In the south of Sumatra, a fruit company won a victory in the fight against Panama Disease. In the 90ties, their plantation was devastated by Panama Disease. Today, they provide Indonesian supermarkets with the popular Sunpride banana and their plants look healthier than all other bananas I have seen on my trip. What happened?
In the 1990ties, several small companies in Indonesia decided to grow Cavendish bananas commercially – for Indonesia’s supermarkets and for export to other Asian countries. One of these companies was Nusantara Tropical Farm (NTF). In the province Lampung at the southern tip of Sumatra, they established a banana monoculture with a Cavendish cultivar from South America. Just 2 years after they had started, the whole plantation was deteriorated. Panama Disease had been in the soil and found the monoculture of Cavendish a feast to feed upon. The same happened to the other companies trying to grow Cavendish monocultures. 100 % of NTF’s bananas were infected by Panama Disease. Today, NTF is the only commercial banana producer in Indonesia. All others had to give up due to Panama disease. What did NTF do different?
The NTF plantation is impressive! 3.5 million banana plants are grown on 1500 hectare. For me, it was the first time to ever see a monoculture plantation of bananas – or any plant for that matter. We were driving for 30 minutes on a dirt road –to both sides bananas as far as one could see. The bananas were spruced up in straight, densely planted lineations. No weeds sprawling in-between. No cacao or coffee intercropped. Like huge, green soldiers. And all banana plants were healthy. Kilometers of healthy, green Cavendish bananas. When the bananas set fruit, each bunch is carefully wrapped with a yellow bag – to prevent damage from insects. We stayed overnight at the guesthouse on the NTF plantation. Next morning, we learned, how they managed to beat Panama Disease.
Their weapon is an integrated and labor-intensive approach. After the NTF plantation succumbed to Panama Disease they switched to the somoclonal Cavenish variant from Taiwan that is more tolerant to Panama Disease. They enrich the soil with both organic and anorganic fertilizer, spray fungicides against the leaf-pathogen Sigatoka, experiment with antagonistic soil microbes. But most importantly, they chop down the banana plants and all suckers after one growing season and start with fresh plants from tissue culture. Can you imagine the work? Chopping down and replanting 30 million banana plants? (I forgot to ask how many banana-choppers they employ.)
That’s it! That is NTF’s key to successfully fighting back Panama Disease – a mix of cultivation techniques and a new cultivar. It is not the ultimate victory. Not everybody has the manpower, money and knowledge to replace all their banana plants from tissue culture. A fully resistant banana cultivar is still urgently needed. But NTF walked a big step forward in gaining grounds against Panama Disease.