Already among the poorest sectors of our country, farmers are again facing impoverishment. This time it’s our coconut farmers.
Their coconut trees are under siege by coconut scale infestation (CSI).
According to the nationalist and for-the-people group of scientists, Agham, “about 338 million coconut trees are threatened by CSI. Losses have reached P179.6 million in Calabarzon alone. The severity of the infestation forced the BS Aquino Government to declare a state of emergency with the issuance of Executive Order (EO) 169.”
This EO mandates that emergency measures for the control and management of CSI be enforced. But very little has been done so far.
We are the world’s leading coconut producer and exporter. That helps make our country the gross-domestic-product great achiever that the world sees as a star economic performer.
That stardom is now threatened by this scourge.
This massive damage to our coconut industry could have been prevented five years ago.
“The current widespread problem of coconut scale infestation (CSI) could have been prevented five years ago,” said Ms. Finesa Cosico, an entomologist and Secretary General of AGHAM- Advocates of Science and Technology for the People.
CSI detected in 2009
In 2009, CSI was detected by the Regional Crop Protection Center of the Department of Agriculture (DA) in Barangay Ulango, Tanauan City, Batangas. By 2010, the infestation had spread to three additional barangays, namely Natatas, Santor and Balele.
Ms. Cosico adds: “If only the government, led by the Philippine Coconut Authority (PCA), took serious attention to reports of the initial infestation we would not be dealing with CSI on such a massive scale right now.”
“Immediate action from the government could have accurately identified the pest early on so that appropriate pest management was implemented to stop it from spreading,” she said.
Only in 2012 were coconut scale samples collected in Batangas. These were initially identified as Aspidiotus destructor (Signoret). Further confirmation revealed that the species is actually Aspidiotus destructor rigidus (Reyne), a subspecies of Aspidiotus destructor.
University of the Philippines Los Banos scientists Drs. Celia Medina and Barbara Caoili verified through morphologic and DNA analysis that sample specimens of CSI from Sangli Island in Indonesia are similar to those found in Batangas province.
The coconut scale, also known as Aspidiotus sp. or the cocolisap, is a common pest of coconuts and bananas. It can also infect a wide spectrum of other host plants such as avocado, breadfruit, mango, guava and papaya. This increases their capability to spread and survive.
Aspidiotus destructor rigidus Reyne (A. rigidus) is a subspecies of coconut scale originally identified in Indonesia. Unlike other cocolisap species, they live 1-1/2 times longer and the females lay only 10-12 eggs (compared to the average 90 eggs for most other species). They form dense colonies at the bottom part of coconut leaves.
The pests suck the sap from the green leaves and excrete toxins through their salivary glands. Because of this, an affected frond or leaf will dry up and turn yellow. If the infestation is severe, the yellow leaves will turn brown and wilt until the entire tree dies. Wind can then spread CSI to other trees.
Another distinct characteristic of the cocolisap is their ability to withstand high temperatures of 36 to 37 degrees Celsius. Ms. Cosico said: “El Nino can trigger more favorable conditions for CSI breeding.”
It is difficult to control pest outbreaks. Ms. Cosico said the best way to end the infestation is to deprive the pest of food. But in this case, that would mean cutting off the coconut trees in affected provinces. Ms. Cosico herself said this was absurd.
Farmers can now take stop-gap measures
“Because the infestation is already there, coconut farmers are left with reactive, stop-gap, and almost futile measures proposed by the PCA such as leaf pruning, the cutting of infected trees, use of organic pesticides, and utilization of biological control agents,” said Ms. Cosico.
Leaf-pruning is only effective before an actual pestilential outbreak.
A good way, but it’s hit or miss, Ms. Cosico said, is to introduce “predators or biological control agents. Even if natural predators of the cocolisap like the coccinellid Cryptognatha nodiceps are introduced, we don’t know if they can control CSI here. So far they have been successfully introduced in Java, Indonesia and Mauritius back in the 1930s.”
The PCA released 24,000 coccinellid beetles in 2013. Quezon province alone has 335,091 infected coconut trees. So the PCA “does not even have a beetle for every infected coconut tree in Quezon. In each infected tree you will find colonies of the cocolisap. You will need a swarm of these predators for every tree,” Ms. Cosico pointed out.
Agham said an “Integrated Pest Management system must be institutionalized that includes all pest control measures such as the introduction of natural enemies, application of organic pesticides to ensure effectiviness of pest control strategies.”
But all we can do now is try our best and shake our heads.
“If not for the blatant neglect of the Philippine Coconut Authority and the Department of Agriculture under the auspices of the BS Aquino regime, 3.5 million of our coconut farmers would not be facing the threat of losing their livelihoods,” said Ms. Cosico.