QUARANTINE: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Citrus canker outbreak 'a national disgrace'
, August 27, 2005
A confidentiality agreement between central Queensland citrus farm and the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS) prevented crucial information about a citrus canker outbreak being passed on to other citrus-growers in the region, writes Peter Westmore.
The Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS)'s handling of a citrus canker outbreak in central Queensland is "a national disgrace", according to Liberal Senator Bill Heffernan.
Senator Heffernan, chairman of a Senate inquiry into the affair, made his comments in Emerald, the centre of the outbreak of the exotic disease, on July 28.
Citrus canker was first confirmed at Evergreen Farms, owned by a Filipino magnate, Philip Cea, in 2004. However, testing suggested that the disease had been present at Evergreen Farms for at least 18 months before then.
But a confidentiality agreement between Evergreen Farms and AQIS from 2001 prevented any information about exotic diseases at Evergreen Farms being given to other citrus-growers in the region.
Since 2004, the disease has been discovered on two other citrus farms in the area, one of them located 7 km from the original outbreak. (After the first outbreak was discovered, a 600-metre buffer zone was established around Evergreen Farms.)
No independent inquiry into the origins of the citrus canker disease has been undertaken by AQIS or the Department of Agriculture.
Senator Heffernan secured an inquiry into the outbreak by the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee last May - four years after the confidentiality agreement between AQIS and Evergreen Farms was entered into.
The Senate committee is investigating the Department of Agriculture's "administration of the citrus canker invasion".
When the inquiry commenced in Canberra last June, it heard evidence from Wayne Gillies, a former manager of Evergreen Farms, who alleged he was dismissed for refusing to sign a false affidavit on behalf of his employer in 2001.
Mr Gillies further alleged that Evergreen Farms had illegally imported a large quantity of plant cuttings from overseas in tea.
He stated, "For grapes the number [of cuttings imported] was approximately 500, for citrus approximately 1,200, for lychees approximately 1,500 and for melon seeds and pawpaw seeds 6,000."
Evidence later given to the inquiry in Emerald indicated that, even before 2001, there were rumours circulating in the area that plant material had been illegally imported by Evergreen Farms.
These rumours were vigorously denied by the management of Evergreen Farms, and evidence was given that other farmers were afraid to repeat the allegations for fear of legal action.Too frightened to come forward
Maurice Iddles, a citrus-grower from Emerald told the Senate committee, "We know that there are other people out there who may know other things but, because they are not protected in any way and because of the way that Evergreen have been keen to sue anyone involved, they are too frightened to come forward in case they lose everything."
Joe Cordoma, another Emerald citrus-grower, told the committee that five years ago, he had been told by Wayne Gillies, then working for Evergreen Farms, that the owner of Evergreen had been illegally importing rootstock into Australia.
He said he did not pass on the information at the time, because "they were suing everybody in all sorts of businesses".
Mr Gillies reported his information to AQIS in 2001, and a month later was sacked. His replacement, Michael Benham, told the committee that he had no knowledge of any improper activities at Evergreen Farms.
"I had heard rumours, but at that time there were a lot of rumours and I did not give much credence to rumours," he said.
In other evidence, citrus-growers were very critical of the Government package, designed to put the industry back on its feet.
The Federal and Queensland Governments have promised $11 million to citrus-growers in Emerald, in an effort to halt the spread of citrus canker. Citrus growers asked for $35 million.
The impact of the disease overseas has been immense. The disease was first discovered in Florida's $12 billion citrus industry a decade ago, and Florida is regarded as a model for treatment of the disease, having initiated what is known as the "Florida protocol", under which all citrus trees within 600 metres of infected trees are destroyed.
Since the disease was discovered, Florida has destroyed about 2.5 million trees in commercial groves and 650,000 trees in residential areas in an unsuccessful attempt to get rid of it.
The Florida Department of Agriculture recently said it would bulldoze and burn more than 9000 hectares (ha) of infected citrus trees and is boosting its efforts from 12 ha of trees a day to 240.
Officials reported that citrus canker spread into the heart of the state's prime grapefruit and orange-growing area last year after three hurricanes blew through the region. This year, inspectors have discovered canker outbreaks at 111 sites in commercial citrus groves in Florida.
Until AQIS accepts responsibility for the failure to prosecute those responsible for the outbreak of citrus canker in Emerald and the subsequent cover-up, there can be no confidence in Australia's quarantine system.