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A group of citrus growers from the Stann Creek District are up in arms over a recent operation by government agents, accompanied by police officers armed with what have been described as “high-powered assault rifles,” who hacked down 180,000 young trees that were to be planted out for production.

Christopher West is one farmer who has been affected. He was not at home when the operation was carried out – which destroyed 40 to 70 of his plants.

Amandala spoke Thursday with his wife, Barbara, who said that some policemen armed with big guns came around 2:00 p.m. on Wednesday, November 24, and asked her to hold her dogs. They made it known that the representatives of the Belize Agricultural Health Authority (BAHA) were there to destroy the citrus seedlings.

She said she complied, but the move caught her and her husband by complete surprise.

William Bowman, of HTA Bowman Limited, said that he wanted to purchase 15,000 seedlings to rehabilitate his farm, which was recently impacted by Hurricane Richard – now he has nowhere to buy them.

The industry will die eventually,” Bowman told Amandala. He believes that the destruction of the trees was “pure stupidity.”

Hezron Cadle of Mountain View Nursery, told Amandala Wednesday that his nursery has been devastated, as BAHA’s staff and police destroyed at least 45,000 of his trees, and now he has nothing to plant out on his farm for the next crop. He said he was intending to plant out about 400 acres of farmland.

Cadle accepts that the government may have the power to act under law, but he objects to the way the operation was done.

He said that when the government reps showed up, they handed him a photocopy of a letter dated November 8, 2010, that was supposed to have been sent to him, but which he had not previously gotten. The letter said something about citrus greening, said Cadle.

Citrus greening is also known as huanglongbing (HLB) or yellow shoot disease – dubbed one of the most serious citrus diseases in the world.

According to information published by the Citrus Growers Association of Belize (CGA), “HLB is primarily spread by two species of psyllid insects: the Asian citrus psyllid and the African citrus psyllid. The Asian citrus psyllid, is present in Belize, and bears the scientific name Diaphorina citri.”

Francisco Gutierrez, technical director of BAHA’s Plant Health Section based at Central Farm Cayo, told Amandala Thursday that the way forward is for farmers to produce their seedlings under screens, as required by law.

“To continue this way [producing seedlings without screens] will only create a bigger problem, which would mean more loss of investment,” Guiterrez added.

He likened the disease to some sort of AIDS in plants.

He said that all new citrus planting has to be done under screen. No one in the country, Gutierrez said, is using screens, and farmers are reluctant because it requires a hefty investment, he added.

He told our newspaper that the disease was detected in Belize in April 2009, and since then, it has been spreading. Some parts of Stann Creek, he said, are 100% affected; in other areas, the infestation is getting worse. He said if nothing is done, every single citrus tree in Belize will be affected down the road.

Some of the farmers we spoke with told us that information coming out of Florida – one of the places where citrus has been affected by the same greening disease – has indicated that because the infestation is a nutritional disease, fertilizer applications can help combat the disease. American Maury Boyd has been cited in Citrus Industry magazine as one farmer who refused to remove his trees and applied the nutritional approach to battling the infestation.

Guttierez said that there is also talk of introducing a biological weapon to fight the citrus greening. (This would mean bringing in another organism that would destroy the psyllid.)

Technical experts here have not done the scientific study to see how citrus greening has been affecting the industry, Gutierrez noted.

He said that the disease causes trees to bear small, hard and bitter fruit – poor for juices.

He also argues that most of the plants that have been destroyed – which he estimated at 180,000 – would not have even made it to maturity.

Henry Canton, a citrus grower and Chief Executive Officer of the Citrus Products of Belize Limited (CPBL), told our newspaper that there is no proof that trees with greening will die in two years, as officials have indicated.

“My perspective is that we can manage greening,” said Canton, stressing that there has to be a combination of effective approaches to the problem, including removing trees that are known to be bad. He advocates biological control of the pest.

He added that because of the polarity in the industry – referring to the split of farmers into two distinct organizations – nobody is listening to each other.

It was Belize Citrus Mutual, the newer of the two (the next being CGA) which issued a statement to the press, decrying the actions of BAHA. BCM notes that the destruction comes at a time when the industry desperately needs new plants.

Gutierrez told Amandala that the disease has also done major damage in the United States and Brazil, and has also been detected on farms in Mexico and Cuba, as well as in neighboring Central American countries.