The fight against the coconut beetles

An adult female coconut rhinoceros beetle.

Suva, FIJI – September 10, 2019: 2.35pm (CIDP/SPC): Swaying palms, blue skies and turquoise seas have long been the image that characterised 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. 

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. 

Coconut plantation in Tonga…also facing the challenge of the rhinoceros beetles

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. 

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.” 

CIDP Team Leader Naheed Hussein who was present at the training, stated that Pacific island countries export more than 50% of the world’s copra production, with Papua New Guinea (PNG) being the largest producer.

For the region, the growing interest for coconut products has increased commercial utilisation opportunities exponentially. However at the same time, there is an alarming decline in the production of coconuts in the Pacific, due to two major contributors, senile coconuts (60- 70%), and pest and disease. 

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 was facilitated by Monica Gruber of Victoria Link, and 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 recognise 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 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?” 

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. 

PNG is struggling to control the new beetle, CRB-G, that has caused so much damage to the point of palms not being found anymore at the National Capital District (NCD), Port Moresby, and surrounding areas. This strain which was first discovered in Guam in 2007, is more malignant increased community awareness can help prevent and control pests and diseases; and found out how to find further information and assistance. 

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 and highly invasive compared to the Coconut Rhinoceros Beetle – Pacific Biotype (CRB) which spread in the region in 1909 through busy rubber trade routes from South Asia. The CRB-G is alarmingly resilient to current control measures and it has already invaded five Pacific Island countries in a span of only eight years. To give perspective to this, the CRB-Pacific biotype, has not had any major geographic expansion since it landed on our Pacific shores 40 years ago”. 

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. 

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. 

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. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *