Bassam Al-Khameri (author)
Although Yemen has close to five million date palms of its own, over a million tons of dates were imported into the country last year. There are fears that greater reliance may be placed on imports as farmers struggle to contain the red palm weevil, a pest that has decimated plantations throughout the world and threatens the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of Yemenis.
Once confined to tropical Asia, the red palm weevil found its way to the Middle East in the 1980s before moving on to parts of Africa and Southern Europe. Spread over long distances by the movement of infested planting material, the pest has been reported in about half of date-palm growing countries, and the beetle is known to attack 17 palm species worldwide.
Its first appearance in the region was in Saudi Arabia in 1987, and by 1992 the beetle had infested crops in Egypt—the world’s largest date producer—before arriving in Oman in 1993, and Bahrain in 1996.
Yemen’s first red palm weevil infestation was reported on May 26, 2013, during a visit by members of the Agricultural Research Center of Hadramout to a farm in the governorate’s Al-Qatan district. Researchers from Seyoun city visited the farm in central Hadramout following a report from its owner, Sheikh Abdullah Omar Al-Jaru.
Dr. Abdullah Salem Alwan, the then general director of the research center in Seyoun, confirmed the infestation but was unable to determine its origins. The United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Oman are all hosts to the pest, which is known to fly up to two kilometers at once. It is most likely, concluded Alwan, that the beetle or its eggs were transported together with planting materials imported from abroad.
Drawn to palms younger than twenty years, whose bark is easier to penetrate, the red palm weevil usually proves deadly unless detected early on. The beetle attacks the tree by feeding on its juices and releasing a honey-like substance, which in the most severe cases can be seen covering the tree’s exterior.
Adult females feed on the tree before laying between two and five hundred eggs in the crown of the palm, at the base of its leaves, or in open lesions. Tunneling through the tree for around a month after hatching, larvae grow up to seven centimeters in length before leaving the tree and forming cocoons at its base.
In highly infested trees, sounds from larvae burrowing and chewing through the bark can be heard when placing one’s ear to the trunk. This has inspired more sophisticated techniques of detection, such as using sensitive listening devices capable of picking up the faint sounds earlier on. In 2008, authorities in Abu Dhabi began experimenting with dogs trained to sniff out the red palm weevil before it has a chance to spread, with claims that the German Shepherds used were able to sniff out the pest from up to 100 meters away.
Infected palm trees can usually be saved if treated early on through the use of insecticides. Trees are monitored following treatment with the use of traps baited with pheromones or plant-derived chemicals that attract the weevils and lure them from the tree.
Treatment works in the early stages of infestation, but preventative measures are more important if the spread of weevils is to be contained. Following its discovery in 2013, in collaboration with the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of Finance provided YR60 million ($280,000) toward training and technology in an attempt to prevent its spread to other farms within Yemen.
As of yet, the weevil has not been reported outside of central Hadramout, but authorities remain concerned and have begun working with the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) to address the issue, which has funded a comprehensive training and eradication program.
Started in October 2014, the training program “will promote the application of integrated control mechanisms targeting date palm growers and nurseries, plant protection professionals and technicians,” according to Etienne Peterschmitt, Deputy FAO representative in Yemen.
Dr. Mohammad Sallam, the FAO Representative Assistant in Yemen, says collaboration is crucial given Yemen’s lack of resources, which explains why action has not been taken until so recently.
“The organization does not perform any tasks unless it receives a formal request from the relevant authorities. The state created a program to combat the weevil in May of 2013 but there were some activities that were not performed and so we were contacted to implement this training program,” said Sallam.
The FAO has committed itself to providing the equipment and technology needed for eradication, including pesticides, spraying machines, pheromone traps and the like, while offering training seminars as well. Although the weevil has not been reported outside of central Hadramout, Sallam says the program is being extended to other governorates as a pre-emptive measure.
Training began with a three-day workshop for 27 agricultural engineers, where participants were taught preventative techniques and trained to use GPS (satellite navigation) systems for predicting and monitoring the spread of weevil infestations, according to Musa Al-Aidaroos, the national consultant of the FAO project on the Red Palm Weevil Control in Yemen.
The course was then extended to farmers and others invested in date agriculture throughout the country, with 423 participants in all, he added. FAO Representative Assistant Sallam is confident the project “will contribute to maintaining agricultural output, enhance food security and livelihoods in rural Yemen.”
There are an estimated five million date palm trees in Yemen, found mostly in the governorates of Hadramout and Hodeida, but also in Shabwa, Al-Mahra, Al-Jawf, Aden and Abyan. With local harvests of just 75,000 tons per year, most dates sold in Yemen arrive from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and elsewhere, says Mohammad Al-Hallani, director of operations at the Ministry of Industry and Trade.
Nonetheless, domestic production provides income for some 225,000 Yemenis and their families, most of whom live in Hadramout, where 40 percent of farmed palm trees are located, according to Al-Hallani.