New pest fast destroying coconut trees in Luzon

The infestation is spreading fast from Calabarzon to Bicol. The Philippine Coconut Authority needs local governments to declare a state of calamity.

DYING TREE OF LIFE. Infested coconut trees near Mt Makiling in Los Baños, Laguna have yellowing, dying leaves. All photos by Pia Ranada/Rappler

MANILA, Philippines – Magno Mercado, a 54-year-old coconut farmer from Los Baños, Laguna, looks up at his dead coconut tree. It’s leafless and blackened. All that remains is a thin stump piercing the sky. 

The leaves are gone, destroyed by a never-before-seen coconut pest. Mercado’s other trees are also infested. He now has no coconuts to sell. 

Wala na kaming mabenta. Nagtanim ako ng atis at mga gulay-gulay kasi wala na kaming pambili [ng pagkain],” he said. 

(We have nothing to sell. I planted sugar apple and vegetables because we have no money to buy food.)

His trees are one of more than 54,000 coconut trees in Region IV-A (Calabarzon) that have been infested by a new strain of coconut scale insect, according to a technical report by the Philippine Coconut Authority (PCA).

The scale insect (Aspidiotus destructor) kills coconut trees by covering the underside of its leaves, blocking their openings and preventing them from producing food for the tree.

“The openings are covered, suffocating the leaves. Chlorophyl production is diminished because there is reduced photosynthetic activity. Photosynthesis is needed for the plant to produce its food. The leaves die. Without leaves, the tree will die,” said agriculture scientist and coconut farmer Tony Celino.

The infestation was first reported to the PCA in March 2010. It was first spotted in Barangay Balele in Tanauan, Batangas. By that time, more than 15,000 trees were already infested within a 15-kilometer radius. PCA scientists and farmers observed serious yellowing of coconuts and the drying of the trees’ leaves. The water inside the nuts tasted sour.

But because scale insects on coconut trees is an ordinary occurrence, not much was done about it.

THE PEST. The coconut scale insects, looking like brown, creamy spores, attach to the undersheath of coconut tree leaves

Then, in a span of 3 months, the infestation leapt from moderate to severe. By June 2011, at least 11,000 more trees were infested. This time, the infestation spread to Lemery town on the other side of Taal Lake. In one year, the scale insects reached coconut trees in Los Baños, Laguna. A month after, infestation was reported in Quezon.

If not contained, the infestation could reach the Bicol region and eventually the rest of Luzon, predicted Celino.

The great speed by which the insects multiply and spread led scientists to believe that they were dealing with a new species of scale insect, one that must have come from another country. 

“The current species involved is creamy in color, flat, and soft,” noted scientists Fred and Linda Rillo in a report.

The earlier species, the one normally spotted in the Philippines, is “black in color, of higher mound, and quite hard to the feel.”

By a cruel twist of fate, the epidemic began and continues to spread in Calabarzon, the Luzon region with the biggest coconut industry.

Coconut production in the region is highest in the whole of Luzon, bringing in more than 1.5 million coconuts in 2006. That’s almost half (42%) of Luzon’s total coconut production.

There are also a total of 328,516 coconut farmers in the region whose livelihoods are now threatened by the scale insect outbreak.

This does not count the thousands who make a living from other parts of the coconut tree. People who make products like cooking oil, livestock feeds, ropes, blankets, vinegar, handicrafts and furniture depend on healthy coconut trees.

Government to blame?

With bitterness, Mercado blames the government for the rampant and now uncontrollable spread of the coconut scale insect. 

Ang ating gobyerno, eh alam na may sakit, hindi agad nila inagapan na kumuha agad ng solusyon na hindi dumami agad ‘yung insektong hayop na ‘yan.

(Our government, even when they knew about the insect, did not act quickly enough to find a solution so that the insect would not spread so quickly.) 

COCONUT FARMER'S PLIGHT. Coconut farmer Magno Mercado has nothing to sell now that his coconut trees have stopped bearing fruit after being severely infested by scale insects

DEATH THROES. One of Mercado's coconut trees (left) is dead, the other is severely infested

Celino agreed: “The government should have taken a vigorous approach against these pests as early as 2010. It was open knowledge.” 

The government could have contained the infestation by clearing away the area around infected trees, thereby creating a buffer zone to prevent its spread. Affected trees could have been killed while they were still relatively few. 

PCA Administrator Euclides Forbes admitted his agency could have done more. By the time he took on his post in 2011, the infestation had spread to 4 villages.

Inaamin ko, may pagkukulang din kami (I admit we had shortcomings). But at the time, our entomologists thought the insects were like other scale insects in the Philippines. When they found out it’s from a different country, they started looking for a different approach.”

Together with the Crop Protectors Association of the Philippines, the PCA is formulating a root injection that would target only the scale insects.

The PCA task force created in 2011 to deal with the outbreak has also been given a bigger budget this 2014. From a budget of P30 million last year, they now have P50 million just to rid Calabarzon of the pests.

Forbes knows they need to act fast.

You need only drive through Los Baños to see entire hillsides of sick coconut trees with their yellowing leaves and, in severe cases, brown, skeletal leaves about to fall to the ground. 

Interim solution

What the PCA is doing in the meantime is to deploy almost 1,000 volunteers and 225 sprayers – machines with hoses used to spray trees with an organic pesticide. This pesticide is a mixture of cochin oil and dishwashing liquid. The PCA is not allowed to use stronger toxic pesticides which could harm humans, animals, and other crops.

But the going is rough. 

One major challenge, said Forbes, is the inaccessibility of many of the trees. Some trees are too tall for the sprayers to reach, others are way up in the mountains. Volunteers need to lug up drums and drums of water needed for the sprayers. And to effectively kill the pests from trees, they have to be sprayed every 10 days. 

The second challenge are the owners of the trees themselves. There are absentee owners who are not able to give their consent to PCA volunteers to spray their trees. So even if volunteers spray trees in one property, within days their trees will be attacked again by pests from the absentee neighbors’ trees.

EPIDEMIC. An entire hillside of infested coconut trees in Barangay Bitin, Bay, Laguna

Politics and greed compound the problem.

“In some cases, there are landlord-tenant disputes where the landlords want the coconut trees to die so the tenants get out and the landlords can buy their land,” said Forbes.

The PCA’s greatest need is volunteers, said Forbes. They will need thousands to reach all the infested trees. Now they are training farmers to spray so they can help the task force. These farmer volunteers are also paid by the PCA through a cash-for-work system.

“We are also trying to tap the local governments and regional development council so they can augment our manpower. We still need thousands of volunteers,” said Forbes. 

Alarmingly, the heavily infested provinces such as Batangas and Laguna have not even declared a state of calamity. Only 4 villages in Batangas have done so, said Forbes. 

Farmers who allow the PCA to cut their infected trees are given new seedlings for free. So far, the PCA has given out around 150,000 seedlings.

The interim solution will not do, said Mercado. Though the PCA came to spray his trees, in a few weeks, the persistent pest spread to his banana and avocado trees. 

Binomba, wala rin naman nangyari. Langis lang ata ‘yung ‘binomba. Dapat pinuno ‘yun para namatay lahat ng hayop. Nung bombahin, lala na ang niyog. Dapat noon pa inagapan,” he said.

(They sprayed it, nothing happened. I think they only used oil to spray. They should’ve sprayed the tree completely to kill the insect. When they sprayed it, the coconut tree was already severely infected. They could’ve stopped it sooner.) – Rappler.com