Idjwi — More than half of mountainous South Kivu in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is infected by banana xanthomonas wilt (BXW), often referred to by farmers as "Banana AIDS".
The incurable disease is wiping out bananas and plantains grown at high altitudes and spreads easily. IRIN looked at the disease and how people are being affected on the island of Idjwi (population 230,000) in Lake Kivu.
"Malnutrition is increasing: in the last half of 2011, the Idjwi Centre for Rural Promotion (CPR) recorded 48 new cases of malnourished children in the north of the island against 21 in the first half the same year," said Euphraim Kivayaga, the director of CPR, a local development organization which has been active on the island for over 20 years.
The socio-economic consequences of the epidemic are strongly felt as the inhabitants live almost exclusively from farming, and population pressure is a growing source of poverty.
"It's all of social life which deconstructs: we are seeing an increase in theft and conflict in communities, and instances of mob justice are increasing and are particularly violent. Illiteracy and migration away from rural areas is growing... People are helpless. In addition, false rumours are circulating and we need to combat them," said Kivayaga.
Banana plantations play a central role in local communities in eastern DRC. Besides being a staple food, bananas are used for their juice and to make beer - the juice may be given to children as a substitute for milk, while beer is a drink that plays a crucial social role, especially at weddings.
Julie Van Damme, a researcher at the Earth and Life Institute of the Catholic University of Louvain (UCL), also emphasizes "the economic role of bananas which serve as farmers' 'bank accounts' for unexpected or major expenses (such as payment of school fees) and their role in agriculture: bananas aid soil fertility and help prevent soil erosion."
A regional epidemic
BXW began in Ethiopia on Ensete crops (related to bananas), where it had a relatively minor effect. It was during its spread to Uganda that farmers realized the epidemic nature of the bacterium. Present in North Kivu since 2001, the bacterium has spread to both Kivus today. In 2011, it was reported in five provinces of nearby Burundi.
Banana plantations occupy 30 percent of the cultivated area in South Kivu and generate nearly 60 percent of household income. Four territories of South Kivu Province saw their banana production decline 20-100 percent, resulting in some places in a loss of 35 tons per hectare per year, a US$1,600 per hectare per year loss for the farmer.
The rapid spread of BXW has devastating consequences for all farmers. The symptoms of BXW are dry banana leaves, early ripening of bananas, a yellowish fluid in the trunk of banana trees, and a hardening and darkening of bananas making them inedible. "Even the animals are refusing this food," said one farmer in Idjwi North.
Disease control measures
Although "there is no magic bullet solution, it is possible to control the spread of disease by strict but practicable techniques," said Grant Bulangashane, an assistant at the Catholic University of Bukavu and a PhD student at UCL.
"Farmers must get used to disinfecting their tools - by using a chemical disinfectant or exposing them to fire - as they move from an infected plant to a healthy plant. Farmers must also, using a stick, remove the male bud of the diseased plant, which attracts insects and becomes, due to foraging animals, a vector of disease. They must also cut the plant and bury or dispose of waste bananas and ensure that animals do not spread the disease as they move from infected plants to healthy plants."
To combat this latest threat, some farmers have had the idea of placing hot ashes on infected banana plants, to prevent contact.
Educate and legislate
In Uganda, the government has set up a Task Force to develop a plan to fight the disease. W.K. Tushemereirwe, in a collective work edited by an international network promoting bananas and plantains, believed "Uganda was losing $360 million each year because of the disease." The plan has had an impact and DRC is seeking to follow suit, despite the lack of resources, and red tape.
Currently a provincial order is under review at the office of governor of South Kivu and is about to be signed. "To stop the spread, everyone should apply the same rules. If your neighbour does not respect them, your work is useless," said an angry farmer who lost a significant portion of his crop. Indeed, political action is important to ensure that healthy seeds and agricultural equipment are controlled and distributed to enforce basic practices.
Awareness is a key step. CPR is using its meagre resources to broadcast about the disease on its community radio station. After awareness-raising and "the phase without bananas" which should last 6-8 months - extremely difficult for a farmer who has a substantial portion of his crop infected - we must consider planting afresh.
The Consortium for Improving Agriculture-Based Livelihoods in Central Africa , in partnership with the provincial inspectors and Louvain Development, has set up a system of "macro-propagation" of healthy plants. It should strive to produce a variety bananas appreciated by the people and supplied by a source that has not been in contact with the disease.
"Some universities, including the UCL, hold the complete collection of varieties of bananas," said Julie Van Damme. "The Phytolab in Burundi can also provide 'healthy vitroplants'. But all this has a cost."
Faced with this alarming situation, extensive action is vital: In Idjwi the population is desperate and the humanitarian challenge daunting.
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]