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Plant Diseases Threaten Food Security in Kivu, DR Congo

BUKAVU, DR Congo, Aug 14 2012 (IPS) - Plant diseases affecting bananas and cassava are gaining ground in two provinces in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, according to South Kivu’s provincial minister for agriculture, Gisèle Batembo.

The extent of the damage is visible across the province: the tell-tale withering of leaves is the sign of crops stricken by banana bacterial wilt, while many cassava fields are filled with stunted plants bearing deformed, spotted leaves that indicate the feared cassava mosaic virus.

Declining production has led to increased imports of both of these staple foods from neighbouring Rwanda, as well as a steep increase in prices over the past year, with the cost of a cluster of bananas (anywhere from 30-50 kilos) jumping from two to seven dollars in less than a year.

Three hundred thousand families grow bananas in South Kivu, and more than 900,000 households grow cassava for both their own consumption and to generate income.

Stressing the importance of these crops to food security, agronomist Daniel Rutegeza, who heads the Plant Production Unit at the provincial directorate for agriculture, said total production of bananas in South Kivu in 2009 amounted to 450,000 tonnes, from nearly 100,000 hectares of plantations. Cassava output from the 325,000 hectares under cultivation is estimated at four million tonnes.

To address the growing threat from diseases, smallholders are learning new techniques to reduce the impact, Batembo told participants at an Aug. 6 workshop in Katana, north of South Kivu’s provincial capital, Bukavu. The session was organised with the twin aims of raising awareness of and finding solutions to the rapid spread of diseases affecting the region’s two most important food crops.

At a press conference in June, the governor of South Kivu province, Marcellin Cishambo, confirmed the growing impact of disease on farmers. “Banana wilt has arrived in Kalehe, north of Bukavu, and is spreading rapidly. This illness threatens banana plantations in four of the province’s eight administrative territories,” he said.

“Kalehe Territory is the worst affected, with close to half of the plantations devastated. In Kabare – in its northern part – the incidence rate is around 25 percent, while Idjwi Territory has a rate of between 10 and 25 percent, and Walungu has a rate estimated at between 10 and 20 percent,” Cishambo said.

Batembo first raised the alarm a month earlier, in her May report on the first half of 2012. Both banana wilt and mosaic are believed to have entered the Kivu provinces from neighbouring Uganda, where farmers have been struggling to contain them for several years.

The signs of banana bacterial wilt are withered leaves and premature yellowing of the fruit, according to Professor Jean Walangululu, dean of the Faculty of Agricultural Sciences at the Catholic University of Bukavu.

The province’s cassava crops, the professor told IPS, are being attacked by the East African Cassava Mosaic Virus, whose main vector is a tiny white fly of the genus Bemisia, which is extremely difficult to control. Affected crops produce spotted and deformed leaves, and suffer stunted growth and poor harvests.

Mosaic can also spread along with cuttings of infected plants. Rutegeza said the exchange of plant material between smallholders is one of the major factors in the spread of both cassava virus and banana wilt.

The disease has not spared any part of the province, Cishambo said. He said the disease first appeared in the province in 2000, and strenuous efforts have been made to fight it, particularly by stressing the importance of using healthy cuttings to plant new crops.

But, according to Cishambo, this has not prevented the devastation from expanding steadily, to the point where it poses a serious threat to food security throughout the province. He said that another disease, known as cassava brown streak, has also been detected. But while the authorities are monitoring the presence of this disease – which is even more harmful than mosaic – its spread has not yet reached worrying proportions.

The governor of South Kivu has issued ten key regulations to stem the advance of these diseases, most importantly a ban on the circulation or introduction of banana or cassava cuttings into South Kivu from neighbouring Rwanda or Uganda, or from North Kivu, which is also struggling with the same problems.

Trade and transport of such plant material is only permitted when it’s accompanied by a phytosanitary certificate issued by the Inspector of Agriculture indicating it has been cleared as safe and healthy by the National Seed Certification Service (SENASEM).

The technicians at SENASEM recommend using fire or bleach to disinfect farm implements after each diseased cassava tuber is dug out of the soil. They also advise greater efforts to prevent stray animals from wandering around in banana plantations, and to make sure that any sale or exchange of cassava cuttings is done with the express authorisation of SENASEM and the National Institute for Agricultural Research.

FAO is experimenting with a new approach to containing banana wilt which has already been applied in Uganda. According to Rutegeza, this treatment requires producers to remove male buds from the banana plants every two days. In April, some 150 banana producers at Bweremana, in North Kivu’s Masisi Territory, were trained in this approach, he said.

Mike Robson, a specialist in plant diseases with FAO who has facilitated technical exchanges between Uganda and DRC, said that the first results from this trial are expected in October 2012, before their eventual introduction in South Kivu.

Nzanzu Kasuvita, provincial minister for agriculture in North Kivu, recognised that there is still work to do, particularly in educating all actors and partners in the struggle for food security.

The war between the DRC’s regular army and the mutinous soldiers belonging to Mouvement du 23 Mars (M23), which has affected some parts of North Kivu since April, risks hindering the resolution of the problem of plant diseases which could threaten food security, he said.

 
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