The black sigatoka disease has severely curtailed banana cultivation in St. Vincent. (Internet photo)

KINGSTOWN, St. Vincent – Opposition Leader and banana farmer Arnhim Eustace says that the black sigatoka infestation here is at “crisis” level and he blames the Dr. Ralph Gonsalves government for the situation.

Eustace said on radio on Monday that many banana farmers have had to cut down trees replanted after Hurricane Tomas last November, because the government has not sprayed fruits as often as necessary to contain the disease.

Black sigatoka is a leaf spot disease of banana that can cut a tree’s fruit production in half. The fungal disease causes dark leaf spots that eventually enlarge and coalesce, causing much of the leaf area to turn yellow and brown.

The disease has triggered premature ripening of fruit shipped to the United Kingdom, the main market for bananas grown in the Windward Island, where farmers struggle to respond to competition from Latin America even as preferential trade arrangements expire.

“We are in a very serious situation,” Eustace said as he cited the projection of Henry Keizer, general manager of WINFAM Investments Ltd., that the industry could lose up to EC$60,000 weekly if the disease, which first appeared in 2009, is not contained.

Eustace said that banana trees were to be sprayed from the air at least 12 times this year but only one cycle has been completed so far.

“This is a crisis. … [Y]ou have to cut back a lot of bananas now and people start over. What are they going to start over with? Are they going to be compensated because you (the government) didn’t spray?” Eustace said.

“The Ministry of Agriculture couldn’t live up to its responsibility,” Eustace said. “This industry is in trouble and our economy is already very bad.”

He said that at his farm he had to cut down banana trees as recently as last week.

“I experience it because we have some bananas ourselves. So, I know those weren’t sprayed anywhere near the level they should have been sprayed…” he explained.

WINFAM general manager Keizer told Searchlight newspaper last week that while the disease cannot be eradicated, it was under control up until Hurricane Tomas, which wiped out agricultural produce in northern St. Vincent.

Before the storm struck in November, his organisation was producing 10,000 cartons of fruit per week and only five farmers could no longer sell bananas because their farms were overtaken by black sigatoka.

However, after the storm, there was not a return to the usual practice to control the disease, which Keizer attributed to “technical difficulties”.

“The banana service unit budgeted for 6 cycles, but we only had two mini-cycles in March and May,”

Aerial spraying is important for the control of the disease. (Internet photo)

Keizer explained, adding that ground crews target isolated pockets of the disease. He further explained that while aerial spraying better controls the disease, a delay in the arrival of the oil used also delayed the spray cycles.

Eustace said that this meant that the Ministry of Agriculture “didn’t have the money” to pay for the spraying.

“What kind of technical difficulties could prevent you from importing oil? … If you don’t have money, you don’t have money,” Eustace concluded.

“The government is not paying a lot of its bills on time and this is causing hardships to the population,” he said.

“I kept saying in this country that the financial crisis the government faces is responsible for a lot of difficulties in the economy. Our banana sales should be now rising, not falling,” he said, adding that the situation will cause the economy to contract again this year.

“And the government should compensate farmers who have replanted their fields, put in a lot of labour – some which many could not afford,” Eustace said, noting that banana are the only agricultural produce in St. Vincent that bring in an income weekly or weekly or fortnightly.

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister, speaking at a party rally on Sunday, said that his government has provided income support to Vincentians farmers affected by adverse weather and banana marketing regime.

He said that while bananas were exported to the United Kingdom in June — the first time since Hurricane Tomas — his government gave money for replanting, rehabilitation and income support, the only Vincentian government to have provided income support to banana farmers after a storm.