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SVG ’green gold’ floored by again Black Sigatoka

SVG ’green gold’ floored by again Black Sigatoka


The recent flare up of the Black Sigatoka disease has the various stakeholders involved in the banana industry pointing fingers at the Ministry of Agriculture, blaming them for defaulting on their obligation as the institution responsible for pest and disease control, in the management of the rapid spread of the dreaded Black Sigatoka disease.{{more}}

Henry Keizer, General Manager of WINFAM Investments Limited explained that unless action is taken soon, the banana industry could be in some serious trouble.

“The consequences would be severe,” Keizer said, and while he could not give a figure of the approximate loss of revenue should the situation get worse, he said that based on the average number of cartons of bananas exported each week, the industry could be facing a loss of about EC$60,000 each week.

The disease first appeared in the country back in 2009, and according to Keizer, the Ministry of Agriculture had agreed to put the necessary mechanisms in place, including ground crews, ensuring that oil and fungicide was always in stock and that there would be a robust regime to ensure the control of Black Sigatoka.

After all, the disease cannot be totally eradicated; however Keizer explained that it can be controlled.

“Up to Hurricane Tomas, although the disease had already been identified here, we were doing well because the control methods were put in place,” Keizer told SEARCHLIGHT.

“Although the spray (aerial) wasn’t as often as we would have liked, we were doing up to 10,000 cartons per week,” he continued.

Only about five farmers had been notified that they could no longer sell bananas due to their farms being overtaken by an infestation of the disease.

The situation still looked good, according to Keizer, up to October last year. However, after Hurricane Tomas there was not a return to the usual cultural practice to control the disease.

The Ministry, however, took the responsibility, Keizer explained, to sensitize farmers and take out abandoned fields, which were breeding the disease and were potentially hazardous to other fields.

The WINFAM GM also explained that the Ministry was expected to beef up aerial spray cycles.

“The banana service unit budgeted for 6 cycles, but we only had two mini-cycles in March and May,” Keizer said.

There are two ground crews, he explained, but their purpose is to get isolated pockets.

Furthermore, the disease is better controlled with aerial spraying, but a delay in the arrival of the oil used meant a delay in the spray cycles.

Keizer said that he has been pleased with the rehabilitation work since the hurricane, but he was not satisfied with the efforts to control the disease after the storm.

“If we had aerial cycles when we should have, then all of this or most would have been avoided,” he said.

The consequence of the disease is that it triggers off premature ripening, which consequently has the potential of ripening the other fruit on the same shipment, which translates into problems for the local industry.

The full extent of the problem is still not yet known, but according to Keizer, large numbers of trees that would have to be cut back, would mean fewer boxes to be shipped.

Fewer cartons also opens the possibility that WINFRESH may make a decision that it is not economically feasible to travel to St Vincent to collect small volumes of poor quality fruit.

This in turn would force farmers to sell the fruit on the regional market, which according to Keizer is already flooded with fruit from Costa Rica and Suriname.

Arthur Bobb, Windward Islands Farmers Association (WINFA)/Fairtrade Manager, added that the issue was very serious for farmers because some had not earned an income from as far back as February 2010.

Bobb added that the situation would eventually have a negative effect on rural communities, as the industry has always contributed significantly to those communities.

“We are at a critical crossroads, and if we don’t do anything to win the confidence of the farmers it will become serious,” Bobb said.

The situation is also taking its toll on the numbers of farmers he explained.

“The lack of confidence is also beginning to show in the decline of participating farmers,” Bobb told SEARCHLIGHT.

“The ministry has given its commitment and we hope that they do, because no one wants the situation to persist,” he said.

Howver, the Ministry of Agriculture is giving the assurance that banana farmers’ confidence will be restored, despite the present situation that seems to be threatening the future of the banana industry.

Chief Agricultural Officer Reuben Robertson, in an interview with SEARCHLIGHT, said that the Ministry of Agriculture was in fact doing all it could, in light of the recent flare up of the Black Sigatoka disease.

He explained the reason for the delay in the arrival of the oil, saying that the former arrangement with the St Vincent Banana Growers Association (SVBGA) and the supplier of the required oil was that the oil was supplied and payments made later.

However, after the SVBGA had been dissolved, the suppliers no longer held on to this agreement and were now requiring payment before delivery.

Robertson added that there were spray cycles in March with another to be conducted in April.

This did not take place, however, due to some “technical differences”, he said.

A subsequent meeting in May with all the stakeholders involved was held and, according to Robertson, an agreement was reached that the government’s procurement procedures was too slow to address the problem.

By this point, due to the lack of spraying and the weather conditions, which were conducive to the rapid growth of the Black Sigatoka disease, other measures were put in place.

The farmers were told of the issues which led to the delay in the oil arriving here, Robertson said, adding that the next shipment was scheduled to arrive next week and promised all involved that there will be three spray cycles conducted by the end of the year.

Robertson also explained that they will begin to enforce existing legislation which gives the authorities permission to cut back abandoned fields which serve as hosts to the spread of the disease.