Tunisia readies for war against red palm weevil

Sunday 21/05/2017
Existential risk to vital industry. Palm trees infected with red palm weevils are seen on the outskirts of Tunis. (AFP)

Tunis- Tunisian government ministers, activists and international academ­ics gathered for a confer­ence in Tunis this month. The purpose of the conference was clear: To formulate a response to an insect infestation whose spread is said to pose an existential risk to the country’s vital date export industry.
“The red palm weevil came to Tunisia around six years ago,” said Jose Romeno Faleiro, an entomolo­gist from Goa, India. “It started in northern Tunis and has spread out­ward from there. So far, it hasn’t reached the palmeries in the south, but it needs to be contained and stopped before it does.”
The Ministry of Agriculture said Tunisia has some 5.4 million palm trees, all of which are at risk of in­festation. Red palm weevils infect healthy trees, laying eggs inside. The larvae devour the trunk from the inside, making early detection difficult. Once they are grown, wee­vils move to nearby trees, exponen­tially expanding the infestation.
In Tunisia, evidence of the in­sect’s devastation can be seen on many of the capital’s streets, where stumps of infected palm trees are rife. In northern Tunisia, the infes­tation presents little more than an eyesore. However, should it spread south and infect Tunisia’s vital date crop, its presence could prove dev­astating.
Tunisian officials were candid about failures to check the insects’ spread. Tunisian Minister of Agri­culture, Water Resources and Fish­eries Samir Bettaieb said during the conference that the weevil’s spread from central Tunis to Nabeul in the south and to Bizerte in the north was evidence of the government’s inability to stop the insect.
“Tunisia’s date exports this year are around 400 million dinars ($165 million),” State Secretary of Sci­entific Research Khalil Amiri said. “Date exports are very important.” He went on to stress the critical role of all exports in stabilising Tunisia’s sliding currency.
Tunisia has tried many approach­es to contain the weevil threat and, though ministry officials claim some success in limiting their spread, the government is reluctant to gamble on the future.
The situation is far from hopeless. An infestation in Mauritania has been all but eradicated and weevil outbreaks at Laguna Beach in Cali­fornia and the Canary Islands were checked permanently.
Conference organisers SOS BIAA intend to pilot techniques dis­cussed at the conference in infested trees in southern Tunis, while the government mulls a nationwide strategy.