Panama Disease aka Fusarium Wilt is a banana plant disease that a few years ago devastated hundreds of hectares of banana plantations in the Davao Region particularly the province of Davao del Norte where the dollar-earning export Cavendish banana industry is a major economic driver for decades.The deadly Panama Disease, which attacks roots of the banana plant, first surfaced in Panama, to explain the name, and spread to other banana-producing Latin America countries and nearly wiped out the banana industry there in the 50s.
BY ROGER M. BALANZA
Panama Disease crept into banana farms in the Davao Region in 2015, sending the Department of Agriculture (DA) and local governments in a frenzy of looking for solutions to prevent the spread of the deadly plant disease.
The banana industry lost millions of dollars before the spread of Panama Disease was contained in at least 15,500 hectares of plantations in southern Mindanao.
But still, Panama disease remains to be a threat that forces DA, the LGUs and the banana farms to continue the interventions earlier adopted in the campaign to stop the spread of the plant disease. Among the measures was closing off farms to the public.
Davao del Norte was the most affected province in the region.
Hit hard by the Panama disease was the Tagum Agricultural Development Company (Tadeco), the pioneering Cavendish banana producer and today the largest Philippine banana exporter, established in the 60s by the late Don Atonio Floirendo Sr.
Tadeco and Floirendo Sr. are credited with placing Davao del Norte, and the Philippines, in the world map of major banana producers and exporters.
Like its brother, the equally deadly leaf disease Sigatoka, the Panama Disease attack sent shock waves of uncertainty to the Davao del Norte economy, Tadeco being a critical contributor to the province’s economic development since the Floirendo company was established in the 60s.
While it maintains farms in other privately-owned lands, the lifeblood of Tadeco is its lease of about 5,300 hectares of the Davao Penal Colony (Dapecol) covered by a Joint Venture Agreement (JVA) with the Bureau of Corrections (BuCor).
As provided in the JVA that was approved by Congress, Tadeco converted the unproductive Dapecol reservation area into a banana farm, with BuCor earning a share from the produce without spending a single centavo.
As a preventive measure at the height of the Panama Disease attack and upon the advice of the DA, Tadeco closed off some of the roads inside the plantation from the public, as part of efforts to stop the pread of the disease.
The move was supported with resolutions of agreement by the Davao del Norte Provincial Government and the municipalities sharing boundaries with the Tadeco farm. A new route was etched out outside of the farm for public use.
The resolutions of the LGUs were an expression of support of the campaign against the spread of Panama Disease whose attack on banana farms could mean financial disaster to the econmy and trigger massive unemployment.
This is because under the JVA, Tadeco, on top of taxes paid to the LGUs, also provided jobs to locals, including prisoners of Dapecol as part of a joint project of BuCor and Tadeco to rehabilitate inmates even as they are still serving time in the penal colony.
People of Davao del Norte are happy that Panama Disease has been licked although it still remains a threat to the Cavendish banana plantations and the economic well being of the province and its people.
This happiness however may only be temporary because Davao del Norte is now under attack by a nemesis worse than the Panama Disease.
This Panama Disease-like economic saboteur has emerged in the form of a humanoid, in the person of House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez who could be more deadly and virulent than the plant disease that nearly destroyed their banana industry.
In a move described variously as political harassment, business and personal agenda, abuse of power, arrogance and a veiled attempt to grab the Dapecol estate, Alvarez is now hounding Tadeco and Second District Congressman Antonio Floirendo, Jr., son of the Tadeco founder, with various allegations of anomalies.
And Alvarez is attempting to open the floodgates for the spread of Panama Disease, which the DA, the LGUs and banana farms fought hard to stop during the past several years.
Alvarez, the congressman who represents Davao del Norte’s First District in Congress, would not only open the Tadeco farm to Panama Disease but also want to cripple the banana industry, particularly Tadeco, considered as one of the crucial drivers in the economic progress of Davao del Norte.
His brain apparently infected by the destructive Panama Disease, Alvarez has now challenged the legality of the Tadeco-Bucor deal, wants the JVA voided, thus raising the specter of massive job displacement and economic dislocation of the province.
He has raised his case to kill the Tadeco-Bucor JVA in Congress, which is now conducting an inquiry.
He has gone berserk and filed a graft charge at the Ombudsman in connection with the JVA against Floirendo, his former friend and political supporter.
And Alvarez is not joking as he said he was joking when he raised a nation-wide howl when he warned LGUs would have zero congressional funds if their officials would not join the administration party PDP-Laban.
He is as serious in his fight against Tadeco and Floirendo as he was serious in reportedly deleting developmental funds for Floirendo’s Second District in the national budget.
He is serious as when he said in public that he has abandoned his wife and now has seven girlfriends.
Alvarez made his serious intent to have roads inside the Tedeco farm opened during a joint hearing of the House’s justice and good governance committees on his complaint vs. Tadeco and Floirendo on February 9.
To make sure that his intent is implemented, Alvarez usurped the function of PNP chief Gen. Bato dela Rosa, with his direction to the Davao Regional Police to dismantle gates in the Tadeco farm and open and secure the roads therein for public use.
Welcome back Panama Disease!
What should Davao del Norte do to stop this tormentor and the impending tragedy?
Simple. Make Alvarez a “one-term congressman and one-term House Speakerand reduce him into an inconsequential dot in the political landscape of Davao del Norte, by dumping him when he seeks reelection in 2019.