By INA ALLECO R. SILVERIO
MANILA — An agriculturist from the environmental political party Kalikasan Partylist is calling on the Benigno Aquino III government to address what she said was the problem of massive coconut scale infestation in Southern Tagalog, specifically in the province of Batangas. The group said it is urgent for the government to implement immediate and long-term solutions to the problem and provide immediate financial support to the affected coconut farmers.
According to reports, some 115,000 coconut trees planted in 1,700 hectares of land in Batangas are said to be infested with the Aspidiotus destructor Signoret or the coconut scale insect.
Batangas province suffered the heaviest state of infestation with 41 barangays and seven municipalities affected to date.
According to agriculturalist and Kalikasan Partylist convener Finesa Cosico, the coconut scale pest is one of the most destructive armored scale insects that infest coconut and other plant species, including oil palm, cucumber, tomato, and banana. The pest is said to grow quickly and spread in colonies, decreasing crop yields and eventually killing the plants that it infests.
Based on studies, the insect sucks out the nutrients and sap of the coconut tree. The leaves will then turn brown and eventually fall. Infested trees, prior to dying, yield fewer fruits.
“We cannot underscore enough the need for the national government to adopt long-term solutions to stop this infestation and prevent its spread. Coconuts are a major agricultural export of the country; they’re planted on one-third of Philippine agricultural lands. Given all this, national agencies should be ready with mitigation and control measures to prevent more possible infestations,” she argued.
Stop the infestation from spreading
In earlier months, congressional lawmakers have called for official inquiries into the extent of the infestation. Batangas Rep. Manuel Collantes said if the coconut pest infestation is not stopped, it might spread to other coconut-producing regions such as Leyte and Samar.
There have also been reports that besides coconut trees, other palm species such as the Palmera, Hawaiian Palm and kaong have also been infested.
Several towns in Laguna, Batangas and Quezon have also reported incidence of infestation. Cosico said an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) program for coconut lands should be institutionalized.
“In IPM, pest control strategies should not rely on single solutions but combination of various approaches such as cultural management (such as inter-cropping) and biological control (such as the use of natural predators that can regulate the population of pests). Many of these strategies remain untapped and unused at the national level,” she explained.
The agriculturalist also stressed the need for higher budget allocations for research and development for the production, development and dissemination of appropriate technologies and strategies to improve the ailing coconut industry. She also said the government should support coconut farmers affected by the infestation.
Kalikasan Partylist also addressed its appeal to the Philippine Coconut Authority (PCA), the Bureau of Plant Industry (BPI) Plant Quarantine Service (PQS), Department of Agriculture – National Crop Protection Center (DA-NCPC) and the Southern Tagalog Integrated Agricultural Research Center (STIARC).
“Most of the 3.5 million coconut farmers belong to poor communities affected by low productivity even before the infestation set in. Compared to rice and sugarcane, coconut plants have the lowest farm value and therefore coconut farmers are among the most hard pressed to recover from the losses,” she said.
Only six percent affected?
Downplaying the scourge against the coconut trees in Southern Tagalog, however, the office of the PCA said that only six percent of the overall coconut production in Batangas are actually affected by the coconut scale insect.
According to PCA Administrator Euclides G. Forbes, among the 34,932.7 hectares planted with coconut in Batangas covering 34 municipalities, only nine municipalities with a coverage of 2,054.46 hectares are affected. He also said that only 74 out of 1,078 barangays or villages where coconut is grown have been affected.
Forbes said field personnel have already been sent out to stop the spread of the pest to nearby provinces Laguna and Quezon. He also said mechanical and biological control measures are already in place to save the trees. Forbes said farmers can control the scale insect by removing them from the plants by hand or spraying the trees with soapy water.
Forbes also said farmers can also wash the infected part of the trees or briskly wash them with a spray-hose. He also said predator insects have also been reportedly released, from 20,000 to 60,000 insects that eat and destroy the coconut pests.
In Tanuan, Batangas, coconut farmers earlier this month were forced to cut down 20,000 infected trees, many of which were almost a century old. To somewhat mitigate their enormous losses, the farmers sold the felled trees as lumber for P1,500 ($34) per tree.
Before the coconut pest infestation, coconut farmers in the region are said to be harvesting up to 4,000 coconuts and 200 kilos of macapuno and buko every month. This is equivalent to P15,000 ($348) for every coconut farm at least three hectares in size.
Because of the infestation, many coconut farmers have lost their trees and in the process, their entire livelihood. The coconut pest infestation is said to hit the small coconut farmers the hardest, destroying their livelihood in one swoop. According to reports, it will not be easy for the affected farmers to recover from what they lost: it takes at least 15 years for a coconut tree to bear fruit; and a healthy tree can live and give fruit from 100 to 200 years.
According to reports, at least P4 million ($95 thousand) is needed for every two coconut-growing villages to help them stop the spread of the coconut pest.
Coconut farmers, poorest in the sector
Despite the threat of the coconut pest infestation, the PCA in Southern Tagalog also expressed optimism that the target of coconut production in 2012 will double if not triple because of the different programs the PCA has been reportedly implementing in the last five years.
PCA Calabarzon regional manager Joselito Alcantara said, in a report, that the agency has planted more dwarf coconut seedlings and distributed agricultural salt to farmers as as fertilizer for existing coconut trees.
The official said the PCA is not only focusing on programs that would improve coconut farming in the Calabarzon provinces of Cavite, Laguna, Batangas, Rizal and Quezon but is also taking steps to help improve the lives of coconut farmers, especially indigent families.
According to a January 2012 report by chairman of Agriwatch Ernesto Ordoñez, there are approximately 340,000 coconut farmers in the country and that they constitute the poorest farming sector in the country.The budget for the PCA in 2011 is less than five percent of the 2012 budget for rice, even if the PCA budget has increased by 88 percent.
“For projects alone, the budget has increased by 140 percent. However, the amount is still not sufficient to significantly improve coconut farmers’ income,” he wrote.
Ordoñez said that 2011′s P300 million ($6.97 million) budget for the PCA’s four seed gardens and three research centers will continue in 2012, fulfilling a PCA objective of research and development.
“The fund for planting/replanting of coconut trees has been increased from P60 million to P500 million ($1.43 million to $11.19 million), while the salt fertilization fund increased from P120 million to P300 million ($2.87 million to $6.97 million),” he said.
For all these developments, however, Ordoñez said, the situation remains such that one-third of the country’s coconut lands have unproductive trees and two-thirds have no fertilization, the P800 million ($19.4 million) budget to address these two problems is very inadequate.