed down and replanted.
“The trees were supposed to be replaced with fresh stock. Studies were done by Cariri (Caribbean Industrial Research Institute) and biotechnology was utilised to curb the red palm mite. However, the trees were not replanted as promised by the Ministry of Agriculture,” Teelucksingh said.
“We are still waiting for the Ministry of Agriculture to rehabilitate the industry. Teelucksingh said some coconuts are sold between $1.50 to $5 depending on the size. He said in areas outside of the coast, the mite was causing destruction.
At Bunsee Trace, Penal, another farmer Raithraj Sooknanan said he also planted coconuts but the trees have all died because of the red palm mite.
“The trees start to dry from the top and we don’t get any yield at all,” Sooknanan said.
Slow process to get foreign
Agriculture Minister Clarence Rambharat said there were some delays in getting the coconut stocks from abroad.
“We have coconut cultivations all over the country. The main issue is the slow pace of the efforts to import planting material from Brazil and Mexico. New and more resistant varieties are what our farmers need,” he said.
He noted that the destruction of the coconut trees may be driven by the economics of houses being a better return on investment.
Asked why there was a delay in getting the stock, Rambharat said, “Pest Risk Assessments by the exporter and importer and intellectual property issues- the seller retains intellectual property rights which makes it difficult for us to reproduce and share planting material.”
Asked what plans the Government had for the revitalisation of the coconut industry and whether the mite could be eradicated, Rambharat said, “We cannot eradicate red palm mite. We can reduce the impact. I have focused on making imported planted material available. The incentives for agriculture are already in place.”
He added that the shift from coconut to housing has been happening for several years now.
About the red palm mite
The red palm mite is a pest of the coconut and other palms in India and many other Asian countries. The first Western Hemisphere report of red palm mite was from Martinique in 2004 and it quickly spread to many other Caribbean countries, including T&T in 2006. Initial symptoms are discoloration of the leaves, while advanced symptoms include yield loss.
The mite has devastated 80 per cent of the coconut industry in coastal communities of Cedros, Icacos and Manzanilla.
Why biological controls did not work?
In a response to an email from Guardian Media, the Ministry of Agriculture agreed that harsh dry weather conditions could increase the mite population. In a statement, the Ministry of Agriculture said a predatory mite A. largoensis (Acari: phytoseiidae) was identified as a main indigenous natural enemy of the red palm mite.
“Surveys for natural enemies conducted in T&T detected Amblyseius largoensis as the primary predator in all the geographical areas. Dr Avvaru Sujatha (Indian technical expert) was contracted to lead research activities in addressing this mite problem. During her tenure at the Ministry, Dr Sujatha conducted field, greenhouse and laboratory studies throughout T&T,” the Ministry said.
“Results from such studies reported that red palm mite populations were higher in coastal coconut estates when compared to inland estates. Data also showed an increase in red palm mite populations during the dry season and lower populations during the rainy season. This country is currently experiencing harsh dry season conditions and it is expected that an increase in red palm mite populations may occur,” the Ministry added.
During the conduct of routine surveillance activities, the Ministry said predators were also observed, along with the pest, namely Amblyseius largoensis.
“The presence of this predator has also been reported to reduce red palm mite populations globally. Since then, several field studies involving the use of this predator against red palm mite were conducted by the Research Division. Surveillance activities are conducted routinely to monitor population levels. An Integrated Pest Management approach is recommended,” the Ministry said.
Farmers are now being encouraged to contact the Research Division of the Ministry of Agriculture to diagnose the symptoms observed accurately since low yields may be due to a combination of factors inclusive of insect pest, diseases and other disorders.”