The Government's trip to India in January has begun to reap rewards for the agriculture sector in T&T. On Friday, Food Production Minister Vasant Bharath at a luncheon at Carlton Savannah in Port-of-Spain welcomed Dr Avvaru Sujatha, principal scientist and head of the Mango Research Unit from the Nuzvid Krishna district of India to the country.
For the next year, Sujatha will assist in the control of the Red Palm Mite pest affecting the dying coconut industry in T&T at no costs to the T&T Government. Highly recommended by the Indian Council for Agricultural Research, Sujatha who has spent 25 years of her life doing research on coconut pests was saluted by Indian High Commissioner Malay Mishra, the ministry's permanent secretary Edwina Leacock and officials from agricultural agencies.
A blushing Sujatha promised not to let down the Government in combating the disease. "I do will do my best," she assured. The disease, which invaded T&T in 2006, has had devastating effects, with miles of coconut estates in areas such as Cedros, Icacos and Manzanilla being wiped out in the last five years.
80 per cent coconut industry wiped out
It is estimated that between 75 to 80 per cent of coconut estates in T&T were destroyed. Following the luncheon, Bharath told the Sunday Guardian that the Government has reaped some measure of success with its mission to India with Sujatha's visit to T&T. "Her services, expertise and experience are all free to the Government."
The ministry will provide housing accommodation for Sujatha, Bharath said. Bharath said he was told by disease control agencies across the world that it may take as much as three to four years to fight the Red Palm Mite. Sujatha, Bharath said, will undertake the task in one year.
Developing a biological agent from scratch
Bharath said T&T could not supply a biological agent to counteract the disease, stating that one had to be developed from scratch. Bharath said importing a biological agent that may have worked elsewhere was risky since it could impact on our existing environment. By March 2013, Bharath said his ministry expects:
• A management strategy on Red Palm Mite and an action plan.
• Information package on Red Palm Mite natural enemies.
• Use of biological control agents to eradicate the disease.
Once this has been accomplished, Bharath said he will get the ball rolling to revitalise the coconut sector by inviting the private sector to invest. "What we are looking to do is get people from the private sector to invest where there are profitable opportunities. We are saying we want entrepreneurs who may not be involved in agriculture right now to look at the agriculture sector as any other business opportunity."
Agriculture URP programme on board
Bharath said to get the industry up and running, part of Caroni 1975 Ltd lands, comprising 40,000 acres can be used. Idle and barren lands in the countryside can also be sourced, Bharath said. Bharath said the coconut industry can become viable with the right people supporting it.
He drew reference to international soft drink manufacturer Pepsi Cola which has been buying up large coconut estates in Brazil and South America. "We can use this as an engine of diversification. We can now bottle and package coconut water in Trinidad and Tobago to export, earning triple times what the coconut is worth simply because it's a natural drink. All we need to do is find a way to preserve it. Clearly Pepsi Cola has found a way to do it... otherwise they would not have invested so heavily."
Stating that he was extremely optimistic about the initiative, Bharath said there are so many downstream industries than can be derived from the sector. During his trip to some of the rural areas in India, Bharath said he observed that every household was using coconut to make something to sell. Things such as mats, hats, slippers and hairbrushes were made from the coconut's fibre. The dried and freshly cut leaves were used for a variety of handicrafts.
"Somebody who lives in rural Trinidad who wants to earn a living can sit down at home and make a few dollars." Bharath said while the industry was highly labour intensive, his ministry was now looking at the agriculture URP programme to get on board to assist. "It is not just the jobs than can be derived... it is the income that can be generated by the people who can be self employed. We expect that it will generate thousands of jobs. But we have to start somewhere and this is the start."
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.