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Coca Pesticide A Direct Threat To Bolivian Bees

On the lush steep slopes around Coroico, beekeeper Villca has no doubt about the immediate threat to his bees.

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bolivian bees
Nancy Carlo Estrada works with her bees outside of Coroico, Bolivia, Dec. 20, 2018. VOA

High up in the Bolivian cloud forest, a woman tends to her bees, smoker in hand, working from hive to hive under a canopy of leaves to delicately gather panels of honeycomb. It’s a bucolic scene that experts say won’t last, for the bees are dying.

The culprit — as in so many other cases across the world — is pesticide. The difference in Bolivia is that pesticide use, along with the coca plantations it is being used to protect, is on the rise.

Environmentalists and beekeepers like Rene Villca say the bee population is being decimated by massive and intensive use of chemical pesticides to protect the region’s biggest cash crop.

Here in the idyllic Nor Yungas region north of the cloud-high capital La Paz, the pesticides are taking a toll on Villca’s hives.

“Of the 20 hives I have, 10 are producing normally and 10 are not.”

Bolivian Bees
Nancy Carlo Estrada works with her bees outside of Coroico, Bolivia, Dec. 20, 2018. VOA

On another part of the mountain where Nancy Carlo Estrada tends to her bees, a canopy of protective netting around her head, Exalto Mamami wades through a waist-high coca plantation, pumping out liquid pesticide from a canister on his back, face covered with a long cloth against harmful blowback from the spray.

He is all too aware of the pesticide’s toxicity, but has other priorities.

“We use pesticides because the pests eat through the coca leaves and this affects our income. The plants can dry out and that way we as coca farmers lose out economically,” said Mamani.

The sale of coca leaves — the base component of cocaine — is legal in this part of Bolivia. They are sold openly for traditional use in the local towns. It is chewed, used for making teas, and in religious and cultural ceremonies.

According to the latest survey by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, Bolivia has 24,500 hectares under coca cultivation, an increase of 7.0 percent in a year. The government is collaborating with the UNODC in alternate development programs but despite this, between 35 and 48 percent is destined for cocaine production.

Bolivian Bees
Nancy Carlo Estrada works with her bees outside of Coroico, Bolivia, Dec. 20, 2018. VOA

Coca cultivation expanding

On the steep slopes of the region’s valleys, the lush forest is pockmarked with small plots of coca arranged in terraces.

“The area of coca cultivation has expanded and the native forest has been reduced to alarming levels,” said Miguel Limachi, an entomologist at La Paz’s San Andres University.

Limachi says the expansion of coca cultivation has helped to destroy other plants that provide a natural defense against the coca-leaf pests, particularly the Tussock Moth.

In other parts of the Andes, the pale moth has been used as a biological weapon against coca cultivation.

“A monoculture is more at risk from pests or fungi because there is no longer native vegetation — there are no natural controllers,” Limachi explained. “And then more pesticides are used in higher concentrations.”

Bolivian Bees
It’s a bucolic scene that experts say won’t last, for the bees are dying.

Harmful organophosphates in the pesticides mean the bees — “a social insect and extremely organized,” according to Limachi — become disorganized, and less able to feed and care for larvae.

In recent years across the globe, bees have been mysteriously dying off from “colony collapse disorder” blamed party on pesticides, but also on mites, viruses and fungi.

The danger of increased pesticide use in the Bolivian highlands is that they “remain in the soil, on the surface of the plants and obviously contaminate all the organisms present — both the growers themselves, their children and their families, and the wildlife,” Limachi told AFP.

Pesticides are also used to protect other crops in the country such as coffee plantations and some tropical fruits.

‘Growers have no choice’

For Exalto Mamani, there is no other option but to use pesticides.

“Many of the coca growers are aware that we are affecting the environment with these chemicals, but we have no other alternative because the coca supports us and gives us the economy to support our family,” he said.

He says climate change has meant coca leaf pests are on the increase.

Limachi agrees that climate change has played a role in reducing bee populations.

