Ladies and Gentlemen,
On behalf of the Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, and on my own behalf, I have the great pleasure to welcome you to Bangkok for the Consultative Meeting on IPM of the Coconut Leaf Beetle, Brontispa longissima, which has been jointly organized by the Asian and Pacific Coconut Community, the FAO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific and the Asia and Pacific Plant Protection Commission. I am delighted that participants from six countries, namely China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand and Viet Nam have come together to discuss strategies for controlling this new invasive pest that has affected coconut production in many parts of the region and is likely to spread to new areas.
Coconut is an important crop in tropical Asia and the Pacific where more than 85 percent of the world coconuts are grown. In these countries, it is mainly the rural poor who depend on it for food, fuel, cash income, as well as for handicraft and building materials. In addition, coconut palms have become a symbol for exotic holidays on sandy beaches and attract millions of tourists, contributing significantly to the income of many countries. However, this symbol of the tropics is now under threat from an invasive pest that has moved from its centre of origin to new countries where it did not exist before. As happens frequently in such cases, a previously unknown insect that has been kept naturally under control at its original site, suddenly finds itself unconstrained in a new environment where it can cause serious damage to a crop and threaten the livelihoods of millions of people.
This is what has happened in the past ten years as the Coconut Leaf Beetle has spread to Samoa, Nauru, Viet Nam, Maldives, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, Myanmar, Malaysia, Singapore, the Chinese Province of Hainan and some parts of the Philippines. In these countries, the insect has caused serious losses in coconut productivity and mortality to young trees.
It is therefore of utmost importance to prevent the further spread of the Coconut Leaf Beetle to other areas and countries which are not infested through rigorous quarantine measures and continuous surveillance to detect as early as possible populations that entered into the country undetected. For this to happen, it is important for countries to work together, particularly when they share common land borders. In this respect, FAO stands ready to facilitate this cooperation and provide technical assistance to build capacity to tackle this and other invasive pests.
In the long term, however, the insect may win and spread throughout the entire coconut growing areas. To keep damage at an acceptable level, it will be necessary to develop and introduce a low-cost and sustainable and ecologically sound integrated pest management (IPM) system.
In recent years, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has provided assistance to help develop appropriate control strategies in the affected countries. FAO therefore launched projects in several countries for developing national IPM strategy and promoting biological control of Brontispa. The Asia and Pacific Plant Protection Commission (APPPC), which provides a regional framework for countries to cooperate in sharing strategies, action plans, and scientific knowledge on this invasive pest and its management, organized a regional Expert Consultation in October 2004 which was attended by 11 countries. Subsequently, the collaboration between FAO and APCC, and other donors in promoting IPM strategies has been strengthened.
FAO has in the past three years dedicated over US$700 000 in TCP assistance, and over US$100 000 in Regular Programme and Trust Funds to support national IPM strategy design, early warning, and rapid response for the coconut beetle. To combat the beetle through classical biological control, the larval parasitoid Asecodes hispinarum was collected in Samoa in 2003 and introduced, reared and released in these countries through projects with promising results in certain areas. However, more effort is needed to establish a sustainable and stable IPM system that relies on more than one factor to suppress the pest.
The application of an integrated pest management program in these countries with FAO assistance is expected not only to help control the coconut beetle, but also build capacity in these countries in emergency actions to deal with invasive species. At the same time, several countries such as Thailand, China and Philippines developed national strategies and action plans. Bilateral and multilateral cooperation for the management of the beetle have been actively convened through experts visits, exchanging biocontrol experiences and materials. The multi-sectoral contribution to saving coconut palms is reflected in the diversity of interest in combating the pest.
As you are gathered here to consult on an appropriate IPM strategy against the Coconut Leaf Beetle, let me share with you some observations.
Firstly, experience has shown that damage from an invasive species is always the greatest in the initial stage of establishment. After that, indigenous natural enemies in the area may adjust to the new situation and after a few years a new ecological balance is established which may not be optimal, but nevertheless is able to reduce damage from the new pest.
Secondly, I would like to remind you that coconuts may not only suffer from pest and diseases, but they can also suffer from neglect by farmers. This is often the case in tree crops when unattractive prices cause farmers to abandon their plantations while they look for income elsewhere. Such a situation can make the trees more vulnerable to insect attack and, even though damage might be considerable, it would still be under the economic threshold. As prices can change rapidly, understanding the economics of pest control from the farmer’s perspective is essential for good IPM and prevents researchers from developing recommendations that may later turn out to be impractical to farmers.
This leads to my last observation that good IPM cannot be developed without the active involvement of farmers. On the one hand, IPM requires a solid scientific foundation, but in its final application, IPM is always extremely site and situation specific. Since agricultural research cannot develop separate recommendations for every site and situation, it is vital that farmers are empowered to optimize and adjust general recommendation to their specific local requirements. This also must involve women who are part of a functioning agricultural system. To make IPM practical and farmer-oriented, farm families must be part of the development teams from the very beginning. In order for farmers to assess the value of an IPM technology, they must be given a chance to evaluate it under realistic conditions, which must also include the financial cost.
Fortunately, we can learn much from past lessons and experiences. With regard to the control of the Coconut Leaf Beetle, we can already build on the experience of the past ten years, but there is much more to learn. Any reliance on a single technique might be risky to its sustainable success as nature is often much more complex and complicated. I would therefore like to encourage you to explore the full broad spectrum of options available while remaining practical and economical. In addition, we can learn valuable lessons for future invasive pests that may occur as a result of increasing global trade.
A regional approach and inter-country cooperation seems particularly important in this endeavour, and FAO would like to continue to provide a coordinating forum to promote South-South Cooperation, enable all concerned countries to share experiences and resources, network effectively together, and develop national action plans for ecologically sound IPM programmes for the palm industry. To further this objective, it is imperative that FAO, the Asian and Pacific Coconut Community, donor groups (including the Common Fund for Commodities) and member countries of the Asia and Pacific Plant Protection Commission work together to ensure that the coconut industry will continue to be a symbol of tropical agriculture and sustainable livelihoods for rural populations.
Finally, I would like to wish you successful and constructive discussions, and I would like to assure you that FAO will continue to support your efforts to develop an IPM strategy for the Coconut Leaf Beetle that is practical, feasible and sustainable.
I wish you all success in this endeavour and a pleasant stay in Bangkok.