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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, SciDev.Net has learned. Scientists in Southeast Asia are worried that without legal protection the number of coconut gene banks in the region could dwindle further.

“The people who benefit from (such) conversion should be conscious in protecting our coconut collections.”

Ramon Rivera, Philippine Coconut Authority (PCA)

Plant ecologist Percy Sajise, a former regional director of Biodiversity International, explains that pressure is increasing in the region to convert gene banks to other uses, since managing and keeping them is expensive and requires a huge land area and lots of technical expertise. He adds that a lack of legally binding agreements makes it easy to dismantle coconut gene banks.

“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 in Zamboanga.

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.

At a global scale, the Philippine collection amounts to only about a quarter of the total 1,459 coconut accessions listed under the International Coconut Genetic Resources Database. But the latest update of the inventory was in 2012 due to limited funding. Hiroyuki Konuma, the regional representative for Asia and the Pacific at the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, says the FAO is working with partners in the region to improve the use and availability of plant genetic resources. The FAO is encouraging local governments to make use of policies that support the exchange of genetic resources and guarantee countries a share of the benefits.

This is important, as additional pressures are put on coconut trees by the fallout of climate change, PCA scientists say. 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 with 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.

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