Sat, Jan 05, 2019 - Page 7 News List

Bolivian bees face pesticide threat

AFP, COROICO, Bolivia

High in the Bolivian cloud forest, a woman tends to her bees, smoker in hand, working from hive to hive under a canopy of leaves to delicately gather panels of honeycomb. It is a bucolic scene that experts say will not last, for the bees are dying.

The culprit — as in so many other cases across the world — is pesticide. The difference in Bolivia is that pesticide use, along with the coca plantations it is being used to protect, is on the rise.

Environmentalists and beekeepers like Rene Villca say the bee population is being destroyed by massive and intensive use of chemical pesticides to protect the region’s biggest cash crop.

In the idyllic Nor Yungas region north of the cloud-high capital La Paz, the pesticides are taking a toll on Villca’s hives.

“Of the 20 hives I have, 10 are producing normally and 10 are not,” Villca said.

On another part of the mountain where Nancy Carlo Estrada tends to her bees, a canopy of protective netting around her head, Exalto Mamami wades through a waist-high coca plantation, pumping out liquid pesticide from a canister on his back, face covered with a long cloth against blowback from the spray.

He is all too aware of the pesticide’s toxicity, but has other priorities.

“We use pesticides because the pests eat through the coca leaves and this affects our income. The plants can dry out and that way we as coca farmers lose out economically,” Mamani said.

The sale of coca leaves — the base component of cocaine — is legal in this part of Bolivia. They are sold openly for traditional use in the local towns. It is chewed, used for making teas, and in religious and cultural ceremonies.

According to the latest survey by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, Bolivia has 24,500 hectares under coca cultivation, an increase of 7 percent in a year. The Bolivian government is collaborating with the office in alternate development programs, but despite this, between 35 and 48 percent is destined for cocaine production.

On the steep slopes of the region’s valleys, the lush forest is pockmarked with small plots of coca arranged in terraces.

“The area of coca cultivation has expanded and the native forest has been reduced to alarming levels,” said Miguel Limachi, an entomologist at La Paz’s San Andres University.

Limachi said that the expansion of coca cultivation has helped to destroy other plants that provide a natural defense against the coca-leaf pests, particularly the tussock moth.

In other parts of the Andes, the pale moth has been used as a biological weapon against coca cultivation.

“A monoculture is more at risk from pests or fungi because there is no longer native vegetation — there are no natural controllers — and then more pesticides are used in higher concentrations,” Limachi said.

Harmful organophosphates in the pesticides mean the bees — “a social insect and extremely organized,” according to Limachi — become disorganized, and less able to feed and care for larvae.

In recent years across the globe, bees have been dying from “colony collapse disorder” blamed party on pesticides, but also on mites, viruses and fungi.

The danger of increased pesticide use in the Bolivian highlands is that they “remain in the soil, on the surface of the plants and obviously contaminate all the organisms present — the growers themselves, their children and their families, and the wildlife,” Limachi told reporters.

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