Fighting to save the world of bananas

Alamy

The visit of the Matanuska banana plantation is not easy these days. After a two hour drive from the nearest town in the north of Mozambique, in which visitors to the farm are stopped at the entrance and asked to soak their feet in the pools of disinfectant. Even the cars you take a bath.

Once an apparent miracle – a huge banana plantation in the middle of the dry, the flat part of a desperately poor country – its once lush countryside has been devastated by a deadly fungus called the Panama disease.

Five years ago, Tropical race 4 (TR4), as it is officially known, has been spotted for the first time in Africa after the killing of millions of bananas in Asia from the late 1980s.

The failure to contain the disease has set off alarm bells around the world.

Could the banana, the world’s most exported fruit, and the source of nutrients for millions of people, be at risk of extinction?

The BBC was the first to have access to the battery since it was struck by the disease.

We have traveled all the way to Matanuska not only to observe the devastation, but because the history of the plantation, it’s more than just bananas.

It is emblematic of the unexpected consequences of world trade, and the manner in which the solutions to these consequences could come from very unlikely places.

After our disinfectant baths, we continued a long, red dirt road up to what remains of the battery. It is surprisingly lush.

Walk along the metal zip are lines of hands, as they are known, carrying hundreds of bananas to a processing facility, where they too get the bath treatment before being sent to Dole-brand of containers for the Middle East.

Standing at the top of this procession, Elie Matabuana, the firm’s director of technical services.

He spends all of his time to look at all the banana trees grown here to see if they exhibit the yellowing of the leaves and tell-tale odor of rot that indicate a plant has been infected by the Panama disease.

“When I wake up] in the morning, the first thing that I have in my mind; what can I do to stop the disease?”, he said.

“It is a very big battle, but we’re winning,” he said, before changing his answer. “We’re going to win.”Containment

But Elijah and the Matanuska team are fighting an uphill battle. The disease has spread rapidly over the past five years.

“When I arrived at Matanuska, it was just after we have identified the pathogen and, at this stage, the farm was just beautiful,” says Stellenbosch university professor Altus Veljoen, who was the first to confirm that the disease had in fact escaped of Asia.

“I knew that this could change.

“But I never knew the extent of the variation and severity.”

Today, only 100 acres are to the left of Matanuska of origin of banana.

Of the farm of 2 700 workers, almost two-thirds have been laid off — sending of the surrounding environment of the economy in a downward spiral.

And containment, looking for a resistant banana strain, has become an urgent priority.

It is estimated that more than half a million people are employed in the banana industry in Mozambique. The “bad luck” of

Neighbouring countries such as Tanzania, only 150 km to the north of Matanuska, also depend on the culture of the banana, for a significant part of their economic activity.

And if the type of banana cultivated for their livelihoods, Uganda and the Congo, where residents get something like 35% of their daily nutrients from bananas – is thought to be strong, nobody knows for sure.

“All the African countries are worried about what is happening in Mozambique,” explains Antonia Vaz head of plant pathology at the Mozambique Ministry of Agriculture.

She said, the Mozambican government has implemented control measures to ensure that the disease does not escape to the northern part of the country.

She is also quick to note the disease is not endemic in Mozambique. The government believes that it came from the boots of two workers from the Philippines.

“It was very, very bad luck,” she said.

Each year, more than $12bn worth of bananas, mainly of the Cavendish variety, are exported to the worldwide favorite fruit both in value and in volume. No cure

Usually, if there are millions of dollars at stake, the solutions are not easy to find.

But the problem in the fight against Panama disease is in this way that the bananas are cultivated today.

The bananas that we eat are bananas Cavendish often grown to the exclusion of all the other thousands of types of bananas in the world.

Growing only a single variety of plant is known as a monoculture and it is a practice that becomes increasingly common through the world of everything from the forest by fruit plantations.

But the monoculture crops are highly susceptible to the disease.

This makes the story of the banana even more tragic is that the Cavendish variety is not natural to banana. It was first bred in Derbyshire, England in the 1840’s and this is what is known as a triploid, which means that its sterile.

So hoping that nature will produce a resistant banana is futile – there is no natural selection to save the Cavendish.A new hope

But, in the face of such odds, why continue to plant bananas to Matanuska?

There are two reasons.

One is that “if the land is simply abandoned and the people are starting to move, does anyone know who is going to carry the disease,” said Prof Veljoen.

The other is hope.

American Tricia Wallace is a former investment banker who helped arrange the funding of the battery in the rear, when the idea of a banana plantation in this part of the world appears like a mirage in the desert.

In the first years of operation, she said to me: “People have come from other parts of Mozambique, and they could not believe that this farm already existed and was in the process of doing it on this scale.”

Ms. Wallace said that she felt an obligation to ensure that the people here were not abandoned, that is why she eventually quit his banking job to run the farm.

Now, she is much invested, and perhaps more than any other plantation in the world, in a particular type of Taiwanese Cavendish banana, which is known as formosana.

It is this deformation that might hold the global response to banana problems, and it is this that Matanuska’ll need to survive.

And so far, the results are promising, 200 hectares of formosana are now more and more. While some plants still get the disease, they seem to be more strong and able to fight against it.Bounce

Thus, a disease of Asia, transported to Africa, because of poverty, and the sand might end up with a solution which is then shipped around the world.

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The banana is, after all, the shape of a boomerang. It is an irony that has not escaped Ms. Wallace.

“You know, we couldn’t call the Philippines and say,” come and show us how you have solved this problem,” she said.

“So, if we do this, then I think that there is a huge advantage, not only for the rest of the banana industry in Mozambique, but the region as a whole.”