Sunday, February 2, 2014

Thyolo Bananas Go Banana

...As Banana Bunchy Top scare affects farmers' livilihood

A tense hush falls over the entire field whenever a banana plant crushes to the ground in Thyolo.

Down and out- Some of the banana plants destroyed in Thyolo

It has been some 11 months since the first banana plant collapsed last October, but farmers from group village headmen Kalintulo and Maoni can still not get used to the idea of chopping down the very banana plants that have sustained them for ages.

“That,” says one of the affected farmers, Smart Namakhwa, pointing at one of the fallen banana plants in his one hectare field, “has been the source of my income for years.”

He finds no solace in the fact that Maoni is not the only village affected in Traditional Authority Mphoka’s area.

“That would have made sense in the past. These days, Malawians seem to have lost that communal spirit. We no longer care about each other; Maoni’s problems cannot be of Kalintulo’s concern. That is the attitude these days,” Namakhwa adds.

Kalintulo - We are finished

That is the only point the father of three sons and four daughters mentions with emphasis, before dropping into self-withdrawal again, aware of the challenges that lie ahead.

That is what happens to people who have been taken by surprise.

All was well for Namakhwa, who claims to have ‘inherited banana cultivation from his parents, until Banana Bunchy Top disease hit the village in October 2010. That was to mark the beginning of a sad routine for Thyolo farmers.

The routine goes like this for farmers whose plants are hit by Bunchy Top: identification and confirmation of the disease. Crop sanitation, which includes the spraying of aphicides. Sometimes, a hole is dug through the infected plant for herbicide injection. Then, 24 hours later, the crops (infected mats) are destroyed.

That is not all, though, because focus now turns to all alternative hosts. These include ginger and taro, if they are present in the vicinity. The last step is a life-long commitment, as farmers are told to carry out routine checks for symptoms of the disease in, otherwise, healthy looking plants.

All these procedures puzzle Kalintulo.

“I have never seen something like this (disease) in my life. Let those in the know help us,” Kalintulo says.

Behind him, the banana plants are either yellow, stunted, or fallen.

For the stunted banana plants, it is a tragedy of great proportions because their bunches are visibly weak, the number of leaves is reduced –with the leaves portraying a yellow margin- and the suckers are stunted. This affects the ability of leaves to expand, thereby impacting negatively of fruit production.

That is what scares village headman Kalintulo. He has children to take care of. He has disputes to resolve. But, before all these things, he is his own individual; he is Simeon Samuel, his real name before he ascended to the throne.

“I have children who depend on me. And I depend on bananas to pay school fees and meet my family needs. There are times I think that our children will die because of this. Come to think of it; before the disease, my income from banana sales ranged from K30,000 to K80, 000.

Now that has been reduced to zero,” Kalintulo says.

He has so many questions: “We found our parents cultivating bananas, and we took it up from them. Now, what shall we do? How are we going to pay school fees? How will we survive?”

And (he has) one answer. “I think we are finished; all we want is that
this disease should go.”

That is his wish (that the disease should go); a wish better said than done.
Can Banana Bunchy Top disease really go?

“No, it is impossible to eliminate Bunchy Top,” says Misheck Soko, chairperson of the task force instituted to strategise on the issue of Banana Bunchy Top disease.

Soko has never been a prophet of doom. He is merely looking at history of the disease, and drawing practical lessons from it.

“In Australia, for example, they have had this disease for a long time. They have never been able to eliminate it. The second reason is that the virus that causes Bunchy Top has an alternative way of surviving elimination mechanisms,” says Soko.

In Malawi, he adds, it will even be more difficult.

“It all boils down to the way we do our agriculture. We have people who cultivate bananas as their core source of income, and these are easy to reach out to, and work with. Then, we have people who grow bananas at their backyards, people who are into banana cultivation by fault. These are the threat to eliminating the disease because they cannot be easily monitored and reached,” adds Soko.

What this means is that large scale banana farmers can be incorporated into efforts geared towards controlling Bunchy Top. The ‘backyard’ farmers cannot, because “they don’t value their bananas that much”.

This explains why Malawi’s appeal for assistance from the Food and Agriculture Organisation, in a project that aimed at ascertaining the amount of land dedicated to banana production, achieved mixed results over a decade ago. Large scale farmers, like those from Nkhatabay and Thyolo, provided proper measurements for their fields.

But ‘backyard’ farmers did not; they inflated the figures. Others even deflated them.
That, too, is the reason Malawi still has problems quantifying the amount of land dedicated to banana production. The more reason national banana production statistics cannot be relied upon.

The last time the country carried out an assessment was in 1997. And the amount arrived at was 308 hectares.

Not a true reflection, agriculture experts argue. Malawi, therefore, needs another assessment exercise. But the ‘backyard’ farmers will still be there to mislead.

“However, let me say that we are making progress. We have made some great strides from the time we launched the campaign on Bunchy Top. We have notified extension teams. We have raised awareness among banana farmers. With proper coordination, the way we are doing, we will be able to control the disease,” says Soko.

Soko says, however, that the disease is still spreading. He adds that there might be some pockets of land where existence of the disease has not yet been recorded, posing the danger of further spread.

Surveillance has always been Malawi’s age-old problem, though; starting from the time Banana Bunchy Top disease was first reported and confirmed in Thiwi area, Nkhotakota. The year was 1994, and the disease has continued to spread to all the three regions of the country.

The disease is caused by banana bunchy top virus, which affects all banana varieties and reduces productivity of the banana orchard to zero, with time.

Banana Bunchy Top is transmitted from plant to plant by banana aphid (pentalonia nigronervosa), and spreads through movement of infected plant materials.

That is how the disease has managed to spread to all districts in Malawi except Karonga, Rumphi and Chtipa.

Nobody knows whether this is due to government’s delays in completing construction works on the controversial Karonga-Chitipa Road.

“We are finished,” says Kalintulo.

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