Wednesday, February 08, 2017

The Life And Death Of Trees

It was reported last May that almost 9,000 palm trees had been destroyed in Mallorca as a result of having been affected by the picudo rojo red beetle. The number of trees which had been affected since 2006, when the beetle was first detected in Mallorca, was put at around 11,000 from a total palm population of getting on for 275,000 trees.

Trees can be saved. I know of cases where they have been and where the trees are once more flourishing. Early detection, "shock treatment", as a gardener described it to me, constant treatment, trapping the beetle can help to revive trees and then go some way to eradicating the beetle.

It is a pest which is difficult to eradicate, especially as the beetle has no predator (birds and others shun it), but it can be eradicated. It is now over three years since the last beetle was captured in the Canary Islands (Fuerteventura to be exact). Constant monitoring led the European Commission to declare the Canaries free of the insect; the first region in the world where it has been eliminated.

It was first detected in the Canaries in 2005, a year before it was in Mallorca. From that moment on up until relatively recently, i.e. well beyond that last insect having been captured, more than 700,000 palm trees were inspected. Over 200,000 were treated. Only 659 were actually removed. In a coordinated effort which involved the general public, various administrations, strict import controls, geographic information systems and more, they managed to get rid of it. The cost of doing so was nine million euros.

By contrast with the Canaries, the response in Mallorca was uncoordinated. There was also complacency that bordered on gross incompetence. Latterly, the beetle has been treated very much more effectively and efficiently. Nevertheless, in 2015 the number of trees that were eliminated was almost 1,800.

The incompetence was as detectable as the evidence of the beetle was - trees slowly dying. Although it is generally thought that the beetle first took hold in Pollensa, it wasn't Pollensa where it was first detected: this was in Campos on the other side of the island. Yet Pollensa was to become the initial and most obvious part of Mallorca that was affected, so much so that it was dubbed "ground zero" for the beetle. The response was initially a state of denial. When action was finally taken, trees were cut down and the remains left in the open: a terrible decision. Eventually it was realised that the remains had to be burned or buried, preferably both. And the burning was ideally in an incinerator, not out in the open.

One can only conclude that it was a combination of incompetence and complacency that allowed the beetle to spread. One can add to this mixture a lack of resources, especially money. As the Canaries already had the problem (and were getting on with tackling it), as Valencia and Andalusia most definitely also had the problem, then why was not more done?

The complacency was perhaps because the beetle had first been found in Spain nine years before its presence was evident in Valencia. The first reported case was in a place called Almuñécar on the Costa Granadina in Andalusia. This was way back in 1994. The apparent slowness of the plague may have led some to believe that it wasn't the threat that it turned out to be.

Despite the destruction of trees and the regrettable sight of stumps that remain, in percentage terms it has been modest. But the anxieties and sadness caused should in themselves be sufficient to have administrations in a constant state of high alert in case another threat emerges. It has, and it's called olive ebola (xylella fastidiosa), a bacteria that is far less discerning than the beetle. Its appetite is for various tree species, over 300 it is reckoned, and these are not only fruit trees - oaks, sycamores, ornamental plants; they're all on its radar.

By comparison with the potential that olive ebola has for devastation, the effects of the beetle would be small beer. It is now being said that there were indications of the pest in Mallorca in 2012, so before it started to wreak havoc in Italy. If there were signs, it was only a few months ago that there were confirmed cases. But it turns out that there were more. Has the government been slow to react? Was it in denial, complacent or incompetent? Analysis was needed to be sure, it argues. It would now be easy, says the agriculture minister, to just destroy acres of countryside by cutting down thousands of trees. Instead the bacteria has to be fought. If the fight is lost, the destruction will occur anyway.

But there is hope because there is action, so one trusts that the mistakes of picudo rojo are not being repeated.

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