Volcanic Grit, Water Shortage Threaten La Palma’s Banana Crop

“It’s worse than a plague,” said Pedro Antonio Sanchez, fuming over the volcanic grit coating his bananas, the main source of wealth on the Canaries’ island of La Palma.

“It’s worse than a pest or disease because it scratches [the fruit],” said Sanchez, gesturing at the black sandy deposits that have rained down since the volcano erupted on September 19.

The volcano has caused major damage to banana plantations in La Palma, the second-largest producer in the Atlantic Canary Islands, where the crop accounts for 50 of the island’s economy, industry figures show. 

Once the ash lands on the bananas, it is almost impossible to remove.

And it causes further damage in the handling, transport and packing, with the huge bunches, which are known as “pineapples” and can weigh up to 70 kilos (150 pounds), carried on the shoulders.

“You have to blast it off with water or something — to be honest, I don’t know how to do it,” said Sanchez, 60, who owns a small plantation. “When the dew forms overnight, it really makes the grit stick, and in the morning it just won’t come off.”

Can’t be sold

The skin blackens in the form of a scratch but nothing like the brownish-black markings that show the fruit is ripe.

And although the banana is perfect, it is rejected and cannot be sold.

“European quality regulations ban the sale of bananas with more than four square centimeters of scratches per fruit, even if they are perfect inside and can be eaten without risk,” said Esther Dominguez of ASPROCAN, which represents banana producers in the Canary Islands.

The volcano’s eruption has predominantly hurt the Aridane valley on the western flank of La Palma, although the problem caused by volcanic ash and grit has affected a much wider area. 

“It is not just the Aridane valley, because the wind changes direction and ash is blown all over. So 100 percent of the island is affected,” Juan Vicente Rodriguez Leal, head of the Covalle agricultural cooperative, told AFP. 

“So we are going to have a significant loss of at least one year’s crop,” he said, estimating losses of “around 120 to 130 million euros [$140 to $150 million].” 

The plantations are also suffering from a lack of water after the lava destroyed the area’s irrigation pipeline.

Bananas need a lot of water and the current shortage “is the biggest threat,” Sanchez said.

La Palma has long suffered from water shortages. It has no rivers, lakes or reservoirs, so the island gets its water from underground aquifers or rain collected by pine trees and transferred to the ground.

Bananas “need a lot of irrigation every seven days. Now we’re irrigating every 15 days to save water, and although they’re not going to dry out, the fruit feels the impact,” Sanchez said.

A third of Canaries’ crop 

In 2020, La Palma produced 148,000 metric tons of bananas, or 34.5% of the Canaries’ overall crop, ASPROCAN figures show.

In terms of production, it is second only to Tenerife, which is three times larger.

One-tenth of La Palma’s 700 square kilometers (270 square miles) is dedicated to agriculture, of which 43% is planted in bananas, according to the Biosphere Reserve of La Palma. 

More than 80% of the banana plantations in the Canaries are modest plots of less than 2.5 acres (one hectare), with many farmers living hand to mouth.

Although Sanchez enjoys the work, he’s had enough of living on the bread line.

“There are months when you bring in 1,000 euros ($1,150) or a bit more, but it’s normally less,” sometimes even as little as 300 euros, he said.

“It just doesn’t make me feel like working.”

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