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Coconut trees threatened by deadly disease in Antigua

palm 1

BBC News – White sand beaches fringed by lofty palm trees – it is the image of a tropical paradise that has lured holidaymakers to the Caribbean for decades.

But in tourism-dependent Antigua, a deadly disease has wiped out almost half of the island’s majestic coconut palms – leaving unsightly headless trunks littering the landscape.

Lethal yellowing, the same condition that devastated the iconic trees in Florida and Jamaica, also strikes at the heart of this 280sq km (108sq mile) island’s culture and economy.

Here, coconut products are used in everything from food and drink to beauty treatments and traditional medicine.

Around 45% of Antigua’s thousands of coconut palms have been lost to date, estimates Barbara Japal, president of the island’s Horticultural Society.

‘Palm is the charm’

Street vendor Julian Rose is one of those affected. He has been selling coconut water for $3.70 (£2.40) a bottle for four years, but says the last 12 months have seen supplies nosedive by half – as has his income.

Coconut vendors, seen here working in the shadow of dying palms, are feeling the pinch

Coconut vendors, seen here working in the shadow of dying palms, are feeling the pinch

“I’ve kept my prices the same – people won’t pay more,” he says.

The official advice states that palms showing signs of the contagious disease, characterised by premature shedding of fruit and yellowing fronds that eventually drop off, should immediately be cut down and burned to prevent the disease spreading.

But the cash-strapped government’s lack of resources has enabled it to run rampant, with the trees dying in droves since lethal yellowing was first identified in 2012.

“It affects tourism because, as we say, the ‘palm is the charm’ and it really diminishes what the seascape looks like,” Mrs Japal tells the BBC.

“It’s devastating to see them standing there looking like beheaded soldiers. It’s shocking, it feels irreverent.

“Coconuts are used in so many aspects of daily life here too; people cook with them, put the oil on their skin and hair. And while it may not be part of conventional medicine, it’s part of our tradition to use the oil to heal the skin and cleanse the body.”

Imported threat

Lethal yellowing is spread by a plant-hopping insect that Mrs Japal believes was probably brought into the country with imported trees. A ban on importing palms has been in place since 2012.

“We had so many plants brought in some years ago,” Mrs Japal continues.

“We have a plant protection unit but when you have a container with 3,000 trees, who’s going to inspect every one?”

She says underfunding had left staff’s hands tied. “There’s no proper disposal or systematic removal of affected palms unless private individuals take action.”

There is currently no cure for lethal yellowing, although trees can be treated with quarterly injections of the antibiotic oxytetracycline (OTC).

“Local people are not using OTC; it’s just too expensive,” Mrs Japal adds. “The resorts are the only ones that can afford it.”

John Murphy, maintenance manager at the Carlisle Bay luxury resort, says bosses had decided to “be proactive rather than reactive” to protect the venue’s hundred palms.

The cost of treating each one with OTC every three to four months is around $450, he says.

“It’s not cheap and a side effect is that it’s not recommended to consume the coconut milk or jelly for a year after a tree’s been treated,” Mr Murphy says.

“Personally I don’t believe the antibiotic is 100% successful unless it’s administered every few months for the life of the tree – and they live to be 60 or 70 years old.”

He says bureaucracy has slowed the process of curbing the disease. The antibiotic must be imported with a special licence – but this is issued only after the presence of lethal yellowing has been officially confirmed.

The $150 cost of the test is also prohibitive for many people in a country where the minimum wage is just $3 an hour.

“It took almost a month to get the licence when we were promised we’d get it within a week,” Mr Murphy says.

‘Not much more we can do’

Such is the disease’s ferocity, an untreated palm usually dies within three to six months.

Martin Dudley, an ecological activist, says farmers and nurseries should be encouraged to grow replacement palms to supply hotels and holiday villas.

“The trees still standing where others have died, that show greater genetic strength, should be allowed to come to term – rather than harvesting the nuts for jelly – to provide seeds for new trees,” he says.

Kishma Primus-Ormond, a government plant protection officer, says authorities are inspecting as many suspected cases as they can while cutting down affected palms to halt the spread and clean up the island.

“We don’t have any funds,” she adds. “There’s not much more we can do.”

As Antigua’s new tourist season swings into gear, many are hoping that this will be enough.

