'Banana Aids' threatens social fabric

More than half of mountainous South Kivu in the DRC is infected by ‘banana AIDS’

HIV/AIDS test kit. Picture: EWN

DRC - More than half of mountainous South Kivu in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is infected by banana xanthomonas wilt (BXW), often referred to by farmers as "Banana AIDS".

The incurable disease is wiping out bananas and plantains grown at high altitudes and spreads easily.

IRIN looked at the disease and how people are being affected on the island of Idjwi (population 230,000) in Lake Kivu.

"Malnutrition is increasing: in the last half of 2011, the Idjwi Centre for Rural Promotion (CPR) recorded 48 new cases of malnourished children in the north of the island against 21 in the first half the same year," said Euphraim Kivayaga, the director of CPR, a local development organization which has been active on the island for over 20 years.

The socio-economic consequences of the epidemic are strongly felt as the inhabitants live almost exclusively from farming, and population pressure is a growing source of poverty.

"It's all of social life which deconstructs: we are seeing an increase in theft and conflict in communities, and instances of mob justice are increasing and are particularly violent. Illiteracy and migration away from rural areas is growing... People are helpless. In addition, false rumours are circulating and we need to combat them," said Kivayaga.

Banana plantations play a central role in local communities in eastern DRC. Besides being a staple food, bananas are used for their juice and to make beer - the juice may be given to children as a substitute for milk, while beer is a drink that plays a crucial social role, especially at weddings.

Julie Van Damme, a researcher at the Earth and Life Institute of the Catholic University of Louvain (UCL), also emphasizes "the economic role of bananas which serve as farmers' `bank accounts' for unexpected or major expenses (such as payment of school fees) and their role in agriculture: bananas aid soil fertility and help prevent soil erosion."

A regional epidemic

BXW began in Ethiopia on Ensete crops (related to bananas), where it had a relatively minor effect.

It was during its spread to Uganda that farmers realized the epidemic nature of the bacterium.

Present in North Kivu since 2001, the bacterium has spread to both Kivus today. In 2011, it was reported in five provinces of nearby Burundi.

Banana plantations occupy 30 percent of the cultivated area in South Kivu and generate nearly 60 percent of household income.

Four territories of South Kivu Province saw their banana production decline 20-100 percent, resulting in some places in a loss of 35 tons per hectare per year, a US$1,600 per hectare per year loss for the farmer.