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Abkhazia’s dying palm trees: officials say cut them down, while the public calls for them to be saved

What one person is capable of

For a month now, a rescue operation has been underway throughout Abkhazia: activists are trying to rid palm trees of a pest that is slowly destroying them – the palm weevil.

The authorities have called for an easier approach, to simply cut down the infected palm trees.

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Canary Island date palms have mainly been affected. The pest came to Abkhazia in 2017 from the neighboring Russian city of Sochi and, in a short time, destroyed several dozen palm trees.

First it happened in Gagra, then it was the turn of plants in Sukhum. It is only during the final stage of the disease that an infected palm can visually be identified. The insects eat up the tree trunk from the inside. Thereafter, the top of the tree falls off, at which point the tree is dead.

Funds gathered, officials convinced

The volunteer movement, whose aim is to save the palm trees, began after the staff of the local environmental service cut down four huge palm trees in the very centre of Sukhum.

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Then the head of the State Committee on Ecology, Savely Chitanava, said at a press conference that the only way to fight the palm weevil was to cut down the trees.

But, fortunately, not everyone shared the official’s opinion. The head of the Mountainous Abkhazia Foundation, Tengiz Tarba, quickly responded to the situation, urging everyone to try to save the palm trees. He announced a fundraising event on his Facebook page.

The head of the Institute of Ecology, Roman Dbar, confirmed that the trees can be treated.

Tarba managed to collect 740 thousand rubles [approximately $11,000] in private donations.

Popular singer Alexander Shoua gave a concert in Sukhum and donated the proceeds towards saving the palm trees.

Dozens of young people from different regions of Abkhazia have volunteered to participate in the effort and conducted a brief study. They counted all the palms of the most vulnerable species, calculated the quantity of pesticide needed for treatment, and approved a treatment method with experts.

After this, the state services — which had previously claimed that treatment was impossible — began to defiantly pour pesticides onto the tops of the palms.

What one person is capable of

Today, the palm trees are being treated by employees of the housing and communal services of Sukhum. The treatment is being carried out through funds collected by people, and Tarba meticulously reports on every ruble spent by those who have donated.

Hope that the palms will survive is becoming stronger. Although they will take time to heal, the funds collected will only be enough to last until the spring of 2019.

“The issue of environmental safety should become one of the top priorities in Abkhazia,” says Tarba. “I have no desire to frighten our society, but it is no longer acceptable to hush up existing environmental threats.”

“We have already lost boxwood forests, and it remains to be seen how this will affect the ecosystem of Abkhazia in the future.

“Now nuts, chestnuts, eucalyptus, cypress and palm trees are under threat. The most important thing today is public awareness of how big the stakes are and how important it is to start acting now.”

The environment and the public’s choice

Tarba aims to create a plant protection service with an annual budget of at least 30 million rubles [about $500,000]. It is necessary to fight in a complex and systemic way, he says.

But for now, everything depends on the public’s enthusiasm.

The presidential campaign season will start in Abkhazia in 2019. Older topics are still on the agenda: changes in the power system, reforms in the economy and the social sphere, and the fight against crime.

“If we think about the looming environmental threat – the loss of forests, palm trees, the harvest of fruits and vegetables, then the current problems fail in comparison. Now the task of civil society activists is to bring it to the people and to potential candidates,” says Tarba.

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