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  1. Political Observer says:

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

    Antigua and Barbuda is just a stone’s throw away. So what is the Department of Agriculture, Customs……etc doing to protect local coconut trees from lethal yellowing? The BVI does not have that many coconut trees. According to the article, Antigua had/ has thousands of trees. We need to quarantine agricultural products coming into the country. Fire prevention is always better than fire fighting.

    It is unfortunate that Antigua is so cash-strapped that it is struggling to protect its tourism industry, its primary industry. This situation is a clear reason why regional integration is vital to the region’s survival. The region would have been in better shape if the Federation had taken root. The Federation tanked due to insularity and the inability to compromise on where to site the capital-Chaguaramas or Kingston. Instead, every little dot in the Caribbean Sea is on its own—–independent. If unification is good for Europe, Australia, US and Canada, why not the Caribbean? Let’s face it the independent little dots cannot make it alone.

    The lethal yellowing seems like a crisis for Antigua. Antigua, like its other regional sister countries, is prone to natural disasters with a slow resilience to disasters. Antigua is not alone in slow resilience to disasters. For example, rains from Tropical Storm Erika hit and significantly set back Dominica’s growth and development.

  2. E. Leonard says:

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    @Political Observer, good points. Though the article is about a deadly coconut disease-lethal yellowing, there are deeper issues that can be mined. As such, there are two specific points from PO’s comment that I would comment on.

    First, “Fire prevention is always better than fire fighting.” A well fought fire with minimal damages is still not as effective if the fire were not started in first place. Fire prevention equates to proactive action; firefighting, reactive action. Too much public sector action is reactive.

    Secondly, regional integration is like the elephant in the room that everyone knows is there but pretend it is not there. Most regional countries are Small Island Developing States (SIDS) with high vulerabilities and disadvantages. These include small domestic markets, limited economies of scale, high cost of energy, transportation, telecommunications, and infrastructure; prone to and little resilience to natural disasters, high dependence on public sector, fragile natural environments, high volality of economic growth, low growth and high debt, limited economic base/resources, vulnerability to external shocks, …….etc.

    Moreover, Caribbean SIDS cannot sustain growth and development as individual states. Consequently, to mitigate their vulnerabilities and disadvantages, they need to integrate, sharing their limited resources for the greater good of the region. Forming an effective regional union will be challenging but needed. Regional unification is like insurance where resources are pooled to share the risk. If Antigua and Barbuda were part of a regional block, a central agency could be expected to provide resources to mitigate lethal yellowing problem.

    The region needs to look seriously at restarting the unification process. The first attempt at unification (Federation) started in 1958( Barbados, Trinidad &Tobago, Jamaica, Windward Islands and Leeward Islands). But it floundered in its infancy, dissolving in 1962. The big islands pulling out resulted in the famous quote by Dr. Eric William: “one from ten leaves nought.” The big islands feared that they would have to shoulder the economic burdens of the lesser developed countries. Did the tides turned?

    • Trini & Tobago says:

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      Let it be clear that it was Jamaica pulling out of the Federation that cause Dr Williams to say “one from ten leave nought.”

  3. Eagle and Buffalo says:

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    Insularity and selfishness sucked the oxygen out of the Ferderation. The big islands thumb their noses at the small islands. For example, regardless of the talent and potential of Windward and Leeward Islands cricketers, they could not get a coveted cap on the West Indies team. It was not until the 60s that the door opened a little—-Roberts, Richards, Willet, Shillingford…..etc.

    They were shortsighted and believed that they would have to carry the economic burden of the lil islands. Today, emigration is mostly from the big islands to the lil islands, not from lil to big. Failing to see the value of a union, the big islands kill the Federation. Jamaica led the way to independence on August 06, 1962, followed by Trinidad, Barbados…….etc. How did that work out?

    Moreover, unless regional attitude change with a change of lenses, any attempt at regional unification will also flop, though it is needed. One of the biggest impediment to unification is freedom of movement.

    Further, tourism is Antigua’s prime industry with the beach being the prime attraction. It boasts of having 365 beaches; one for each day of the year. As such, it must protect and preserve its beaches. It must reprioritized its resources and allocate the funding to attack the lethal yellowing. The problem should have been attack from its earliest signs.

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