Publication date: Tuesday, 7th July, 2009

By Frederick Womakuyu

BUGIMOTWA village in Kapchorwa, eastern Uganda, is a mountainous enclave with a beautiful landscape of winding valleys and fertile soils. For centuries, the village with hardly any tarmac road, piped water or electricity, has been known for its prosperous banana and coffee growing.

The crops provided food for the residents and helped them educate their children after they were sold.

Although the village was struck by the coffee wilt disease two decades ago leading to the death of the coffee industry, its effect was not as devastating as that of the banana wilt disease that is ravaging the area. Many banana plantations are no more, which has not only left villagers in total poverty, but also created a looming famine.

Speaking from her garden, Lorna Nakhayenze, 60, says the village is headed for tough times.

“I had 40 acres of bananas for commercial and home consumption, but now I do not have even a single stem to prove this,” Nakhayenze says.

She says the problem started in 1996, with banana leaves wilting and turning yellow, uneven and premature ripening of the fruit and rotting of the banana stems.

“At first, the disease attacked a small area. We thought it would clear with time. But when the problem spread to other people’s, gardens, we knew we were dealing with one of the worst attacks,” Nakhayenze says.

Some people in the village thought it was witchcraft, says Moses Biswa, the LC1 chairman.

Through an agricultural officer, Biswa says they learnt that the disease was being spread by insects that pollinate it.

“We were advised to cut off the male flowers of the banana,” he says.

The National Agricultural Research Organisation (NARO) concurs that the disease is spread by insects, wind-driven rainfall, infected planting materials and contaminated planting tools.

Martin Mungoma, an agricultural officer at Buginyanya Research Centre in Sironko says the farmers were ignorant about the spread of the disease.

“They would cut down infected plants, but use contaminated tools on healthy bananas, spreading the disease further.

“I had 150 acres of bananas, but we cut down everything to stop the spread of the disease,” says Peter Namasoko, a resident.

Namasoko says he depended on the bananas for everything.

“I have nothing left. Since 2000, I have not managed to send any of my children to school,” he adds.

According to Mungoma, Bugimotwa used to produce almost 9,000 metric tonnes of bananas every month.

“Today, we cannot even produce 10 metric tonnes,” says Mungoma.

The destruction of the banana plantation has left many people unemployed.

“The unemployed youths have turned to stealing and drug abuse,” says Michael Chemonges, a police officer.

“We receive 100 cases of such from the village a week. Something needs to be done.”

The banana wilt disease has become a national disaster. The May 2009 issue of the Plant Disease Journal, shows that food security for about 100 million people and income to millions of farmers in the Great Lakes region is uncertain.

The study, titled Xanthomonas Wilt – A threat to Banana Production in East and Central Africa, notes that the overall economic loss to Uganda due to the disease is estimated to be $2b to $8b over the last 10 years. The disease was first reported in 2001.

The scientists estimated a production loss of about 53% in cooking bananas in the country if the disease is left unchecked.

Banana xanthomonas wilt is a bacterial disease caused by Xanthomonas campestris pv. Musacearum.

The disease spread from the central part of Uganda, with low banana production in the 1990s, to over 35 other districts of intensive production.

In parts like, Bugisu, the disease has ravaged over 60% of the bananas. In Bugimotwa village, the disease has destroyed almost all the bananas and residents are asking for relief.

In 2001, the Government set up a taskforce which advised people to practice improved farming techniques like planting clean materials, disinfecting farm tools and early removal of male flowers.

Incase the whole filed is infected, all the banana plants should be uprooted, buried and the land left under fallow. Despite these interventions, the disease is still raging in many parts of the country.

The vast majority of the bananas currently grown and consumed were not conventionally bred but are selections made over probably thousands of years from naturally occurring hybrids. Cultivated bananas are very nearly sterile and as a consequence are not propagated from seed but rather through vegetative propagation, primarily suckers as well as more recently micropropagated or tissue cultured bananas. These factors, very old selections, near sterility and vegetative propagation, mean that these bananas have not been genetically improved either for resistance or improved quality and are becoming increasing in affected by serious pests and diseases.

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