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DAVAO CITY, Philippines — Big banana growers in the Davao Region have expressed fears that the deadly Fusarium wilt infestation that have hit thousands of hectares of plantations will kill the export industry in five years if nothing is done to control the disease.

The Pilipino Banana Growers and Exporters Association (PBGEA), which represents the big exporters, admitted that their farms have been hit by Fusarium wilt but the extent of the infestation has yet to be determined.

“If left without rigid interventions, the rapid spread of the disease can eliminate the entire export banana industry in five years’ time,” PBGEA said in a recent workshop in Davao City.

The deadly Fusarium wilt (Panama wilt) Tropical Race 4 (TR4) disease had been ravaging plantations in China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan, Australia and the Philippines.

However, the spread of the disease had been more marked in China and the Philippines, where the disease was discovered in 2002 by former Agriculture Secretary Domingo F. Panganiban, with Dr. Augusto Molina of Bioversity International and the Banana Asia Pacific Network (BAPNet) eventually confirming the presence of disease in small plantations in Bukidnon and the Davao Region in 2008.

It was Panganiban who issued the warning about TR4 and then Bureau of Plant Industry (BPI) director Joel Rudinas asked the banana industry players to contribute at 50 centavos for every carton of bananas exported to fund research into the appropriate way of battling the disease.

To discuss the infestation, a consultation-workshop on the “Socio-economic Impacts of Fusarium Wilt Disease of Cavendish Banana in the Asia-Pacific Region”  was organized by the Philippine Council for Agriculture, Aquatic and Natural Resources Research and Development (PCAARRD), Food and Fertilizer Technology Center (FFTC) and the Banana Asia Pacific Network (BAPNET)-Bioversity International.

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The consultation, held in Davao City, featured scientific papers by FFTC director Dr. Yu-Tsai Huang, PCAARD executive director Dr. Patricio S. Faylon and Dr. Agustin Molina.

The Fusarium wilt Race 1 wiped out the Gros Michel of Latin America in the 1950s and this led to the shift to the Cavendish variety that is resistant to Race 1 strain found in the region.

A more virulent strain, TR4, which attacks the Cavendish, ravaged Taiwan’s Cavendish in the 1980s, with Indonesia and Malaysia getting hit the next decade before the strain ravaged Guangdong, China in early 2000.

Research in mitigating the disease epidemic has been initiated by Bioversity in partnership with government agencies such as PCAARRD, Department of Agriculture-Bureau of Agricultural Research (DA-BAR), Bureau of Plant Industry- Davao, University of the Philippines at Los Baños (UPLB) and some banana growers.

Prior to the consultation-workshop, many farms in Davao region have been known to be severely affected by TR4 but the extent of damage and epidemics was not clear.

“I did not realize that the Fusarium wilt problem has already spread like a bushfire,” Molina said.

Mr. Remigio Garcia, president of the Mindanao Banana Farmers and Exporters Association (MBFEA), which unites small growers, reported that about 39 percent or (5,900 hectares) of their members’ aggregate Cavendish plantation areas had been infected.

So severe was the infestation that 3,000 hectares had been abandoned.

PBGEA said that assuming a ratio of four farmers working on a hectare of land, the TR4 infrstsation would result in 330,000 workers losing their jobs, along with them their annual wages totaling P42.3 billion.

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On the other hand, MBFEA members have an aggregate land area of 16,300 hectares, which is roughly 20 percent of the total area for Cavendish banana.

In a hectare of land with two farm hands, about 32,600 workers would be rendered jobless.

For the 3,000 hectares abandoned due to Fusarium wilt, about 6,000 workers were already displaced.

These figures do not factor in other related industries involved in banana processing, packaging, marketing and financing.