‘A Waste of Money’

Former agriculture minister Calixte George speaks about government plan to tackle banana's worst nightmare.

St Lucia’s Minister for Agriculture, Moses Jn Baptiste announced at a highly anticipated meeting with farmers earlier this month that his ministry has committed 12 million dollars in the fight and control of the Black Sigatoka disease.
Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture Hubert Emmanuel says Cabinet has already given the green light for a Black Sigatoka management program that has already been initiated.
Emmanuel further explains that government will initially take care of the costs of inputs but farmers will have a role to play in the process due to the high cost attached to combating the leaf spot disease. He added that there are currently no plans to cut down and replant banana fields and “the ministry of agriculture is taking a management approach which involves fungicides, the clearing of abandon fields and the use of proper drainage.”
The PS also indicated that his Ministry has not received outside funding for the program but is getting technical assistance from research agencies such as CARDI and CIRAD.
Meanwhile in an exclusive interview with the STAR, former Agriculture Minister Calixte George says government will be “wasting money if they proceed with the current plan.” He believes a different approach will eradicate the fungus and restore healthy banana fields.
“The control of Black Sigatoka must be a comprehensive one and it must be properly managed. I am not satisfied with the manner in which the agricultural department has proposed the management, where they said they would be giving people fertilizer and oil to do the spraying.
“It is true that you require fertilizer but before you could utilize the fertilizer the plants have to be in a condition where they can absorb the fertilizer and right now the plants are not in that condition because the fields are very bad. One: The fields have not been properly drained since Hurricane Tomas and so you have plants that are not in a position to absorb fertilizer;
The second point is that it is the wrong time to apply fertilizer because you are in the dry season. Although it is a good thing to give fertilizer, you will be wasting our money; the government will be wasting money by giving fertilizer at this time,” said George.
He further explained that fertilizer is not the only option. Additionally, George said, plant sanitation is required:
“Number one, there are different types of spores and you have to treat them differently. For instance, there are certain plants that would have specific spores on the dry leaf. You have to go into the field and remove those dry leaves and burn them so that the spores cannot affect other plants nearby.
“The third thing you have to do is drainage so that you can reduce the relative humidity of the field so that the other type of spores which are the Conidia Spores, do not have the prime conditions for disease development.”
George also indicated that he does not support the whole idea of spraying.                 According to the agriculture expert: “That in my mind is a waste of time and money of course, because you have too much deflection in the manner in which the spraying is going to be done by farmers. What has to happen if you really want good control is for the ministry of agriculture to set up a leaf spot control unit that will manage the disease in a unified manner.
The former agriculture minister told the STAR that he is not looking for a job but would like to offer advice on how to control the leaf spot disease.
“I am retired. I am not looking for a job but you need a team of people, you need an agronomist so that plant sanitation practices are done right. You need a plant pathologist to monitor the severity of the disease in the fields and extension officers who are dedicated to that particular problem because it is a national problem.
“So I am willing to prepare the team and to get people who are available in countries who know about the disease. I am prepared to mobilize the team and work with the ministry of agriculture and guide them along in the process.”
He also urged the government to request from WINFRESH monetary assistance to help farmers fight the disease. George believes that farmers do not have the finance to do it on their own and according to him, should farmers successfully restore their fields, WINFRESH stands to make the most significant profit from it.
Minister for Agriculture Moses Jn Baptiste says he is in agreement with all professionals in the field of agriculture “who say that the management to Black Sigatoka has a lot to do drainage.”
The minister adds: “But I believe, while we put the systems in place to do more work on our drainage system, we know that hurricane Tomas dealt us a very bad blow especially with the drainage of our banana fields where that is concerned but we cannot wait until we construct drains in our banana fields before we give the farmers assistance to boost production.”
Jn Baptiste admitted that fertilizers and chemicals will not solve the current problem without proper drainage and good husbandry practices but still insists that assistance must be given to farmers to begin the process of combating the disease.
When asked about plans to bring George on board as an advisor, the minister did not hesitate to say: “Mr Calixte George is a professional, he is a scientist and we cherish his advice. Mr Calixte George is a member of our party, a senior member of our party, and I am in constant dialogue with Mr Calixte George. There is a place for the skills set that Mr Calixte George has and the skills set that many
other professionals in agriculture have and we are considering how to use those skills of not only that of Mr George but many other professionals in agriculture.”

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