Local fruit farmers lost millions of pula in farm produce because the Ministry of Agriculture opened the border gates to the invasive fruit fly and kept it a secret in an apparent bid to cover up the blunder, Sunday Standard investigations have revealed.
The pest is believed to have been imported from Zambia, apparently after the Ministry of Agriculture issued import permits of tomatoes from Zambia ÔÇô a country which was among a list of countries listed by the United States Federal Import Quarantine Order in December 2008 as infested. Others in the region included Mozambique and Namibia.
The Ministry of Agriculture officials knew of the outbreak of a “fruit fly’ pest in the country in 2009 but issued alerts to local farmers and the International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC) almost a year later.
The Sunday Standard can reveal that before the Ministry of Agriculture reported to the International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC) the detection of “fruit fly” (Bactrocera Invadens) on 30 September 2010, an expert on the pest, Marc De Meyer, had on 3 November 2009 positively identified and confirmed samples sent to him for testing by the Ministry of Agriculture as Bactrocera Invadens (fruit fly) meaning the alert was made 11 months later.
Bactrocera Invadens is a fruit fly in the family of Tephritide, which contains a number of harmful plant posts. It poses a serious threat to many fruits and vegetables.
The Deputy Permanent Secretary ÔÇô Support Services at the Ministry of Agriculture, Edison Wotho, wrote to one farmer Ron Schroder on 22 October 2010 in a correspondence seen by the Sunday Standard claiming the first detection of the pest was on 5 February 2010 following complaints registered with his Ministry why there was a delay in issuing farmers with an alert. Schroder did not wish to comment on the issue saying the matter is before the courts.
The Ministry said at the time that it could not issue alerts as it has still to confirm the pest since also raising the issue of lack of expertise in taxonomists and laboratories locally to facilitate the pest identification process.
“It [pest] was only confirmed on the 15 June 2010. The Ministry of Agriculture could not publicise the presence of the pest before confirmation and hence the delay in sensitising farmers on the presence of the pest even though preliminary identifications pointed toward Bactocera invadens, “the Ministry of Agriculture wrote to the farmer justifying the delay”.
While the Ministry claimed that the detection was confirmed on 15 June 2010 it took four months to inform farmers of the presence of the pest.
It was not until February this year that the Ministry issued a notice on Asian fruit fly at all of the country’s entry points in accordance with the Plant Protection Act Cap 35:02 that imported host fruits must be accompanied by Plant Import Permit issued by the Plant Protection Division regardless of quantity.
Chobe farmers say delayed action by the Ministry of Agriculture has not only jeopardised their farming businesses and affected the livelihoods of some 1000 people but has also compromised the bio security of the entire country as well as that of Botswana’s neighbours particularly South Africa.
The Sunday Standard is informed that one farmer in the Chobe area was forced to destroy a projected 300 tonnes of mangoes and another 700 tonnes of tomatoes at different stages of development incurring an estimated business loss to the tune of P18 million as a result of the delay in issuing an alert.
While the government was aware of the existence of fruit fly in Zambia, it nevertheless issued import tomato permits.
“I have never really been involved in the issue because I don’t grow tomatoes but it is a SADC issue. At our recent Agriculture Pitso held in Lobatse there were discussions around the Fruit Fly dating back from the time when I was not yet chairman,” said Tienie Kruger, chairman of the Pandamatenga Farmers Association.