RAY OF HOPE IN GUAM’S BETEL NUT BLIGHT

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By Katie Worth

HAGATNA, Guam (Pacific Daily News, May 24) - As the clouds of the rainy season build on the horizon, the island's betel nut lovers wonder what effect the change in weather will have on the killer fungus that has destroyed thousands of betel nut trees in the southern villages.

Last month, the Department of Agriculture completed its survey of the southern villages to determine how widespread the fungal infection is and to instruct growers of betel nut, known as pugua in Chamorro, to cut down and burn any trees that show signs of the deadly fungus.

In a little over a month, the agriculture-department teams surveyed 20,265 trees and found that 5,065, or one quarter, are infected, said Carol Ada, agricultural inspector at the plant inspection station. She estimated that the number of infected trees is closer to 10,000, including the more difficult-to-reach trees in the boonies deep in the valleys of Merizo. She didn't have an estimate of how many trees have perished because of the fungus.

Agriculture officials worry that when the rainy season and its associated windy storms arrive around July, the fungus could spread much faster than it has over the last several months, said Roland Quitugua, a University of Guam agricultural extension agent.

But the visit of an off-island scientist provided another ray of hope in the gloomy situation, he said. An Australian plant-disease expert who came to the island to collect samples of the fungus has recommended a fungicide that can be injected into pugua trees, protecting them from the fungus for up to a year, and even curing mildly-infected trees.

He said the government of Guam is in the process of procuring the fungicide and hopes to get a good supply of it on island in June.

The exact identity of the fungus still has not been determined, though it may be the same fungus that wiped out all of Saipan's betel nut trees several years ago.

Around September last year, the swiftly moving fungus began infecting and killing pugua trees in Merizo and on the perimeter of Umatac and Inarajan. Once infected, the trees die within weeks. The only way to stop the fungus, which is spread by spores in the wind and rain, is to cut down the infected trees and burn them.

Beginning this week, agriculture teams will begin canvassing Merizo again, injecting fungicide into trees on farms where the infected pugua have been cut down and burned, and helping destroy pugua when necessary.

The cooperation of pugua growers is essential for the success of the eradication program, Quitugua said, because the agriculture department does not have the resources to destroy all of the trees on their own.

Without that cooperation, he said, it will be impossible to eradicate the disease before it spreads.

But it is easier said than done in the case of Jose "Yogi" Cruz of Merizo, who has several hundred pugua trees, and who does not have a chainsaw to help him with the task of cutting down the infected trees.

The fungus, which followed the also-destructive Supertyphoon Pongsona, has had a heavy impact on Cruz's pocketbook.

Before the typhoon and fungus, Cruz would harvest enough betel nut to make about $500 weekly. Now, he makes almost no money.

"It was a good business before, but not anymore," he said.

Pugua grower Ana Tyquiengco, 56, of Merizo also worried that the fungus will affect her family's finances.

She said that between their ranch and home, she and her husband have lost close to 100 pugua trees.

She said that her husband and her children like to chew the betel nut. Betel nut produces a bitter red juice that is known for being a mild stimulant.

Tyquiengco said she is concerned about what might happen if more of the island's betel nut crops are killed.

"We use the betel nut we grow and it saves us money from buying them from other places, but if all the betel nut trees are to die, then we have no choice but to buy from other people ... and betel nut is very expensive," she said.

"The young betel nut comes in a Ziploc bag with the leaves and the lime already in it, and it's $2.50 a bag, and there are only 12 in the bag -- a very small bag," she said. "Like my son, if he chews two bags a day, that is $5 a day, and for 10 days you're going to be spending $50."

May 24, 2004

Pacific Daily News: www.guampdn.com

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