Coconut beetle threatens to destroy Solomon Islands coconut industry

updated By Talisa Kupenga
Coconut plantations threatened by coconut rhinoceros beetle in Solomon Islands - Photo / Rewi Heke

The coconut rhinoceros beetle continues to destroy coconut trees by the millions in the Solomon Islands, and with no known cure yet it threatens the livelihoods of locals and their export markets.

Local Tony Matelaomao says, “It is a very big threat, I cannot imagine the Solomon Islands without coconuts. Coconut is not only a cash crop it is an important livelihood that people use on a day to day basis.”

There are two strains of Coconut Rhinoceros Beetle (CRB) in the Pacific, CRB-S and CRB-G.  The CRB-S type which susceptible to a biological control virus specific to this beetle, but with no remedy yet for the CBS-G type, it threatens to destroy the entire coconut industry.

Kokonut Pacific Solomon Islands managing director Bob Polland says of the estimated 29,000 hectares of coconut trees in the country only 50-percent were able to be harvested.

“The beetle comes and lands on top of the coconut tree, plants its egg and larvae in there which basically eats into the coconut trunk eventually killing the coconut tree.

“It eats there, flies away, comes back and breeds so the whole lifecycle can be in the coconut tree.”

The coconut industry provides essential employment for locals especially villages in rural areas.

Polland says, “Our producers work with villagers, about 1300 farmers. They make the oil in the villages and we buy the oil from them.”

Coconut oil earns nearly $18-million in exports for the Solomon Islands each year. Palm oil and copra (a natural alterative to plastic rope), which was impacted by the CBB-S strain earns nearly $50-million a year in exports.

Sikaiana Village Coconut Farmer Priscilla Muka says coconuts are a means of survival for her village

“It is like a tree of life for us. We use it for everything. Coconut is a source of food for us and we construct our houses from it.

"Since it has become a problem here I don’t see any of the government coming here to do something about it.”

The CRB-G beetle’s initial invasion started in Honiara in 2015. Two years ago it took hold and killed more than half the trees that used to be at Muka’s Sikaiana Village, now 50 trees remain. In other areas, plantations have been completely destroyed.

NZ Deputy  Prime Minister Winston Peters says, “It’s a serious impending crisis for Vanuatu and potentially other countries so we hope to leave here with at least some idea of how we might collectively, NZ, Australia and elsewhere try and get on top of this menace because it is a menace.”

Locals will continue to ‘cut, burn and kill’ the pest infected areas until a cure is found. NZ scientists have been working to develop a fungus and virus to counter the pest.