Sigatoka: Will gov’t seek Taiwan help?

Issues facing the local banana industry have been a staple in discussions to do with the agricultural industry from late 2011 when the seriousness of yet another leaf spot disease, the Black Sigatoka reached crisis proportions. St Lucia’s banana industry had already faced an attack of the yellow sigatoka and according to experts at an agricultural risk training course funded by the World Bank’s Agricultural Risk Management Team held in November, the banana industry was “a total mess” as the island “couldn’t manage the yellow sigatoka, much less the black, which required much more in terms of treatment.”

Plants with leaves damaged by the disease may have up to 50 percent lower yield of fruit. If there was anyone who needed more convincing as to how serious a situation the industry faced, Agriculture Minister Moses Jn Baptiste recently announced that St Lucia was facing a national crisis in connection with the Black Sigatoka disease. The minister warned that the island’s food security was under threat. International agencies have expressed the desire to provide assistance to the island, including the French and Taiwanese Embassies based in St Lucia. This week a specialist from the International Centre for Agronomic Research and Development (CIRAD), a French research centre working with developing countries to tackle international agricultural and development issues visited the island and spoke on what could be done to help St Lucia deal with the Black Sigatoka disease. Among methods of tackling the disease a significant number of a banana species resistant to Black Sigatoka were brought in for experimental purposes.

“There will be another mission who will return to follow up,” Emmanuel Moiyez from the French Embassy told the STAR. “It’s not the only answer because what we understand is this new plant is resistant, but we don’t know exactly if it’s going to accommodate in St Lucia. There are other ways to explore, to contribute in the shortest period of time to fight against this disease. The answer could be using chemical products to fight against this for the moment. Cooperation between St Lucia and CIRAD has been ongoing since 2007.” The Taiwanese Embassy has also approached the government expressing their willingness to assist in dealing with the matter. Taiwanese Ambassador Tom Chou in an exclusive interview with the STAR this week commended the St Lucian government for their swift action in addressing the issue.

“This is a very serious disease,” Chou expressed. “As far as I know about 70 percent of the banana field has been affected. There are several options to address the disease, firstly talking about applying chemical on the leaves of banana trees. Based on my research you’d have to apply six or seven cycles of the chemical to the banana leaf—the chemical is a kind of oil that would need to be applied every two weeks. That would involve some costs in order to save the banana and those that are very serious you may face the decision of whether you have to cut it off and plant again.” According to Mr Chou, after planting the banana seedling, it would take about ten months to bear fruit, and the one of the concerns of the ambassador was how farmers would earn income during the ‘transitional period.’

“If the banana farmers only rely on one product can you imagine they have to wait at least ten months? During those months they have no income. With no income, how can the farmers support their families?” Chou felt there was need to address issues that could arise during the transitional period and one of the suggestions made by the Taiwanese ambassador who has been quite involved with the agricultural industry over the past few years through the Taiwanese Technical Mission was that farmers use 10 to 20 percent of their banana fields to plant ‘cash crops’ that could be harvested in a short period of time. “We would highly recommend that they plant some cash crops as most of the crops can be harvested in three months time—leaf vegetables like cabbage, which you can harvest in about one month, tomato; about two months, watermelon; about three months. It depends on what plant you’re talking about.”

The Taiwanese Ambassador spoke of the post Tomas experience where the Taiwanese Embassy put in place an initiative targeting local farmers. The idea behind the venture was to get farmers to plant ‘cash crops’ that could be harvested within three months. All seedlings had to be planted before December, 2010 and farmers received between EC $1000-$1500 per 0.1 hectres as a subvention. Initially the project was aimed at 600 local farmers but 1400 expressed willingness to participate. After the ministry of agriculture screened the grouping, 800 farmers were selected to be part of the initiative that resulted in about 3.2 million in earnings from their yield. Chou felt an initiative along those lines could be beneficial in this instance.

“This is based on our experience two years ago, which was very successful,” he said. “This is one of the options, the embassy just provides some sort of opinion [and does not] tell government what to do.” “The new government may have a different priority whether it’s regarding agriculture, sports, health or some other project,” he added. “The new government may have its own priority and may have different opinions.”

The Taiwanese ambassador went on: “It would perhaps still be number one but efforts for the diversification of agriculture in St Lucia should be continued because that would provide an alternative for farmers, particularly in cases where a national crisis like this is concerned.”

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