belize island

Saving Long Caye from Coconut Disease in the 90’s

As promised in Last weeks Belize History and San Pedro Weather post, here is the coconut disease piece from Lucy Wallingford. I have really been enjoying reading about her and Cully’s history and the challenges they faced back in the day.

When my partner Cully Erdman and I were just getting started running Slickrock Adventures in Belize, we never dreamed the stuff we would eventually have to learn. Sure we knew how to kayak, and fix great meals, and we were learning the names of all of the fish. But the diversity of subjects required to create and operate a resort in Belize on a tiny remote island boggles the mind. And one of the strangest skills we have had to master is dealing with the coconut tree disease.

belize island
Long Caye Belize by Lucy Wallingford

When we first moved out to Glover’s Reef in 1991, no one had ever heard of a coconut tree disease. Our 13-acre island Long Caye was covered with something like 1500 coconut trees. We leased 1/2 of the island from an American businessman, who had recently bought it from a Belizean.

In 1997, rumors began floating around Belize about an approaching catastrophe: Yellow Leaf (YL) disease (also called Lethal Yellowing disease). It first arrived in Florida, and took something like 20 years to get to Belize. Everyone who owned palm trees, whether they had 10 or 2000, vigorously denied it was going to be a problem. But by mid-1998 there were reports of signs of YL at both islands and coastal towns throughout Belize.

coconut disease
Yellow leaf disease by Lucy Wallingford

Once the disease takes hold of a tree, the coconuts are shed from the tree, and it ceases to flower. Then the leaves turn yellow and as they die their stems break, leaving a characteristic signature of broken, hanging dead leaves. Eventually the crown rots and falls off the tree, leaving a dead trunk that can stand for years. YL disease is 95% fatal to most palm trees, in particular the Jamaican Tall variety which is the most common coconut palm found throughout the Caribbean. The disease spreads rapidly, and is found almost everywhere in the tropical latitudes of our hemisphere.

YL disease is caused by an organism that attacks the head of the palm tree where its growth is concentrated, and causes the tree to die when this part of the tree rots away. The organism is spread from tree to tree through the leaf hopper insect, which feeds on the leaves.

Belize was lucky in that the disease arrived first in southern Florida, where they had so many more resources than Belize

Yellow leaf disease treatment
Yellow leaf disease treatment by Lucy Wallingford

would ever have to figure out how protect palm forests. Horticulturalists in Florida studied the disease and developed a system to vaccinate the trees which prevents infection.

When we first started seeing our trees dying we told the owner of the island about it. He was back in the states. His answer was “I have a lot of palm trees.”We would say again “No really, it’s a major problem, you have to do something!”He would just say, “I can spare a few trees, no problem.” Just like everyone else, he was in complete denial.

But there was one person in Belize who confronted the problem head-on. Chris Berlin of Ambergris Caye, was running the dive shop at Victoria House. He heard the rumors like everyone else. But instead of denying it, he flew to Florida and found out how to treat the disease. He got the proper medications and equipment, and brought them back to Belize. He started out by treating Victoria House’s trees.

Yellow leaf disease treated
Coconut disease

We heard about him. By this time we were beginning to realize that if Long Caye trees were going to be saved, we were going to have to do it ourselves, even though we didn’t own the trees. We had already lost at least 50 trees. We hired Chris to come out and treat our trees on Long Caye. It takes days to treat that many trees (we have about 500 we are currently treating) and so Chris would have to cancel his whole life to come out to Glover’s Reef and do it. After two such trips out to Glover’s he said “Lucy, why don’t you do it yourselves?” So I flew to Ambergris Caye in March of 1999 (my first trip to San
Pedro!) and met with Chris and he taught me how to do it. I took copious notes, and got everything he told me to get. It’s an odd list of gear: golf tees, horse syringes, bullet casings (for a really fun time, try to get them past Homeland Security when flying from the states), and special tree medicine from Tree Savers in Florida.

Our island caretaker, Apolitico Salam, of Silk Grass Village, treats our trees 4 times a year. It’s easy to see the success of the treatment because we only treated the half of the island we were leasing and the trees on the other half all died. Several years later the owner finally visited the caye, and shortly thereafter agreed to sell us our part of the island. I believe  it was because we saved the trees that he decided to let us have it. The other half is still abandoned, it’s kind of hot down there. It’s really sad because there were originally many more trees down on that end than our end before the disease hit.

Since buying the island we have planted over 500 ‘hybrid’ palm trees that have been bred to be disease resistant. We bought these palm starts from the Belize government, which purchased the nuts from a facility in Jamaica. We even planted about 40 trees down on the other end of the island because it looked so pathetic. We don’t do any plantings anymore because there is no more room! These trees have grown very fast and have replaced those that we lost, so our end of the island is once again covered with a thick forest of palm trees.

When I think about this, I am always so grateful to Chris Berlin for NOT just saying-it-ain’t-so, and taking a proactive approach above and beyond what anyone else did. He saved our island.

Lucy Wallingford and Cully Erdman own Slickrock Adventures. They have a water sports center out on Long Caye at Glover’s Reef in Belize.

belise islands
Palms at Glovers Reef by Lucy Wallingford
Long Caye Belize
Long Caye Belize by Lucy Wallingford

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