Isabela City, Basilan - This island province which has lately succeeded in neutralising internationally notorious Abu Sayyaf kidnap-for-ransom group, is now threatened by an infestation of insects which has destroyed an estimated 3-million coconut trees.

The insects called Cocolisap (Coco for coconut and lisap for Kulisap the Pilipino term for insect) has ravaged through the coconut plantations of the island for the last four years threatening what had been a P2.2-B livelihood for poor farmers.

On instructions of President Rody Duterte, I visited Basilan's capital city, Isabela, early today using two boats of the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) which negotiated the rough waters of Basilan strait.

I have not even landed in Basilan Island yet but already the extent of the Cocolisap infestation is evident from the vessel I was in.

When I stood by the side of BFAR MCS3006 skippered by Coast Guard Capt. Rommel Supangan, I saw the diseased coconuts with yellowish leaves indicating serious attacks by Cocolisap.

Dan Salasim, Basilan provincial administrator, said as many as 3 million coconut trees have been damaged.

Basilan Gov. Jim Hataman Saliman, who briefed me on the situation of the coconut industry in the island, expressed exasperation over the inability of government to address a problem which threatens the livelihood of people in his province.

While the Philippine Coconut Authority (PCA) is not under the Dept. of Agriculture but actually under the Office of the President, I had to look at the problem from the agricultural perspective.

To allow a P2.2-B coconut industry of Basilan to be destroyed would mean endangering the peace that the province has already achieved under the leadership of Gov. Saliman.

During the consultation-dialogue with farmer-leaders and local officials at the Basilan State College, it was agreed that three steps should be taken to address the Basilan problem.

1. Immediately, livelihood projects will be provided to the farmers whose farms were destroyed by cocolisap. This would include rice, corn and vegetable seeds, livestock dispersal and grant of tractors to the different farmers' groups.

In addition to the farming support, I also pledged to provide poor fisherfolk families with 1,000 units of fiberglass fishing boats complete with engines, nets and hook and lines.

I also committed the establishment of ice-making facilities in at least fishing towns in the province and the establishment of a cold storage facility.

The Philippine Crop Insurance Corp. was also instructed to cover with insurance the farmers of the province so that they will be able to recover from the devastation of the cocolisap.

Loans through the Agricultural Credit and Policy Council will also be granted while scholarships for children of poor farmers and fishermen were offered in the Basilan State College.

2. The medium-term solution involves the treatment of coconut trees already attacked by Cocolisap using a PCA-recommended chemical solution which would be introduced through trunk injection and root absorption.

The medium term solution would also include the protection of the Coconut trees which have not been affected by the Cocolisap and the establishment of strict quarantine measures to prevent the spread of the infestation.

3. The long-term solution includes replanting of new varieties of coconut trees in areas which have been totally devastated and introducing secondary crops under the coconuts like abaca, coffee and cacao.

I did not stay very long in Basilan because I had to cross the Basilan Strait before the waters got rougher because of the rains but the four hours that I spent with the farmers and leaders of the island was well worth the perils of the journey.

In the eyes of the farmers, who said that I was the first Secretary of Agriculture to visit Basilan in recent memory, I saw hope that finally, under the leadership of a President who truly cares, they understood how it feels when government comes to them and listen.

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