Africa, Development & Aid, Environment, Food and Agriculture, Headlines

DEVELOPMENT-GHANA: Lethal Yellow Disease Has Scientists Stumped

Francis Kokutse

ACCRA, Jul 2 2008 (IPS) - Older Ghanaians remember when the country’s coast was lined with coconut trees. Fishermen would mend their nets in the shade the trees provided, as well as drink the water and eat the fruit. Thousands of women made a living extracting oil from copra – the dried meat of the coconut. But today, the beaches have been stripped bare by Lethal Yellow Disease (LYD).

An infected palm dies within 3 to 6 months and coastal dwellers lose a valuable source of income. Credit: M Dollet/CIRAD

An infected palm dies within 3 to 6 months and coastal dwellers lose a valuable source of income. Credit: M Dollet/CIRAD

Eric Buerki, a fisherman whose family’s coconut plantation near the town of Ada has been destroyed, describes the disease. “It destroys the branches first and gradually destroys the tree itself. As a result, in areas where trees stood, today there are stumps.”

Scientists at a recent workshop in Accra say LYD is one of the major killers of coconut trees worldwide. They estimate that about one million trees have been affected in Ghana over the past 30 years, with a severe impact on the economic activity of the people who live along the coast.

Phillippe Courbet, a French researcher studying LYD in Ghana said, “The disease was first identified around the Cape St Paul area in the Volta Region and has since spread across the whole coastal region.”

The extent of the damage is clearly visible in the Ankobra area in the Western Region, where the bare stumps of once-flourishing coconut trees stretch away along the beach. Augustine Yanney, who used to help his mother produce vegetable oil told IPS, “The disease might have caused the death of my mother because all she knew how to do was produce vegetable oil which the traders from the cities came to buy.”

Yanney says his mother’s income declined sharply along with the death of disease-stricken trees. “It did not take long for her to die when after just three years, we saw only tree stumps instead of the flourishing green leaves that had adorned the area.”

Researcher Courbet says all the trees have died along a four kilometre stretch; Yanney says the dead zone is even longer.

At Denu, a small coastal fishing town in the southeastern part of the country, Faustina Sewornu points to the empty shed where she used to produce vegetable oil from coconuts. “That’s all l have to show now.” Looking at the building where she lives today – a cement block house with fading paint, and glass windows replaced with wooden boards – one can see that she once lived well from the coconut trade.

Now, she says, she tries to make ends meet by selling anything that comes her way.

The scientific community still has so much to do to understand this disease. William Shooter, a Jamaican scientist who also attended the four-day Accra workshop last month, told IPS, “Experiments conducted so far on the disease in Ghana have failed to identify how the disease is transmitted, which makes it difficult to fight it. For now the only way out is to cut trees affected by the disease.”

Shooter adds that Lethal Yellow Disease has not affected coconut trees in Ivory Coast, Ghana’s western neighbour. “However, about 50 per cent of coconut trees in Togo, which borders Ghana to the east, have also been destroyed during the same period.”

In the meantime, the best they can do is replace the lost trees with better varieties. “With the assistance of the French government, there is a project to introduce hybrid coconuts into the affected areas,ì says Courbet. So far, about 1,200 hectares are known to have been planted in the Western and Central Regions.

The Ghanaian government sought assistance from the French to set up a five-year Coconut Sector Development project with a grant of 3.9 million euros. Food and Agriculture Minister Debrah said that between 1999 and 2005, the project saw the re-planting of 1,300 hectares with the hybrids, and the development of two new seed gardens comprising 21.2 hectares of Malaysian Yellow Dwarf and 10 hectares of Sri Lankan Green Dwarf at Bonsaso, near Tarkwa in the western region to help in the propagation of the hybrids.

But Courbet says that these are stop-gap measures at best. “Even the hybrids are not totally safe. Their only advantage is that they take less number of years to yield,” says Courbet. The hybrids take about two years to mature, whilst the old variety takes about five years. This at least gives people a chance to harvest coconuts from the trees before the disease strikes again.

Coastal people have few alternatives – the fishing that was the area’s other main source of income is also failing because of dwindling fish stocks. So people like Yanney are grateful for even temporary respite. “The coconut tree is what our elders lived their lives with, that is what they taught us, and without it, our lives are nothing.”

Unfortunately, he says, We are not sure if these new ones would also die suddenly like the old ones. Even the scientists do not know.

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