“Very dry years and other years that have too much rain change the availability of flowers from which the bees use to feed the hives,” he said.

Other human factors also play a role, he said.

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“Electromagnetic pollution, the emission of cellular waves, microwaves, radios, television…all that can affect their communication and the operation of the hive because they interrupt processes such as food collection, care of the larvae or cleanliness of the colony,” said Limachi.

On the lush steep slopes around Coroico, beekeeper Villca has no doubt about the immediate threat to his bees.

“We hope that the coca producers realize the value of this golden insect,” he said. (VOA)

Next Story

Pesticides Killing Farm-friendly Insects In Punjab

Pesticides overkill in Punjab killing farm-friendly insects

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Punjab state government is taking necessary steps to solve this issue. Pixabay

Amrik Singh, 46, a Bathinda-based farmer, was in despair after the entire cotton crop on his three-acre land was destroyed by whitefly in 2017. He then decided not to sow cotton anymore and switched to cultivate other crops, such as paddy.

Amrik wasn’t the only one. Hundreds of other farmers in Punjab bore the brunt of the pest attack. Earlier in 2015, the whitefly attack on cotton fields destroyed over 70 per cent of the standing cotton crop.

The increasing frequency of pest attacks on the state’s farmlands forced the state government to deliberate over the issue. Experts and agricultural scientists have now brought the focus on beneficial insects, whose population has substantially eroded over the past years owing to indiscriminate use of pesticides and chemicals by farmers in the state.

State Agriculture Department Joint Director Dr Sukhdev Singh said excessive use of chemicals on farmlands was also killing agriculture-friendly insects useful in controlling the population of pests.

pesticide overkilling
Excessive use of chemicals on farm lands was also killing agriculture-friendly insects. Pixabay

He attributed the rise of whitefly attacks to the decline in the population of such friendly insects. Whitefly sucks the sap from leaves, causing poor photosynthesis, and triggers leaf curl virus disease.

Alarmed by the situation, the state government formed a contingency plan under which farmers were advised to not use chemicals during the first 60 days of crop sowing.

B.D. Sharma, Assistant Plant Protection Officer at Jalandhar’s Central Integrated Pest Management Centre, said indiscriminate use of pesticides had depleted the population of friendly insects, including ladybugs, spiders and chrysoperla.

pesticide overkilling
Hundreds of other farmers in Punjab bore the brunt of the pest attack. Pixabay

“After sustained efforts, now the population of beneficial insects is improving in fields of Punjab,” he added.

The area under cotton cultivation in the state was 5.11 lakh hectares in 2009-10. It declined to 3.39 lakh hectares in 2015-16 and further to 2.57 lakh hectares in 2016-17, according to the state government. This was the time when whitefly attack on the crop sent alarm bells ringing among the farming community.

Many farmers in the state’s Malwa region, which is known for its cotton crop, have started growing paddy and Basmati owing to the threats posed by the pests. Amrik Singh said the minimum support price (MSP) of paddy and the low risk of pest attacks has aided his shift from cotton to paddy.

Long-term use of pesticides has also made an impact on the fertility of the soil in Punjab and also on the micro-organisms helpful in agriculture.

pesticides overkilling
State government formed a contingency plan under which farmers were advised to not use excessive chemicals. Pixabay

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A study by Punjab Agricultural University (PAU), Ludhiana, noted: “Indiscriminate, long-term and over-application of pesticides have severe effects on soil ecology that may lead to alterations in or the erosion of beneficial or plant probiotic soil microflora. Weathered soils lose their ability to sustain enhanced production of crops/grains on the same land. However, burgeoning concern about environmental pollution and the sustainable use of cropping land have emphasised inculcation of awareness and the wider application of tools, techniques and products that do not pollute the environment at all or have only meagre ecological concerns.”

The PAU has been conducting seminars and lectures on the importance of beneficial insects in agriculture for farmers from far off areas of the state. Recently, the Department of Entomology in association with Indian Council of Agricultural Research held a seminar in which techniques of Integrated Pest Management —- an approach to sustainably manage insects —- were explained. (IANS)