Colombia oil palm blight

Edgar Barrera oversees a 12,000-acre oil palm grove in Puerto Wilches, Colombia. There are several theories as to why the "bud rot" has set in.(Chris Kraul / For The Times)




Standing amid hundreds of African oil palms, their gray and desiccated fronds drooping to the ground, Edgar Barrera shakes his head and speaks of their death sentence.

"What we have is a technological disaster, an economic disaster and a social disaster," said Barrera, superintendent of the Bucarelia company's 12,000-acre African palm grove.

Barrera is referring to a mysterious, fast-spreading and deadly disease called "PC" that has devastated African palm plantations here in the Magdalena River valley area 200 miles north of Bogota, the capital, and elsewhere in Colombia. More than 60% of Bucarelia's palm trees are dead or dying because of it, he said.

Instances of mysterious crop maladies attacking entire regions are nothing new in the hemisphere. But the ravages of PC go beyond agriculture; the damage extends to Colombia's drug fighting and energy policies.

By decimating palm groves, the disease is eliminating an alternative crop to coca, cocaine's raw material, which is illegally grown in abundance hereabout. And unless a cure is found, PC could also impede Colombia's ambitious shift to biofuels, including palm oil.

"That little bug is eating our future," said Barrera, an agronomist who said he feels impotent before a sickness that destroyed more than half a million of his company's trees. "Everyone has a hypothesis why he is unstoppable, but at the end of the day, no one knows."

"PC" stands for the Spanish words for "bud rot," and the disease kills any palm tree that becomes infected. First a microorganism called phythophthora attacks the soft growth matrix of the palm. The odor attracts insects called palm weevils, which bore into the tree, killing it.

Historically, when the focus of palm cultivation was cooking oil and cosmetics, Colombia always had manageable amounts of PC, said National University of Colombia researcher Edgar Benitez. But all that changed this decade when palm oil became desirable as a clean-burning substitute for diesel, and acreage doubled.

For reasons not fully understood, the PC microorganism has mutated into strains that spread much faster and can't be controlled, Benitez said. Over-fertilization and inadequate drainage are just two of the theories being advanced. But the bottom line, he said, is that African palm grown on such a massive scale is a relatively "new crop" and the knowledge base is small.

President Alvaro Uribe has tirelessly promoted the crop, making it a special cause. His government has begun to phase in mandated quotas that by 2015 will require that 20% of all fuel burned by trucks and buses be made with biofuels.

The government's promotion of African palm has generated enormous controversy here, as has been the case in other countries where similar campaigns are underway. Critics contend that a crop occupying hundreds of thousands of acres encourages land grabs and forces the displacement of impoverished farmers.

On a tour of his grove, which stretches as far as the eye can see, Barrera pointed out telltale signs of initial infestation: new stalks of palm fronds emerging gray from the trunk instead of a healthy lime green color.

"The owners of neighboring plantations have resorted to witchcraft. They've hired magic potion salesmen who also claim to have cures for AIDS and cancer. They've held Masses to bless one tree at a time," Barrera said. "Nothing works."

Fedepalma, the association of Colombian palm farmers, has mounted a disease-management program centering on hybrids. But chief researcher Gerardo Martinez acknowledged in a recent interview that there was no known cure.

It's not just huge plantations such as Bucarelia that are suffering. Miguel Angel Marquez, 60, who plowed his life's savings into a 35-acre grove that was once highly profitable, is still coming to grips with the disaster.

Since he first noted signs of PC in 2007, the plague has slowly taken over his 2,000 palm trees, killing 1,200 of them. The surviving palms' days are numbered, he said.

"We've been told to plant hybrids, but I just don't have the same enthusiasm as before," Marquez said. "When I finally was forced to tell my wife that this disease is for real, we just sat down and cried."

Kraul is a special correspondent.