Coconut rhinoceros beetle tearing through Solomon Islanders’ ‘tree of life’
Solomon Islanders are facing a bleak future as the coconut rhinoceros beetle marches across its fertile plains, killing their "tree of life" by the millions.
But these Pacific islanders do not rely on the ubiquitous fruit just for nutrition — the coconuts supply the palms' valuable cash crops of oil and copra, while the tree is also used for building and making essential household goods.
The coconut rhinoceros beetle has already browned-off the verdant landscape around the capital, Honiara.
Over the past three years, it has ferociously attacked the massive plantations of Guadalcanal Plains Palm Oil Limited (GPPOL), east of the city. Its general manager Craig Gibsone fears for future.
"We're under attack, we're fighting for survival, the attack is just so severe," Mr Gibsone said.
"At the moment, I won't say that we're losing but we're certainly not winning … it just seems to be getting worse."
With exports of palm oil and copra worth at least $50 million a year, there are fears processed foods will replace its nutrition.
With the discovery that the beetle has now reached the southern hemisphere's largest plantation in the Russell Islands, the country's Coconut Rhinoceros Beetle Taskforce has ramped up its community campaign.
Islanders to 'change habits of a lifetime'
As part of the solution, a workshop in Honiara this week tackled the sensitive task of convincing the community that villagers need to change the way they manage their coconut trees.
"That's the big issue at the moment: to try and persuade village farmers to change habits of a lifetime," taskforce head Bob Macfarlane said.
"In the past, they could let a palm die and fall down and rot and it didn't matter … you didn't have to do anything at all … that must change now.
"Every palm that dies must either be used in some way, for charcoal, for timber, for veneering or whatever."
Rhinoceros beetle larvae breed and feed on dead palm trees, which is why GPPOL is attacking the problem at its conception.
GPPOL employs 1,500 people on the Guadalcanal plains, who mostly live onsite with their families.
In order to tackle the intruder, however, the company has taken on 100 workers to search out larvae in their rotting habitats and destroy them — a dozen crates full is a good day's work.
"I've heard figures of loss of 50 per cent of crop in the years following a major attack … and that's if we can control it … if we don't get control of [the situation], I fear we might lose oil palm altogether," Mr Gibsone said.
Searching for a virus to control the beetles
The silver bullet, though, is a biological control like the virus that saved the coconuts plantations of Fiji, Samoa and Tonga 60 years ago, when another variety of rhinoceros beetle destroyed more than half of them.
Sadly, the Solomon Islands' coconut rhinoceros beetle is resistant to the virus that worked in Fiji so the search is on for its own biological control.
"You have to match the DNA of the strain of beetle that we have with DNA from the country of origin," Mr Macfarlane said.
"There's no certainty yet but we believe it comes from the Philippines or Indonesia or Vietnam and we have to do a DNA match and then try and identify what is keeping it under control in those countries and then import that."
Can Solomon Islands live with the rhinoceros beetle or will it be forever changed? "[It's] a big question," Mr Macfarlane said.
"If we can get the right disease … the right parasite, predator, population suppressing organism, whatever you want to call it … into the country and we get the population down and people do change their behaviour in that they're cleaning up the breeding sites, then yes, we can get back to something like what it was before, but there are a lot of ifs and buts along the way."
Mr Gibsone has explained that the stakes are much higher than the future of his company.
"It's a great crop for tropical countries, especially developing tropical countries and we employ a lot of people here … we support a lot of local people who have their own oil palm, and we have plans for expansion because it is a good growing region [with] great yields, but first we have to get on top of this beetle," he said.