By Estacio Valoi
For farmers of coconuts and palm oil everywhere 'lethal yellowing' and the 'rhinoceros beetle' cause sleepless nights. Once an area is infected only drastic measures, such as replanting, can avert destitution. In Mozambique, an effort to tackle the disease yielded worse results.
A recent investigation in Mozambique revealed a multi-million development tragedy that could have been averted had the calls from farmers and stakeholders been heeded to.
"There has never been any consulting"
An $18 mllion fund to eradicate the disease served to produce negative results after the United States' Millennium Challenge Account (MCA) and its Mozambican partner ACIDIVOCA failed to consult with locals who challenged them to get the science right, run the project transparently and review it honestly.
The foreign donors responded by turning a deaf ear. In the ensuing period, infected trees were cut and stumps left rotting in the fields, thus creating a conducive environment for rhinoceros beetle to breed.
When aid came
In 2007, the southern African country's farmers got a lease of life when the Agricultural Revenue Support Project (FISP) received an MCA sponsorship to cover the rehabilitation of infected areas of up to131,000 hectares in Zambeze province and 119,000 hectares in Nampula province.
FISP had been designed that same year by the Mozambican government under law 38/2007 for the family sector of the palm oil estates.
Although the rehabilitation project was designated as a 'pilot project', its objectives were clearly defined: to control the spread of the Coconut Lethal Yellowing disease (CLYD), and 'Orytes' Rhinoceros beetle. The project was also to promote the diversification of other species of plants, including as sesame and beans.
The 2007 project was to be implemented in eight districts: Chinde, Inhassunge, Nicoadala, Namacurra, Maganja da Costa, Pebane in Zambeze province and Moma and Angoche in Nampula Province.
A foreign killer in East Africa
Lethal yellowing is a phytoplasma disease carried by a plant-hopper that lays its eggs in grasses and green ground cover. Nymphs then develop at the roots of grasses, spreading to neighbouring trees, including valuable commercial coconut and date palms.
The infection of a palm tree can occur under six months and the only effective cure is prevention.
To successfully prevent the disease calls for the planting of resistant varieties of coconut palm, while preventing green park or 'golf course like' environments that tend to attract the planthopper.
While this disease is not native to East Africa, the planthopper Haplaxius crudus has, nontheless, become widespread, destroying tress and associated livelihoods as it hops.
Evidence shows that once lethal yellowing has set in, it spreads rapidly.
The Coconut Industry Board in Jamaica reports that of 6 million susceptible tall coconut palms in 1961, 90 per cent had been killed by 1981. Ghana has also lost a million trees in 30 years, with large losses also recorded in Togo, Mexico and Tanzania.
The Rhinoceros beetle, also known as Oryctes rhinoceros, on the other hand, is a large flying beetle and a major pest in all Mozambique's oil palm growing areas.
Infestation by rhinoceros beetle is severe in plantations where field hygiene and sanitation are poor.
In oil palm plantations, the beetles like breeding in rotting palm logs, stumps, bunch heaps, rotting inflorescences and mesocarp waste.
Mozambique has sadly become severely infested with both CLYD and the 'Orytes Rhinoceroses' beetle, which together have destroyed close to 50 percent of all the coconut trees in just 20 years in Zambezi province alone. In the 20-year period, only 7.8 million out of 15.25 million trees have been spared. 70 percent of the sector's trees are owned by families and 30 per cent by the private sector.
In Zambezi province in 1997 there were 110,000 hectares of coconut palm plantation covering its vast coast, generating an annual income of $80 million, and 800 families of 7 or 8 persons dependent on it.
Lethal Yellowing Disease, observed in 1997, reached its climax in 2009. This brought significant economic losses and triggered the out-migration of destitute families desperately moving to the cities in search of work.
This is the context in which the 'pilot project' was begun in 2009. The implementation plan was scheduled for 4 years until the end of September 2013, with Zambezi province as a focal point.
But right from the start, the MCA and its implementing partner began faltering, following their failure to listen. Various entities including, institutions, researchers, phitotherapists and even local coconut industry personnel who tried to intervene and help the largest organised coconut plantation in the world, and the people reliant on it, were ignored. This author observed the trend throughout the implementing period by virtue of investigations in Zambeze, Nampula, Vilanculo, Maputo and Vilanculo-Inhambane provinces.
Even at the planning stage the design of the project and its methods were rightly questioned and alternatives proposed, but ignored by the MCA, the Government, and FISP programme leaders.
