Culture

Latin America Is Fighting A Banana Fungus That Threatens America’s Favorite Fruit

Did you wake up and eat a banana for breakfast this morning? Straight out of the peel? Or maybe you chopped it up into a few pieces and tossed it into a smoothie or over a bowl of cereal?  

Or maybe your abuelita fried a few up and served them with some crema and a side of rice and frijoles? 

Bananas are a staple food item around the world. In fact, we consume around 114 millions tons of them every single year. So you can imagine why many people are freaking out over recent news that a banana killing fungus has taken hold. It could literally spell the end for our beloved banana. 

A deadly fungus has infested banana crops across Colombia.

Bad news for banana lovers: A fungus that’s particularly adept at killing the fruit has finally reached Latin America — a major supplier of the world’s bananas — as scientists long feared it would.

Recently, officials in Colombia declared a national emergency after confirming the presence of this deadly fungus, known as Fusarium oxysporum Tropical Race 4 (TR4), in the country, according to the Colombian Agricultural Institute (ICA)

This is the first time the fungus has been detected in Latin America. However, the fungus isn’t new — for decades, it has been devastating banana plantations in Asia, Australia and East Africa.

This is potentially devastating news because Latin America was one of the few remaining fungus-free regions in the world.

Although this fungus isn’t harmful to humans, it is a “serious threat” to banana production, according to the United Nations. The fungus attacks the plant’s roots and blocks its vascular system — the network used to transport water and nutrients — and ultimately kills the plant. Once the fungus finds its way into soil, it can’t be treated with fungicides, and it’s very difficult to remove.

So what does this mean for the fruit so many of us have come to enjoy?

Well, the fungus attacks the most commonly exported banana, the Cavendish banana. “For Western countries, the vast majority of the bananas we eat are from the same Cavendish subgroup,” Nicolas Roux, a senior scientist at Bioversity International in France, told Live Science in a June interview.

“What we’re having is an almost apocalyptic scenario where we’ll probably lose Cavendish [banana]” Sarah Gurr, Exeter University’s chair in food security, told Wired in an interview.

Also, side note, the Cavendish bananas which are what most of us buy in the supermarket, are literal clones of one another.

Cavendish bananas reproduce asexually, meaning that the plants are essentially clones of their parents. This means banana crops lack genetic diversity, and infections can spread quickly. That’s not weird at all. 

Virtually every supermarket banana in the world is a Cavendish, a strain chosen for its hardiness and easy cultivation. In the 1950s, it replaced the Gros Michel, a comparable banana that was all but wiped out by the soil-dwelling fungus Panama disease. Also known as Fusarium fungus, the blight blackens bananas from the inside out. Once it’s infected a plantation, its fruit is toast. Even decades after bananas have gone, the spores hang around in the soil, with the potential to re-infect crops all over again.

Colombia is just the most recent outbreak. This fungus has been wreaking havoc globally for years.

For the past 30 years, the fungus has wreaked havoc on banana plantations in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. Now, Colombia’s agriculture and fishing institute has declared a national emergency after the fungus was found in the northeastern province of La Guajira in June. Nearly 170 hectares (420 acres) of plantations have since been quarantined

So what’s the plan? How will we save the banana? 

A number of ideas have been proposed to help save the Cavendish banana, including genetically engineering plants that are resistant to TR4. Meanwhile, researchers are trying desperately to find a new kind of banana that can survive Tropical Race 4.

Scientists in Australia have created a fungus-resistant variety using genetic engineering. It’s still being tested and would require government approval before it could be grown or sold. 

Other scientists are looking through nature’s storehouse. Unfortunately, 80% of banana fruits are susceptible to TR4. And none of the fungus-resistant plants are ready to replace the bananas that currently fill supermarket shelves. Most of them are cooking bananas, or plantains. Others are wild bananas with tiny fruit that’s inedible; the pods are full of seeds.

