Banana fungus may worsen hunger crisis in Venezuela

By Vivian Sequera

CARACAS (Reuters) - A resistant fungus which wilts banana and plantain plants and infects soil could worsen the food crisis in Venezuela, where 6.5 million people already suffer hunger, growers groups and a United Nations agency say.

The Fusarium tropical race 4 fungus has so far been located in the central states of Aragua, Carabobo and Cojedes.

Venezuela's national agricultural health institute officially detected fusarium in January, but producers and other experts say there has been evidence of the fungus for years and they fear it could spread rapidly.

"About 15% of my bananas are affected," farmer Tomas Malave, 46, who has 2,200 plants on his one-hectare area of banana crop in Aragua, said in a telephone interview.

Malave said he tried various remedies over the years, without knowing exactly what was affecting his plants.

"Unfortunately I saw this disease years ago but it was only this year that the institutions determined the cause," Malave said.

His neighbor Gregory Gamboa, 49, saw a majority of his banana plants wilt several years ago and now he grows other crops.

"We tried everything, but we lost the banana," Gamboa said.

Venezuela is grappling with a long-running economic crisis and just under 23% of the population suffers hunger, according to a report last year from the United Nations.

Annual inflation was a staggering 471% in April, according to the independent Venezuelan Observatory of Finances.

Families struggling to afford food rely on both bananas and plantains - a kilo of either fruit generally costs between $1 and $2.

The monthly minimum wage is equivalent to just $5 and many families depend on government food boxes or remittances from relatives abroad.


For small-scale farmers, bananas and plantains are as much a source of energy, carbohydrates and sugar as they are a source of income, said Alexis Bonte, the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) representative in Venezuela.

"If people don't have their banana, they don't have a source of energy and they don't have money to buy that energy from other sources, so it's a double punishment," said Bonte.

The fungus, which gradually dries out plants and is spread through infected soil, is affecting some 150 hectares and about 1,000 small producers so far, she said.

The only way to eradicate fusarium is to rip out plants and sow other crops like corn or grains which are not susceptible to the fungus, the FAO says. Fusarium does not harm humans.

It is unclear how fusarium, detected in neighboring Colombia three years ago and in Peru last year, arrived in Venezuela, but it could have come via a contaminated plant, truck or even on footwear.

There are about 28,000 hectares planted with plantain and some 32,000 planted with banana in Venezuela, said Saul Lopez, president of the agricultural engineers association, which warned in 2019 the fungus was likely to arrive and urged the government to apply sanitary controls.

The government has banned the transport of seeds between the three states where fusarium has been detected, according to growers associations.

But producers said trucks and workers must be washed down and more controls are needed on the Colombian border.

Neither the information ministry nor the agriculture ministry responded to requests for comment.

The fungus has not yet been detected in Venezuela's largest banana and plantain-growing state, Zulia, which has about 10,000 hectares of the crops, according to the Fumplaven plantain promotion association.

"Here everyone is scared of the fungus because it will destroy everything," said Zulia grower Domingo Mora, 36. "Having the fungus would mean more hunger and more losses than we already have."

(Reporting by Vivian Sequera in Caracas, additional reporting by Mircely Guanipa in Maracay and Mariela Nava in Maracaibo; Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Christina Fincher)