The project's failure can also be attributed to bad management, the absence of laboratory results, the use of the wrong mitigation system, ineffective community sensitisation campaigns and opaque procurements and tendering systems.
But at the core of the failure was the programme's science. Oryctes rhinoceros beetles fly long distances of up to 1 km. And the logic that they could always reach new trees from those felled - under the method used to stop infestation spreading - can therefore not be ignored. Rotting stumps left behind to breed did not help.
Today, in Zambezi province alone, 7 million new coconut palms are still needed, in the context of a 50 year-old plantation that is particularly prone to lethal yellowing.
The MCA contracted ACIDIVOCA as its service provider, who in turn subcontracted Madal, a coconut company, to cut, burn trees, and plant new palms. An NGO, VISAO Mundial, was also brought in to distribute seeds to community farmers and to clean fields.
The project was divided into three pillars: cutting and burning infected trees (in epidemic areas) as well as planting new ones throughout the third, fourth and fifth years of the project. The last pillar consisted of training farmers in how to control future diseases.
Design phase problems
But the project was only directed at the family sector of the estate, such that in September 2008, Quelimane, a private sector company wrote to the Minister of Planning and Finance pointing out that "If we really want to eradicate or reduce CLYD in Zambezi and Nampula provinces, the strategy to tackle this issue has to be global and not by sectors or we will be postponing the solution for it".
In other words, it would simply spread again from untreated trees outside the family sector.
The MCA, in its report of November 2009, recognised the necessity to adjust the ACIDIVOCA-FISP pilot project, saying it would reconsider adding the private sector. But as events unfolded the disease was not even prevented in the small family sector.
At the design phase Paulo Dias in research for EDRAL also pointed out that given his phenotypic observations, only the replanting of plants resistant to the disease would be a sustainable solution. Dr. Carlos Oropeza, a CLYD specialist and Researcher from the scientific investigation center Yucatan (CICY) recommended the species of Hole tele, a giant green coconut tree, as resistant to CLYD. However, these trees were never sufficiently provided.
Other coconut industry companies such as Madal, Borror, Monroa, Zambezi Coconut industry association, agricultural economists Jorge Tinga and Prof. Dra Ana Monjane (fitosanitaria) also gave unheard scientific advise.
A research seed laboratory in Quelimane Zambezi, established in 2010 is now furthering the propagation of the Hole Tele as a long term solution.
A close relationship to the Millennium Bank-BIM was forged from the beginning by appointing the chairman of the Board of the Bank, Paulo Fumane, to become (MCA) Mozambique's Chief Executive Officer. The appointment had been supported by Mario da Graca Machungo since 1995.
ACIDIVOCA won the procurement as service provider, but Nhatitima, an MCA communications officer, believes that "it is possible that there has not been any procurement/tender for Madal". World Vision, an NGO, was made responsible for seed distribution as well as campaign awareness and field cleaning.
In 2011 our report team visited several fields where the MCA-ACIDIVOCA (FISP) pilot project was being implemented in Zambezi province and Pebane district near Boror coconut industry company where some varieties of coconut trees were being cut and burned - Quichanga 47.341 trees, Magiga 16.900 and Nicadine 13.764" – but where the Tall Green coconut tree in Borror Company fields in "Hole Tele" Pebane district at Zambezi province was manifesting major tolerance.
Because of the long flight range of an oryctes rhinoceros beetle, the project implementation failed completely. The project saw the cutting of trees in circles rather than blocks, always allowing for the beetles to fly to infect new trees.
While the block system creates a defense belt with a distance of more than 2 km or more from the endemic and epidemic fields, cutting in circles leaves both trees infected and affected within the same area. This is like cutting and burning trees in a football field, but only a little circle in the center, small circules at the four corners and not from one side to the other.
Madal company, in response to this criticism stated that "We have been paid to cut and burn the trees – both in the endemic and in the epidemic areas – in circles and not in blocks
"The ideal solution would be to take the trees from the roots out but there is not enough money for that. Throughout the implementation, we discussed the methods with MCA but they did not accept them, saying that the project was already designed and that it would be implemented [...] If the contracted companies complained, they would risk losing the project".
In May-June 2013 we paid a further visit to the Borror coconut industry company fields in Quelimane Zambezia and the green tall coconut trees are still alive, their health benefiting from the 'belt protection' and also the antibiotheraphy process consisting of introducing antibiotics directly into the roots of the palm plants.