The hope, however, is that plant breeders can take these plants and cross-pollinate them, mating them with other, more commercially viable bananas, reshuffling the genes to create new varieties that are both delicious and immune to TR4.

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#BlackLivesMatter Is Trending In Colombia After Five Black Teens Were Killed While Playing On Their Street

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#BlackLivesMatter Is Trending In Colombia After Five Black Teens Were Killed While Playing On Their Street

Luis Robayo / Getty Images

Despite countrywide stay-at-home orders that are among the world’s most strict, and even cartel-enforced lockdowns, crime is on the rise across Colombia. The increase has been driven by massacre-style attacks on the country’s most vulnerable communities: Afro-Colombians and Indigenous groups.

The recent torture and murder of five black teens who had stepped outside to fly kites, has reignited the conversation on race and how the government can step up to make sure minority groups across the country can be better protected.

A group of Afro-Latino teens were found tortured and murdered in Cali, Colombia.

Five Black teenagers left their homes in a neighborhood in Cali, Colombia, to fly their kites and play on a recent August morning. The young friends, aged between 14 and 18, didn’t show up at home for lunch. By midday, their mothers were looking for them.

“The boys were found tortured, burned, with machete and bullet wounds,” said Erlendy Cuero, a social leader from Cali, Colombia’s third-largest city. “Right now, the people who live here are sad but also very scared.”

Community members recently led a protest denouncing racism and violence inflicted by the Colombian state, and demanding justice for the murdered teens and other Afro-Colombian people who’ve been killed.

The mother of one of the Cali victims said: “Because we’re vulnerable and black, lots of people think they can walk all over us and forget about what happened to our children. Don’t let it be forgotten.”

The brutal killings are a reminder to Colombians that ethnic minorities are the most affected by violence.

Credit: Luis Robayo / Getty Images

Colombia is a country that has grown accustom to violence, but the massacre of these Black teens has shocked the country as a whole. And it’s brought to light a very real issue of racism in the country and shown exactly which communities suffer the most: ethnic minorities.

The recent masacre has also illuminated cracks in the still fragile peace deal between the government and former-FARC rebels. Just days after the boys were found murdered, a grenade was thrown at the police station in Llano Verde. The attack injured 15 people and left one man dead.

“We can’t assure they’re related, but neither can we rule out that hypothesis,” said Jorge Iván Ospina, Cali’s mayor.

The communities that suffer the most from widespread violence, are the Afro-Colombian and Indigenous communities. They have little protection from the central government in Bogota. However, it appears that finally, Colombians are starting to realize that peace will never be possible without listening to those communities who are most affected by violence.

Massacres are on the rise across the country, despite countrywide stay-at-home orders.

Colombia has been under one of the world’s longest running lockdown orders thanks to the Coronavirus. However, the number of massacres carried out this year is record breaking. In 2020, there have been at least 43 massacres leaving at least 181 dead.

The majority of them are taking place in the country’s south-west, home to larger populations of Afro-Colombians and Indigenous communities. Although responsibility for the massacres remains unclear, the government is pointing fingers at drug cartels. Families of victims though disagree, saying that their loved ones had no involvement with the drug trade.

A frequent complaint in these areas is that there is no government presence, allowing elements of armed groups that did not accept the peace agreements made in 2016 by the previous government of Juan Manuel Santos to fight for control of territory. 

The massacres are at least bringing forth a conversation on race and vulnerable communities in the country.

From police brutality to government indifference, Black and Indigenous Colombians live very different lives from the rest of the country. They’re more often targeted for abuse by police, they’re more likely to fall victim to massacres, and the government affords them little in the way of official protections from discrimination.

The recent murder of the teens from Cali, is finally bringing the #BlackLivesMatter conversation to a country that has long denied the existence of racism within its borders.

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Colombia Has Been Under The World’s Longest Lockdown But Has It Helped Contain The Virus?

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Colombia Has Been Under The World’s Longest Lockdown But Has It Helped Contain The Virus?

