The continued spread of the lethal yellowing disease in Belize is generating justifiable fears about the future of coconuts and its effect on traditional customs (viz. a viz. production and use of coconut water, milk and oil) and on tourism in the cayes. In light of those fears, it is appropriate that some facts on the matter be provided to the public.
Lethal yellowing (LY), one of the world's most destructive coconut diseases, was confirmed in Belize in December 1992. The disease also occurs in the Caribbean islands including Jamaica, Haiti and Cuba, and has been spreading southward ever since it hit Florida and the Southern United States in the 1970's. Belize had been expecting the appearance of lethal yellowing and therefore it came as no surprise when it arrived through Quintana Roo, Mexico and was confined to Corozal. Since its arrival in late 1992, the disease has spread to Orange Walk, Belize and Stann Creek Districts, Caye Chapel, Caye Caulker and most recently in San Pedro. It is likely that the disease will spread through Belize within the next 2 years.
A primitive bacterium, called a mycoplasma-like organism (MLO) is the causal agent of lethal yellowing. This MLO invades and blocks the food conducting channels of the coconut tree causing the tree to die in 6 to 9 months after infection. These MLO's are transmitted from palm to palm by small leaf sucking insects called leafhoppers (Myndus crudus) but the control of the leafhopper has not been effective in reducing the spread of lethal yellowing. Once infected, there is no practical cure for the disease.
As lethal yellowing continues to spread throughout Belize, the effects will be very visible, especially on the cayes. Almost all of the tall variety of coconut is expected to die, leaving behind a characteristic ‘lamppost' effect (ie. after the crown falls the bare stem remains upright until it rots).
The only practical solution for the control of lethal yellowing is the planting of resistant varieties. The Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries realized the threat of this disease and began preparing for it in the early 1980's. In 1986, seed gardens were established in Central Farm to produce Malayan Dwarf variety and its hybrids, both of which have high levels of resistance. The technology for the production of hybrids was adapted from Jamaica and involved the crossing of the Malayan Dwarf (90% resistant) with the Panama Tall (65% resistant) to give the ‘MAYPAN' hybrid (95% resistant). The first Maypan seedlings were produced from the gardens in Central Farm in 1992 and to date over 15,000 Maypan hybrid and Malayan Dwarf seedlings have been sold at a subsidized price.
The combination of budgetary constraints and structural adjustment effected an 18 month halt in the production of Maypan hybrids from the coconut seed gardens in Central Farm. In an attempt to continue producing both Maypan hybrid and Malayan Dwarf seedlings, the management of the seed gardens has been contracted to AgroPro Belize Ltd., a limited liability company registered in Belize. Presently, Malayan Dwarf seedlings are available from the seed gardens in Central Farm at the price of $3.00 per seedling and Maypan hybrid seedlings will be available in November 1997.