Coconut palms under threat in the Pacific
Disease and climate change are having a significant impact on coconut palms and their fruits in the Pacific region.
It's the postcard image of the Pacific but the coconut palm is under threat. Climate change, soil that's become too salty and a palm tree disease are putting cocos nucifera at risk.
Lucy Smith reports
In Papua New Guinea's Madang province, a renewed outbreak of Bogia coconut syndrome is threatening the only coconut gene bank in the South Pacific. The disease which is spread by insects, causes palm trees to collapse and can wipe out crops within months. The gene bank holds different varieties of coconut, and is only kilometres away from the PNG outbreak. A manager from the Coconut Industry Corporation, Allen Aku, says to ensure certain varieties aren't lost, they are duplicating the gene bank so there is a lifeline for those who depend on coconuts for their nutrition and income.
ALLEN AKU: For the Pacific Islanders coconut is our livelihoods. When everything else is gone coconuts is the one we survive on. So that's why we have to keep this diversity.
He says the gene bank exists to counter any disease outbreaks or natural disasters but having a Bogia syndrome so close to the institution means they will now duplicate the coconut varieties in Fiji and Samoa.
ALLEN AKU: We have atolls that have coconut accessions that are there and with the sea level rise and the climate change some of them are threatened and we could lose this diversity eventually they'd become non-existent. That's the beauty of the gene bank.
Allen Aku says although this disease is scary, equally concerning are the impacts of sea level rise and climate change which are starting to impact farmers across the Pacific. An agriculture specialist at the Australian National University, Mike Bourke, echoes this view. He says low lying small atolls are the worst affected because there is simply no where to go.
MIKE BOURKE: On a tiny island or atolls, if the sea level rises half a metre or a further half metre, people start to run out of options and that's why the concern is so great for those communities.
Dr Bourke says salinity is ruining soil, and coastal erosion is causing palm trees to fall over. One farmer in Samoa Perise Mulifusi, says last year they had a hard season due to the climate impacts.
PERISE MULIFUSI: The size of the nuts are getting smaller than the usual size because the weather is very hot, you know the trees they need the rain.
She says Samoa has an advantage in that, unlike many other farmers, they can plant their crops closer to the hills, and here the soil is richer. The managing director of Australian company Kokonut Pacific, Richard Etherington, works with a number of coconut farmers in Solomon Islands and says there is no doubt the climate is having an effect, though there are also more immediate issues.
RICHARD ETHERINGTON: I'm conscious that there is coastal erosion, there are coconuts planted very close to the sea on the back of beaches. There's probably more immediate challenges. There is an outbreak of the rhinoceros beetle.
He says right now they're focusing on efforts to get rid of the infestation of the rhinoceros beetle which burrows into the trees, but climate change and coastal erosion are issues they take seriously.
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