In Pebane and also other areas planted with the Green Tall coconut tree we reconfirmed the efficiency of the system implemented by Borror before the beginning of the MCA-ACIDIVOCA (FISP) "pilot project".
However, the MCA project didn't listen, and according to several images taken by our team, from the first day after new crops or coconut plants were planted many died from the activities of the beetle - enjoying the cut and not sufficiently burnt trees left behind as their home.
According to figures presented by MCA-ACIDIVOCA (FISP) in its final report of 2013 the project was successfully implemented. The evaluation report maintains that under FISP, 600,000 trees infected with CLYD were cut and burned up to end March 2013, representing a 100 per cent achievement on the planned figure of 600,000.
The report also claims that over 270,000 new trees had been planted in the fourth and fifth years of the project, representing a 183 per cent achievement rate as only 150,000 had been planned.
In terms of the third project pillar, the project claims to have trained over 15,000 farmers and watchers against a target of 8,000, a 188 per cent achievement rate.
A report from the provincial Government of Zambezi, in June 2011, said that "For this, at least 7 million new plants will be needed throughout the next 10 to 15 years. If we consider that a palm tree can be productive for around 50 years, we would need a total of 12 million trees for the maintenance of an area of 120,000 hectares, there should be a project including all sectors in the rehabilitation of this important culture".
But while the MCA-ACIDIVOCA (FISP) evaluation counted the number of planted trees, it remains unclear how far these 600,000 could be seen to be contributing to the needed 7 million, since figures on how many are still surviving are not available.
This critical need for a much larger project to cut a much larger number of trees, given the ubiquity of the oryctes rhinoceros beetle was recognized by former ACIDIVOCA director Peter Pishler, who was fired from the organisation after disagreements within ACIDIVOCA, MCA and FISP director, Joseph Pudrid.
The achievements in terms of the project promotion of alternative crops, such as sesame, pigeon peas, boer beans the MCA evaluation report seems to suggest total failure: "In Zambézia Province, the plantation of sesame is more effective in the inland. Until today, several fields remain uncleared and there are areas where the distribution of the seeds has not been done well".
World Vision's (Visão Mundial) farmer awareness and field cleaning programme failed. Despite the figures presented on the MCA-ACIDIVOCA-FISP-2013, regarding field cleaning, the distribution of new plants, and community awareness of the disease – apparently achieved at 188 per cent - little has been done in the fields.
Fileds are not cleared, tree trunks lie all over, while the number of new plants has diminished.
Palm trees and wood benefits
The Farmers' Association of Tabuarawa is composed of 20 communities and located in the village of Marrongane in Quelimane District, Zambézia Province, doesn't only depend on agricultural activities but also trees for wood to use in construction and with which to make wood products.
Bonifácio Estêvão João, the assciation's director said last year: "We make the community aware of the value of this resource. The product made out of wood can help the community get out of poverty. Out of palm trees we also produce coal and their derivatives until we get a powder which is useful to improve sandy areas.
"This plantation started during the colonial era and at that time, it was not cleared. Moreover, there has never been any reforestation. This led to the propagation of the Oryctes rhinoceros beetle.
"Now, imagine what it means to cut a palm tree and leave the stump to putrefy and, worse, to leave it to putrefy on the fields, creating a new reproduction point for the Oryctes rhinoceros beetle. This is what Madal does'.
"The community itself buys our carpets and wood for construction. We have cooperation partners like CIDIVOCA who look for other external partnerships. Several provinces buy from us. So we want to start producing mattresses by using the coconut fibre."
This would be an ideal project to both reduce poverty and sustain livelihoods, all in the context of sustianable plantations.
"MCA has been here for two years. We have a protocol to set up the carpenter's workshop but until now we have not received any of the promised equipment," Estêvão João added.
From the beginning of 2012 until June 2013 our report team requested answers from MCA-ACIDIVOCA, and were told to send written questions to the Zambezia agriculture department. We did but MCA said nothing.
But in May, 2013, the communications officer, Victor Nhatitima, said: "All the MCA projects in Mozambique – including the one on coconut Lethal Yellowing disease (CLYD) – are designed by the Mozambican Government and presented to the American Government for financial support which has been approved. There has never been any consulting".
He was of course correct, in the last part at least. Thus the MCA have failed to be accountable to the community and other stakeholders, before, during and after their failed project.
Estacio Valoi is a member of the Forum for African Investigative Reporters (FAIR) which funded this article. Research was conducted over a period of two years.