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Coconuts In Peril

Jul 3, 2010 2:45:12 PM - thesundayleader.lk

All Affected By The “Weligama Wilt”

By Faraz Shauketaly in Habaraduwa

Sri Lanka is going nuts! Well not quite but one of the country’s prized exports — coconuts — is being severely affected like at no other time in its recorded history.

400,000 coconut palms are suspected of having been afflicted by the disease known as the ‘Weligama Wilt’ which affects the vigour and the rigorous resistance which the coconut palm is renowned for. The 88 KM stretch of so-called “Disease Free Zone” so designated by the Coconut Boards’ Research Institute, from Galle to Hambantota via Matara,  has seen a concerted effort by the CRI to contain the spread of the disease.

Not all people in the industry were pleased with the efforts however: two officers of the Coconut Research Institute (CRI) were set upon and attacked after issuing notices condemning some palms in Habaraduwa. The palm owners are duty-bound by law to comply with the CRI notices – with the law providing for CRI to take action for the removal of the palms if the owners are not complying.
That there was a problem was identified towards the end of December 2007.

Director of the CRI, Dr. Ms. Chitranganee Jayasekera said towards the end of 2007 they had detected that the coconut tree leaf was rotting and that eventually the rigour with which the coconut palm yields its nuts had been affected. The CRI launched a full scale programme to detect the disease and intensified efforts to find methods to stop the spread.

Their search took them to countries as diverse as Cote D’Ivore (The Ivory Coast) on the African continent to Papua New Guinea in Australasia and of course to neighbouring India. It was found that the Indians had a not too dissimilar problem that had been going on for about a century. The Indians had named their version of the “blight” “The Kerala Wilt”. The Sri Lankan’s have named theirs the “Weligama Wilt,” she said.

The CRI also found that the disease can be carried to other areas and that find featured in their decision to take somewhat drastic action, inspite of serious economic considerations.

Their action to issue orders to immediately cut down the affected palms and to destroy the stump appears to have contained the problem though it is still too early to predict the level of success, Dr. Jayasekera said. She asserted various methods suggested to combat the disease would produce results in years rather than weeks. “It’s a medium to long term” remedial action, she said.
Some of the economic consequences are horrendous: the livelihood of thousands of people threaten to be affected.

The Sunday Leader in an exclusive interview with Dr. Jayasekera, was told that the government had allocated Rs 750 million to assist in this tragedy that was playing out in the theatre of the Southern Province. The funds allocated not only cover the compensation per tree destroyed (Rs 2,000) but are also to fund ‘quick-victory’ type strategies like cross cultivation of cash crops, rubber, tea small holdings and animal husbandry. In that context, the Rs 750 million may well appear to be inadequate, but the government has recognised the urgency and the severity of the problem by reacting swiftly with the funding.

The actual products of the coconut palm itself are not affected: even though the CRI has banned the transport of palms in and out of the danger zone, it has permitted the movement of the nuts itself and other products if the nuts are de-husked before transportation. Coconuts remain safe to be consumed in all its myriad uses as does the use of the log itself. The stump of the tree has to be destroyed completely to control the disease, Dr. Jayasekera said. The CRI has also indefinitely banned the cultivation of coconut palms in the danger zone. It was, said Dr Jayasekera, “an essential step taken with the long term prospects of the industry in mind.”

Exotic varieties of palms have now been imported by the CRI from Cote D’ivoire, Papua New Guinea and India. These saplings have now been planted and the results can be expected in two to three years. There is no prospect of an immediate resolution to this disease and the industry can expect very tight control being exercised by the Coconut Research Institute, the de facto custodian of the coconut industry in Sri Lanka.


Thugs Gone Nuts

Two officers of the Lunuwila Coconut Research Station sent to investigate had been brutally assaulted by a group of thugs opposed to the order to cut down some of the affected trees recently. The two officers, Ajith Nandasiri and E. Atapattu after completing their field work at Weligama had proceeded to a site in Habaraduwa.

According to OIC Habaraduwa Police, Inspector W.D. Welagedera, while on the site the officers had noted that five trees had been adversely affected by the pests. There being no alternative, they instructed the owners of the plot to cut down all affected trees, in order to stop the spread of the disease. The owners refused to carry out what was suggested and had vehemently opposed it. Then the officers from the Board had told them if they did not carry out the required felling within a week the only option left would be to begin the work themselves.

No sooner the words were uttered, they had been set upon by three thugs of the area. They had been hospitalised at the Karapitiya Teaching Hospital and were discharged on Thursday. One officer had received injuries to his face, while the other to his back. They had been beaten with sticks.

The Habaraduwa Police had sent a search party under OIC Crimes, Sub Inspector L.D.N Karunaratne and arrested two of the thugs while one had managed to escape and is now absconding. According to Habaraduwa Police the ones taken into custody were produced before Galle Magistrate Chamara Tennekoon and were remanded till June 28.