Luisa Gonzalez / Getty Images

Colombians have been under strict lockdown orders for more than 150 days – since March 6 to be exact. What many thought would last a couple of weeks or months at most has now become one of the world’s longest running Coronavirus lockdown orders.

The strict quarantine has started to take its toll on Colombians’ mental well-being as reports of depression and loneliness skyrocket. And, according to many health experts, the intended effects of the lockdown – keeping Coronavirus at bay – have been questionable as Colombia has experienced one of the worst outbreaks of the virus in Latin America.

Colombia has been under one of the world’s longest running lockdown orders to combat the pandemic.

Colombia is on course to have one of the world’s longest Coronavirus lockdown orders after President Iván Duque decreed an eighth extension of Obligatory Preventive Isolation to August 30.

“Obligatory preventative isolation, as the general concept, will continue until August 30,” Duque said in his nightly broadcast.

The issue of Decree 749 came hours after he addressed the nation highlighting the country’s positive epidemiological data of COVID-19 in comparison with countries in the hemisphere and around the world.

Having initiated strict quarantine on March 25, Colombians braced themselves for the possibility a two-month lockdown when on April 13 an additional two weeks were decreed, then on April 27, another extension to May 11. A week before that deadline, President Duque extended yet again, to May 25, and date many citizens considered as a final decision before easing the country back into economic productivity for all. But that easing back to a new normal never came as Coronavirus cases began to spiral out of control across the country.

Bogotá has been hit particularly hard and will likely extend the lockdown even further.

Credit: Luisa Gonzalez / Getty Images

Bogota, the Colombian capital, will hold a strict two-week quarantine in seven neighborhoods beginning Sunday, as it tries once again to curb coronavirus infections amid still-high intensive care unit occupation rates.

Occupation in the city’s ICUs has fallen gently from more than 90% to around 87%, the mayor said. Bogota has continued to add ventilators to its hospital system throughout the pandemic.

“The (health) system never collapsed, even though it had high occupation, thanks to the care we took, thanks to face masks, thanks to distancing, thanks to hand-washing and thanks to the focused quarantines,” Lopez said. “The efforts of the last six weeks were not in vain.”

The neighborhoods of Usaquen, Chapinero, Santa Fe, Candelaria, Puente Aranda and Antonio Narino, which are highly vulnerable to more infections and rapid spread, will be under the renewed lockdown from Sunday to Aug. 30 – which is also when the national lockdown order is finally expected to end.

However, the country was one of the first in the region to initiate a plan to combat the virus’ spread, so what happened?

Colombia instituted a strict country-wide lockdown order starting on March 6, the day that the country saw it’s first confirmed case of Coronavirus. The lockdown order was so strict that Colombia effectively sealed itself off from the rest of the world – closing its airports and land borders to everyone, including Colombian citizens who were hoping to return home.

In cities, only one person from each household was allowed to leave the home to do essential shopping, visit pharmacies, seek medical care, or go to an ATM or bank.

At first, the policy seemed to be working. Countries from Brazil to Mexico saw case numbers spike as Colombia’s stayed relatively flat. But that all started to change in June. Now, Colombia has seen almost 500,000 confirmed cases and 15,372 people have died.

Things have become so volatile that local cartels have implemented their own lockdown orders – and killed those who don’t obey.

Credit: Luis Robayo / Getty Images

Across Colombia, heavily armed cartels have introduced their own Coronavirus lockdown measures and “justice” system for those who break quarantine orders. To date, a least nine people have been killed for either refusing to adhere to the hardline restrictions or for daring to speak out against them.

The worrying news was revealed by experts from the campaign group Human Rights Watch (HRW). José Miguel Vivanco, HRW’s Americas director, said the shocking developments are down to the failure to keep control over swathes of Colombia after decades of in-fighting.

“In communities across Colombia, armed groups have violently enforced their own measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19,” he said. “This abusive social control reflects the government’s long-standing failure to establish a meaningful state presence in remote areas of the country, including to protect at-risk populations.”

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