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Plant a million trees, but moreso a million fruit trees

Sunday, October 06, 2019

Some of the most inspirational quotes are about trees, a clear sign of their importance to the quality of our humanity.

“Trees provide us with many benefits necessary for survival, including clean air, filtered water, shade, and food. They also give us hope and insight, and courage to persevere even in the harshest conditions. Trees teach us to stay rooted while soaring to great heights,” wrote Herman Hesse.

Nelson Henderson contends: “The true meaning of life is to plant trees, under whose shade you do not expect to sit.”

The American billionaire Warren Buffett says: “Someone's sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago.”

Our National Environment and Planning Agency, to commemorate International Day of Biodiversity on May 22, 2017, set the target of planting one million trees by June 30, 2019. Disappointingly, only 7,000 trees have been planted to date.

But the laudable objective was to improve Jamaica's biodiversity, green coverage and resilience to the impacts of climate change. However, we suggest that it is even more important to plant one million fruit trees, for good reasons.

The production of the leading tree crops in Jamaica has declined over the last 20 years, notably all forms of citrus, especially oranges. Most of the orange juice consumed in Jamaica is imported from Belize.

The most dramatic decline has been in bananas from the 1930s when Jamaica was the largest producer and exporter in the world. Cocoa production is down from 2,000 to 200-400 tons in Jamaica over the past 15 years. Coconut production is down from 329,730 tons in 2008 to 263,380 in 2017. Guava production is almost non-existent.

Many factors explain the decline in fruit tree production. There have been natural disasters: hurricanes, droughts, and floods. There are socio-economic factors such as praedial larceny, high cost of loans, and inadequate technical support.

However, the most important cause has been the incidence of disease in coconut, cocoa, citrus, bananas and guava. Trees with disease often have to be destroyed, necessitating replanting, which takes years to harvest.

Farmers, even with low-interest loans, cannot afford the cost of replanting, in particular the cost of purchasing planting stock. This is a clear case for intervention by the Government to subsidise the cost of planting stock or better still giving the trees away free, as the Forestry Department seems to be doing now.

Every country with a successful agriculture sector has had to make investments to support farmers. Jamaica has to address what is now an emergency by providing free planting stock, low-interest loans, better extension services and investing in the nurseries to prepare the planting stock.

If we sow in time we will reap the required benefits: increased production, reduced imports, increased employment, improved food security, improved biodiversity and arresting the impact of climate change.

And as the Chinese proverb advises: “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”