Philippines takes emergency steps as pest attacks coconut trees

Posted at 06/20/2014 6:55 PM

Number of damaged coconut trees up 30 percent in two weeks

MANILA - The Philippines has taken emergency measures in a bid to head off a fast-spreading insect infestation threatening its coconut plantations, which if left uncontrolled could severely cripple the country's most valuable agricultural export.

The number of damaged trees in the world's top exporter of coconut oil has jumped 30 percent in two weeks, stoking worries about tighter supplies at a time when global demand is seen outstripping production from Asia, home to 85 percent of output.

From just about 1,300 trees two weeks ago, the number of damaged fruit-bearing trees has jumped to more than 1,700, state-agency Philippine Coconut Authority (PCA) said on Friday.

The loss of production could reach more than P33 billion ($752.39 million) in a year if the coconut scale infestation spreads to major coconut-growing provinces such as the Bicol region and the Zamboanga Peninsula, PCA board chairman Francis Pangilinan said last week.

The country's annual exports of coconut products averaged $1.3 billion in the past two years.

Still reeling from damage to about a tenth of its estimated 340 million coconut trees from Super Typhoon Haiyan late last year, the country is now struggling to contain what Agriculture Secretary Proceso Alcala has described as an "epidemic".

"There is no 100 percent effective weapon yet against the insects," Alcala said.

Tight supply after the typhoon has pushed up Philippine coconut oil prices by over 12 percent this year to a high of $1,415 a tonne recently in Rotterdam. Gains could continue to be clocked up if the infestation is not controlled.

"The insects are air-borne so they could spread quickly in just a matter of days if the winds are strong," said an expert at the PCA who did not want to be named as he was not authorized to speak to media.

QUARANTINE MEASURES

Infested areas have been placed under quarantine in an effort to prevent the insects from invading nearby bigger plantations in the Bicol region and the Zamboanga Peninsula in the south, said PCA's Pangilinan, who is also the presidential assistant for food security and agricultural modernisation.

The PCA has begun implementing measures such as pruning leaves and spraying pesticides in affected areas.

The insect feeds on the leaves of the coconut tree, sucking nutrients until the leaves turn yellow, then die and fall off.

Earlier this month, President Benigno Aquino approved a P750 million budget for an insect control programme covering affected plantations in five provinces such as Quezon, Batangas, Cavite, and Laguna, just south of Manila, and Basilan in southern Philippines.

"If the spread of this invasive pest is not contained, it may wipe out the coconut industry ... eventually in the rest of the country," he said.

Euclides Forbes, a coconut farmer and former PCA chief, said the insects - called Aspidiotus Rigidus - were first detected in 2009 in four villages in Batangas.

There are 23 coconut oil mills operating in the affected areas, representing a third of the nationwide total, according to an estimate by the United Coconut Associations of the Philippines (UCAP). But these mills operate at a capacity of as low as 15 tonnes per day, compared with mills elsewhere which run at as high as 900 tonnes per day.

The industry group expects Philippines' coconut harvest to drop 13.5 percent to 2.4 million tonnes this year, 3.8 percent shy of the average in the last three years.

Exports have already started dwindling, with preliminary UCAP data showing January to April coconut oil shipments plunged 49 percent from a year ago to 237,831 tonnes.

The UCAP has for now retained its estimate for a 24.5 percent drop in exports this year to 850,000 tonnes, but its executive director, Yvonne Agustin, said the impact of the infestation on output and exports had not yet been factored in.

"I'm not yet sure how significant it would be," she told Reuters. "But the impact may also be felt by many families making a living from producing and trading coconut products."