by David Chazan, The Telegraph, December 19, 2018
Almost all of the iconic palm trees of the French Riviera are likely to wither and die, the agency charged with their protection has admitted, after it failed to counter the ravages of an invasive beetle.
The French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health and Safety (ANSES) announced on Wednesday that it is too late to save the trees from the pest that has already turned hundreds into husks.
“It is now impossible to eradicate the red palm weevil on the southern coast [of France],” an agency report concluded. It advised that palms, which can reach 15m-tall, be replaced with an alternative, less vulnerable species.
Residents of Nice and Cannes, whose palm-lined seafronts have long been an emblem of Mediterranean glamour, complained that the government had wasted time in confronting the threat.
“Not only did the authorities not act in time, but they didn’t put enough money or resources into it. A lot of us are angry and disappointed,” Françoise Lagarde, a 63-year-old retired teacher in Cannes, told the Daily Telegraph.
Larvae of the weevil crept into France in a consignment of ornamental palms around 12 years ago.
The insects, which burrow into the heart of the tree, kill any specimen they reach they reach within months.
After chemical treatments failed, scientists turned to a fungus that poisons weevil larvae, and then a predatory worm - but the beetles kept on multiplying.
In areas where the weevil has only recently arrived and palms are relatively sparse, such as Normandy and Brittany, there may still be time to counter its spread, the ANSES report said. But pest has resisted all attempts to control it on the southern coast, claimed the agency.
Michel Ferry, a consultant for the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, said that ANSES was “owning up to failure [in the south] because of a lack of organisation”.
The report itself, he said, highlights the “exceptional result” achieved in the Canaries, which it attributes to “a very rapid reaction, a centralised organisation… and the use of large resources.”
Staff trained to detect the slightest symptom of infestation were sent out to inspect trees in the Canaries. If insecticides or insect traps failed to wipe out the pests on a particular tree, it was cut down within 24 hours.
For the remaining palm trees in the south of France, ANSES said “the most ambitious realistic goal would be to stabilise the population of red palm weevils and reduce their impact on palm tree mortality by controlling their geographic expansion for as long as possible” - but it warned that the cost would be high.
Another alternative, it said, would be to “restrict protection to certain palm trees that are important for their heritage value and propose replacement species for unprotected areas”, prompting outrage along France’s Mediterranean coast.