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Disease with no cure killing Mindanao’s top export

DAVAO CITY—Marino Lactao woke up one morning in October to find dozens of his banana plants wilted.

The 56-year-old farmer from Panabo City soon found he was not alone. Other farmers in Panabo City, also contract growers for an export firm, found their plants wilted, too.

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The phenomenon was widespread, the farmers soon discovered. It happened not only in Davao del Norte but in Davao del Sur and Compostela Valley as well.

Experts said a soil-borne fungus called fusarium was killing the plants. They termed it Panama disease, named after the Central American country where the plant disease wiped out entire banana plantations in the 1950s.

“It is an industry killer and for Mindanao, an economy killer,” said Alex Valoria, head of the Philippine Banana Growers and Exporters Association (Pbgea).

The disease isn’t just deadly, according to Valoria. It doesn’t manifest itself until the plants are dead. And no cure has been found for it.

“You cannot detect it until the plant leaves turn yellow,” said Stephen Antig, Pbgea executive director. “The only cure is if you could develop a new variety (of banana) that is resistant to it,” he said.

Killing the fungi is expensive, too, and could cost up to P360 per plant, said Antig.

When the fungi attacks a banana plant, it does so with full force. It destroys the vascular system of the banana plant, blocking water and nutrients until the plant wilts and dies three to four months later.

Antig said the disease was first reported in Calinan in Davao City three years ago and has since spread to Davao del Norte, Compostela Valley and Davao del Sur.

It spreads quickly, said Antig. Humans and animals could spread the disease when they step on infected soil and walk into healthy plantations. Tires of vehicles coming from infected plantations and entering healthy ones could spread it, too.

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To stop it, one solution is to raze entire plantations where the disease was found, which would be too costly.

The Panama disease doesn’t stop at killing plants. It stays in the soil where it germinated for at least five years and during which it would keep killing plants.

It was also reported in Bukidnon, another major source of bananas for export that generated for Mindanao an estimated $270 million in 2010 and put the Philippines on the map as the world’s second biggest banana exporter.

In Mindanao alone, at least 80,000 hectares are planted to bananas. “It is a very virulent disease and is a very fast killer,” Valoria said.

The situation has prompted Agriculture Secretary Proceso Alcala to travel here Wednesday and meet with banana industry representatives.

“We cannot just ignore the problem because its a multibillion (peso) industry,” Alcala said.

He said at least 640 ha of plantations in Compostela Valley alone are now infected.

While government was willing to set aside funds to help, Alcala said an immediate solution could be to shut down infected plantations.

Banana farmers may have to plant other crops to keep them from losing livelihood, he said.

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TAGS: banana, disease, Export, Mindanao, Plant
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