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[MANILA] The land conversion of coconut gene banks located in research farms across the Asia-Pacific threatens the future of coconut diversity, researchers warn.

A coconut gene bank in Indonesia was recently converted into a racetrack while another in Samoa was turned into a prison.

Plant ecologist Percy Sajise explains that there is pressure in converting these coconut gene banks since managing and keeping them is capital-intensive as it requires a huge land area, high financial upkeep and highly technical manpower.

Sajise, a former regional director of Biodiversity International, the organisation which established the International Coconut Genetic Resources Network or Cogent, adds that what makes it more challenging is the “lack of legally-binding agreement to prevent their conversion to other uses”.

“The loss of coconut gene banks is symptomatic of the bigger problem on the lack of appreciation for biological conservation,” notes botanist Augustine Doronilla of the University of Melbourne in Australia.

“The people who benefit from (such) conversion should be conscious in protecting our coconut collections. Proper information and awareness on conservation are crucial,” says Ramon Rivera, division chief at the Philippine Coconut Authority (PCA) who manages the country’s coconut genetic collection at the PCA’s 415-hectare research centre in Zamboanga.

“There is a need to better communicate the coconut’s value so that stakeholders and society in general can take action. It is important to empower farmers by equally sharing with them the economic benefits from coconut and its related products,” Rivera stresses.

Coconut gene collections

Housed in the PCA centre are 263 coconut accessions (plant material collected from a specific location), consisting of 107 tall varieties that take five to seven years before fruiting, 53 dwarfs that take three years before fruiting, and 102 hybrid collections.

The collection has played an important role in maintaining and restoring high coconut productivity in the Philippines amid pest infestations such as the scale insect (Aspidiotus rigidus) and disease outbreaks such as cadang cadang. The disease, first reported in the Bicol region in the 1920s, now affects only a manageable number of about 800,000 trees, says Rivera.

At a global scale, the Philippine collection is only about a quarter of the total 1,459 coconut accessions listed under the International Coconut Genetic Resources Database. The latest update of the inventory was in 2012 due to limited funding.

Sajise says a proper gene bank must ensure continuous exchange of germ plasm among countries built on trust that such exchanges is mutually beneficial to parties.

Hiroyuki Konuma, FAO assistant director-general and regional representative for Asia and the Pacific says the FAO is currently working with regions to improve the use and availability of plant genetic resources through policy tools that aims to improve exchange of genetic resources and equitably sharing the benefits of using them.

Kunuma notes that the impact of conversion can be addressed by establishing new ones and duplicating collections of countries especially “where specific types of pests and diseases are not serious or a major problem”.

Some countries are turning to the Philippine coconut gene bank for best management practices, including the duplication of the collection and on-farm conservation. The PCA augments this by implementing a participatory coconut planting project that encourages local farmers to maintain coconut nurseries.

A farmer earns an incentive of up to 40 pesos (90 US cents) for every seedling maintained in the field for five months after the rainy season. This ensures planting material are available for areas that may be hit by pests or severe storms, says Ruben Rico, project officer at the PCA’s field operations division.

Conserving against climate change

The unforeseen impacts of climate change on agricultural production highlight the urgency to save more coconut genetic material. In 2013, supertyphoon Haiyan, which hit the central Philippines, affected a tenth of the country’s total coconut production.

To date, 26 per cent of the Philippines’s agricultural lots are planted to coconuts. The industry supports 3.5 million farmers and up to 20 million indirect jobs that help earn the country US$510 million annually, according to the PCA.

Climate change can also impact the movement of coconut genetic materials from low altitudes to higher ones and mountainous areas to acclimatise with the changes, Konuma tells SciDev.Net.

One good way to understand the nexus of climate change and agriculture is by creating decadal maps to categorise how crops will survive under a variety of future climate scenarios, says Sajise.

A study by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) reports that of 28 crops grown in the Mekong region, coconut and cassava proved resilient to the impacts of prolonged drought or floods, unlike coffee, maize and potato.

“There is a good chance to model crop resilience in other countries in the Pacific. But we need countries to get quality baseline data of their crops to help identify which can be grown under extreme conditions,” explains Louis Parker, geographic information systems specialist at CIAT who co-authored the study.

This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's South-East Asia & Pacific desk.