Killing strawberry guava might prove devastating
The use and enjoyment of the strawberry guava is being threatened by the federal and state departments of agriculture, which propose releasing an alien insect pest to control the spread of this plant in native forests. The scale insect they want to release is from Brazil, and it attacks the leaves of the plant, making them ugly with bubbly, gall-infested growths and eliminating the fruit production.
The strawberry guava provides free food, free wood and has been a cherished part of the Hawaiian culture and lifestyle for nearly 200 years. Stopping the spread of these valued plants by releasing an insect pest will negatively affect everyone in the state, depriving everyone, especially low-income people and native Hawaiians, of an important and nutritious food and wood resource. It also will destroy the beauty of our land, turning these ornamental, green trees that line our roadways, parks and backyards into gall infested, sick looking, spindly eyesores.
Why is the government, which is supposed to protect us from invasive insect pests, wanting to introduce an alien insect pest to attack the strawberry guava? The Hawaii Department of Agriculture actually lists the strawberry guava as an ornamental and fruit-producing plant, not as a weed. The HDOA should be protecting our agricultural resources, not releasing agricultural pests.
We can all agree that the strawberry guava can become a weed in some native forest areas. We want to save the native forests, but we need a method that is specific to the areas needing strawberry guava weeding. It should not affect people statewide who cultivate these plants and appreciate them in the wild.
What about Hawaii's fragile ecosystems? Once this alien insect is released, its population will explode, with none of its competitors or parasites or predators that would control its growth as in its native Brazil. There will be no turning back!
How will eliminating the fruit of the strawberry guava affect wildlife, which has come to rely on this fruit for nearly 200 years? What will happen to the food chain and the insects, birds and mammals that rely on this food? What will happen to the endangered, native birds that rely on insects that feed on these fruits?
We believe that this insect pest could start attacking other important plants besides the strawberry guava. Even the researchers proposing this plan admit the possibility that the released insect could attack non-target species, including related native species such as the o'hia, as well as other fruit trees. The people remember the mongoose and other failed plans that changed Hawaii for the worse, and realize that no scientist can guarantee that this insect, once released, will not become a major threat to our environment and agriculture.
The fact is, the only way to weed the forests of unwanted guava is to remove them by hand. And that is the case with or without the alien insect pest, which only makes the guavas sick and fruitless. They will still need mechanical removal.
This is a time of food shortages and high food prices, at a time when Hawaii is trying to find ways of being food self-sufficient. It is a bad time to attack a food resource simply because it grows so well here. Let's use this resource. It needs to be managed, not destroyed.
Sydney Ross Singer, conservation biologist and author, lives on a nature preserve on the Big Island.