Tuesday, December 7, 2010


America enters the war on weevils

The United States is the latest country to become involved in the war against the red palm weevil. It will be interesting to see how the Americans fare, because all efforts to contain the weevil in the Algarve seem futile.

The weevil, the same beast that is drastically altering the scenery here, was discovered in two palms in a residential area of Laguna Beach, Orange County, California. The Department of Food and Agriculture said they were the first such cases anywhere in the US.

It is inconceivable that the weevil would have been confined to just two trees. As we well know here, infestation can go undetected for quite a while. By the time symptoms become visible, it's too late.

Ann Christoph, a Laguna Beach landscape architect and former mayor, knew a thing or two about the new illegal immigrants. “It is very serious because the weevil gets inside the trees and sucks the life out of them,” she said. “White fly just hangs around on the leaves of trees, but the weevil goes to the heart of the palms.”

Meetings were convened to discuss strategies for dealing with the new threat. Since then, things have gone quiet. Hopefully the Americans have managed to eradicate the problem in its infancy, but it might be over optimistic.

The Algarve is a paradise for the red palm weevil. California would be too - and on a far grander scale. Canary Island date palms, its favourite food, are an integral part of Southern California. The trees and dates are a multi-million dollar industry.

American investigators have concluded that the source of the Laguna Beach weevils was the international trade in live palms, even though importation of palms into the United States is prohibited. Same as in the Algarve.

Prevention and cure efforts here clearly amounted to far too little, far too late. It is unlikely that any American war effort could now be helpful to us.
The red palm weevil, known to the Portuguese as Gorgulho Vermelho and scientifically as Rhynchophorus ferrugineus, originated in south-east Asia. Its destructive powers greatly worried coconut palm growers in India more than a century ago.
The weevil's spread northwards and westwards hugely accelerated in the 1980s. It did not “work its way” across Asia or “find its way” into Africa as some reports would have us believe. It was irresponsibly transported by humans. Put simply, traders in pursuit of big profits imported trees to unaffected areas from well-known contaminated zones.
By 1985 the weevil had occupied Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. By 1990 it had reached Iran. Two years later, infected palm offshoots were exported from the United Arab Emirates to Egypt, Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian territories.
The first weevils to cross the Mediterranean were carried in palms shipped from Egypt to the Costa del Sol in 1994. It was madness. The devastating nature of the pest was well known in Egypt, yet Spain had no importation restrictions in place at the time.
Two years went by before the Spanish government got around to imposing restrictions. Four years later the law was toned down. By then a lucrative trade in palms was flourishing across open EU borders.
The weevil had already spread from Andalusia to other areas of Spain, including Murcia, Valencia, Cataluña, the Balearic Islands and even the Canaries. It continued its European odyssey and turned up in force in Greece, Cyprus, Malta, France and Italy.
The EU Commission issued a belated directive banning importation from non-EU countries and demanding that all palms should travel with a phytosanitary certificate.
The high risk of the weevil entering the Algarve and the strict preventative measures needed to stop that happening should have been obvious to the Portuguese Government, the regional agriculture directorate and to local palm importers. Yet in 2007, infected trees were brought in from both Egypt and Spain without quarantine or any other impediment whatsoever.
The weevils quickly established themselves here. Municipal authorities, apparently oblivious to the problem, ignored infested trees right in the centre of towns and villages. Gormlessly, vulnerable new palms were actually added to roadsides and roundabouts.
The landscape right across the Algarve is now littered with dead and dying palms. Local battles are going on to save individual trees by setting traps, injecting and spraying, but the weevils are winning the war.

Containment efforts are expensive and ultimately pointless. Eradication is impossible until the last of the weevil's favourite palms has collapsed.

These trees were never in the Algarve in the first place. Why don't we stick to fostering indigenous plants that clearly enjoy it here?

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