Pestered by coco pests, farmers’ patience to last a year more

Full recovery from coconut pest attack, says PCA, will take pruning, washing, burning, spraying fertilizer unto infected coco leaves

TANAUAN CITY, BATANGAS—EVEN before the Philippine Coconut Authority urged Batangueño farmers to selectively remove, or prune, leaves infected with the scale insect, Crisanta Matira’s had done pruning on her trees.

Pruning two of her 300 coconut trees as early as 2009, to be exact. But when the scale insect outbreak escalated this year, the pests have returned and have destroyed the 64-year-old Matira’s other coconut trees in her 2.5 ha. farm lot in Brgy. Balele.

With the current scale of the infestation, Matira’s lanzones trees were the pests’ next places of attack, frightening Matira and threatening —for real— her P15,000 monthly intake from hauling 200 kilos of macapuno. The peskiness of the scale insect (scientific name: aspidiotus destructor signoret) is thwarting one of the antidotes that PCA suggested: prune infected leaves.

As the scale insect infestation has scaled up to 186,421 coconut trees, especially from this city and eight Batangas municipalities, continued pruning of the infected leaves will mark the one-year full recovery period for these trees to be pest-free.

Recovery

COLORS OF AN OUTBREAK. No thanks to scale insects that have made coconut trees in seven municipalities and a city in Batangas their home, over-180,000 trees have been affected. A sign of such infestation is that leaves turn yellow, like these trees in Tanauan City (the area with the most number of infested trees). (photo by Marlon Alexander Luistro)

Provincial coconut manager Noranda Panganiban told The Filipino Connection it would take “at least a year” for the infested trees in Batangas province to fully recover. That is if farmers selectively remove, or prune, infected leaves so that these pests will not jump into un-infested coconut trees.

But apart from pruning, PCA experts also advised burning the infected leaves, as well as washing these leaves with soap and water.

The scale insect is a pest that sucks moisture on coconut leaves, the palm and the fruit itself. Tropical and sub-tropical regions are where these insects thrive, and the perfect time for these pests to attack is during dry weather (including the time when the Philippines, the world’s largest coconut-planting nation, experienced over-34 degree temperatures some weeks ago).

The life cycle of the coconut scale insect lasts 32 to 35 days, says scientists. When a scale insect sucks the leaf’s sap, it injects a chemical that destroys chlorophyll and causes the leaves to turn yellow —like the drove of yellowish coconut trees greets passers-by from the Brgy. Sambat exit of the STAR Tollway to nearby Brgy. Santor in Tanauan City.

Some trees along that stretch of STAR Tollway are still complete, and others already cut. What had happened to the latter set of coconut trees was a result of continuous feeding by the insects. When the leaves turn yellow or, in advanced cases, turn brown, the entire coconut plant is killed by the total cessation of photosynthesis (or the means by which a plant captures the sun’s energy to split off water’s hydrogen from oxygen).

Those cut trees in Brgy. Santor are among the 186,421 infested trees (occupying 1,864.2 farm hectares) found in the municipalities of Balete, Calaca, Laurel, Lemery, Malvar, Sto. Tomas, Talisay, Agoncillo and Tanauan City (as of May 25). Though, Batangas currently has five million coconut trees (occupying a total farm area of about 36,000 hectares), and only about 3.7 percent of these trees have been infested.

Tanauan City is the hardest hit by the scale pest infestation with 116,463 infested trees, already affecting 23 barangays (or about 48 percent of the city’s total coconut plantation).

Pestered

But eliminating these pests is not only through pruning, washing and burning, and monetary costs are involved here.

Matira herself was advised to spray fertilizers unto the affected leaves, which “involves a lot of money”. Tanauan City only has three sprayers available, for a ratio of one sprayer is to 38,821 trees.

PCA had already advised farmers of the affected municipalities to prune the leaves of their coconut trees, then burn and spray them with fertilizer. Washing the affected leaves of young coconut trees with water and soap will also prevent the pest from spreading.

While only 30 to 40 percent of the farmers in Tanauan have complied with the PCA’s directive to prune trees, other farmers are reluctant to cut the infested coconut leaves and fruits, said Ariel Bathan of the Tanauan City Agriculture Office.

Tanaueño coconut farmers’ harvests have already declined by half since coconut trees could no longer bear fruit after the pests have destroyed the leaves. This is especially evident in Balele, with Barangay Captain Apolinario Malabanan saying about 1,500 families in the area (who can earn up to about P400 a day, depending on the bulk of harvest) depend only on coconut incomes.

While pruning efforts by affected coconut farmers are ongoing, help had arrived here. PCA central office in Quezon City, for example, has allotted P1.4 million to fund pest control measures, with the Batangas infestation threatening to affect neighboring provinces Laguna and Quezon.

Since April, Panganiban said PCA has already distributed more than 4,000 coconut seedlings to affected farmers, which are expected to grow within five to six months. PCA had distributed some 13,000 free bags of fertilizer on infested coconut areas, and started rearing natural feeders of scale insects to be distributed later to the farmers. PCA has also coordinated with the Bureau of Plant Industry to impose some quarantine measures that would prevent farmers from delivering and transporting the infested coconut leaves, palm and fruit.

Malabanan, for his part, has appealed to city officials to devote a portion of Tanauan City’s calamity fund for pruning affected coconut trees. Yet PCA-Batangas is optimistic that this current rainy season (from June to November) will be able to reduce, if not completely wipe out, the population of scale insects.

With one year for full recovery, some coconut farmers were forced to diversify into planting other vegetable crops that are harvested only twice a year and are not as stable as compared to coconut, where they used to have a monthly source of income. Adding to farmers’ woes was that their regular buyers no longer wanted to buy coconut from Tanauan City’s farms because of the coconuts’ foul smell and sour taste.

Coconut prices were also down from P14 in year 2009 to only P1.50 per kilo at present. Last month, Matira harvested just 20 pieces of macapuno from her once rich-bearing coconut trees —making her and other Batangueño coconut farmers’ impatience with these pesky pests escalate.

Talagang napakalaking kawalan ng kabuhayan (There are really huge losses),” Matira said.

About Marlon Alexander S. Luistro

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