A pest in the pod

Normal, Weekender

The cocoa pod borer outbreak on Bougainville must be taken seriously as it has proven disastrous in other cocoa-producing provinces, writes BARNABAS ORERE

COCOA has been the single biggest income earner for many provinces and the spread of the cocoa pod borer is a threat that must be taken seriously or the livelihoods of thousands will be shattered.
The cocoa industry is an important national industry supporting the livelihoods of a significant number of people living in the rural areas of PNG.
According to the 2000 national census, about 151,320 households are dependent on the cocoa industry. Translated, this is about 1 million people in rural areas.
The export revenue earned by the industry averaged K250 million over the last five years and totalled K335 million in 2007/08. Cocoa prices are still high at US$2,700 per tonne, which is about K6,000 per tonne.
Last week, it was confirmed that the dreaded cocoa borer pest had landed on the shores of the Autonomous Region of Bougainville.
The news was devastating.
North Bougainville MP Michael Ogio expressed grave sadness as cocoa has been the pillar of the economy and the backbone of people’s
livelihoods.“It is indeed very sad news because cocoa is the backbone of our economy and that of our region,” he said. 
“Cocoa is our life, it is our livelihood, without it our people will be hard hit,” he said.
The concern now is that the presence of the pest on Bougainville threatens the livelihood of the people and poses a major setback.
The pest was confirmed after scientists from the PNG Cocoa and Coconut Institute did tests in Poira village of the Eivo/Torau/Inus areas.
These areas are between Wakunai and Tinputz, the two major cocoa growing areas of Bougainville.
The outbreak must be treated with immense seriousness as it has proven disastrous in the provinces it has hit before.
When the pest hit East New Britain in 2006, it had a great socio-economic impact on the people that was far worse than the experiences of the 1994 volcanic disaster.
After East New Britain, the pest spread to Sandaun, Madang and West New Britain and now Bougainville.
For the Autonomous Region of Bougainville, it is predicted that its economy will fall to its knees unless measures are taken to contain the cocoa pod borer pest.
Unless something is done now to manage and contain its spread, it will only be a matter of time before it reaches New Ireland and other provinces close to those affected.
“Without a major turnaround in the current situation, the outlook is gloomy,” Agriculture Vice minister Jimmy Simitab predicted.
This is because cocoa is the largest single source of income for the island region.
The cocoa industry on the island is said to be worth over K121 million.
It is reported that over the past year, there has been significant rise in cocoa bean exports from the island, almost 21,000 metric tonnes.
This was an increase by 6,000 metric tonnes from the previous year.
Mr Simitab was concerned as the pest, scientifically known as Conopomorpha cramerella, is considered the single largest threat to the future of the cocoa industry and the provincial economies that depend on this cash crop.
The reason the vice minister cited that the island’s economy may crumble was because “the cocoa pod borer pest is spreading faster than our ability to contain it”.
Mr Simitab said it is vital that the Government and industry stakeholders “give due consideration” and “determine measures to reduce the effects” of the pest.
He said the Government will support the industry, as it has done in recent years, and said it will cost K65 million over the next five years for control and management measures.
“Awareness and monitoring programs must progress in Bougainville and in all cocoa producing provinces to identify the dangers, and this disaster requires a total team effort,” he said.
Certainly with some Government support via training, provision of tools and fertilizers, the impact can be reduced. On that note, the CEO of the PNG Cocoa Board, Lauata Tautea, said: “The confirmed outbreak of the cocoa pod borer on the Autonomous Region of Bougainville must be treated as a national issue as its consequences will have immense socio-economic impact.”
Mr Tautea urged all stakeholders in the lucrative industry to respond to contain its spread.
“The board is concerned that failure by all parties to support farmers to address the negative impact of the pest can lead to disastrous social and economic for provinces that depend on the industry,” he warned.
Farmers were also urged to change their attitudes and use best management practices such as proper pruning, weeding and regular harvesting of the crop, apart from other measures. “All we need to do for now is to pay more attention to our cocoa blocks than we did before,” Mr Tautea said.
It is good to note that the board is working with the Department of Agriculture and Livestock and the Bougainville Coordinating Office to secure annual budget allocations to deal with the pest.
North Bougainville Mr Ogio said extensive research must also be done to find effective ways to contain the cocoa pod borer.
“Measures must be immediately set to ensure the disease is confined, because if it does not the economy will be greatly impacted,” he said. 
Indeed, the discovery of the cocoa pod borer pest in PNG has created anxiety among the industry stakeholders, including farmers, policy makers and provincial and national leaders. It is clear that the pest cannot be eradicated and everybody in the industry will have to learn to live with it.
Therefore let us join hands to ensure we manage and contain the spread of this contagious pest that is spreading like wild fire.
Cocoa has made an important contribution to the economic and social development of PNG since independence and will continue to do so into the future. Let us not rest until the pest is significantly contained.