Financing is now in place to allow the Plant Quarantine Unit in the Ministry of Commerce, Industry, Agriculture and Fisheries to effectively ramp up public awareness and begin an aggressive vector-control programme in an effort to stave off a wipe-out of the local cocoa industry by frosty pod rot.
"In January, we'll be starting with some public awareness, and then right after that, we will go into St Mary to start pruning. We'll be starting there to prevent any further spread [and] to also protect the premium quality cocoa that we produce there," chief plant quarantine officer Sanniel Wilson told The Gleaner recently.
Following the suspension of trading in cocoa plants/products across parishes last month, the Plant Quarantine Unit has been fine-tuning its programme for the containment and eradication of the deadly disease, which is spread by the Moniliophthora roreri fungus. Across the world, frosty pod rot poses the single greatest threat to cocoa cultivation. That is why the ban on transportation of cocoa pods, seedlings, cuttings, or any other plant material across parish borders has been implemented locally.
"In other words, all cocoa reaped in Portland has to be processed in Portland. All cocoa reaped in St Thomas has to be processed there, and, equally, for all the other parishes," Wilson explained.
Portland, St. Thomas clear so far
St Thomas and Portland are the only parishes in which the disease is yet to be detected. In Clarendon, infestation has been put at 100 per cent, with St Mary under similar threat.
"Clarendon is over 90 per cent infested, but we are actually calling Clarendon 100 per cent infested because the disease is at what we call asymptomatic - a latency stage where you can't see the actual symptoms until seven weeks' time," the chief plant quarantine officer advised.
Usually, members of the plant quarantine team are the only persons allowed to enter premises and prune or take other steps deemed necessary when crops of such economic importance are under threat.
However, the Plant Quarantine Frosty Pod Rot of Cocoa Order, 2017, facilitates the input of multisector collaboration, according to Wilson.
... High-school students to be recruited to help with monitoring
"The order (Plant Quarantine Frosty Pod Rot of Cocoa Order, 2017) not just restricts persons, but it also authorises us to give RADA (Rural Agricultural Development Authority), the Research and Development Division, and other persons, that authority as well. So under that authority, we are also having a new project team, employing 25 high-school students that we're going to use as compliance officers, and we are also employing senior compliance officers," said chief plant quarantine officer, Sanniel Wilson.
This is an extra monitoring safeguard to ensure that farmers and other stakeholders cut back, strip, lime, and spray, consistent with the proper protocol, and is especially important in light of information now coming to the fore that suggests that the disease has been here for some time.
"When we completed that delimiting survey somewhere about October, it showed us that this disease was already established in Jamaica. The status that we were seeing is now advanced. Clarendon, when we finished last year, was at 70 per cent infested already. That is telling us, and based on what we know of the disease and based on the infestation we were seeing, it told us that the disease was here from two years ago," Wilson said.
Dealing with disease
"With any disease or pest, the first thing is what we call exclusion. That's why we are at the ports, that's why we have prohibited items, that's why we give permits with requirements. Nonetheless, you still have a risk of it coming in. Once it comes in, the first thing that helps us in being able to respond effectively is being able to detect it early. When we made contact with an expert who has the disease in his country some time in November and showed what Jamaica had in terms of the symptoms, he actually agreed with Jamaica, that we would have had this disease before."