Thursday, November 26, 2015         

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Decapitation of papaya trees unnerves Hawaii isle farmers

By Gary T. Kubota


Hawaii island papaya crops have been vandalized again, this time between Monday morning and Tuesday morning near Tangerine Acres makai of Pahoa.

Papaya trees were decapitated on 10 acres of land belonging to three separate farms.

In July 2010 more than 8,500 papaya trees on 17 acres of land within a mile of Tangerine acres were cut, causing more than $100,000 in damage for farmer Laureto Julian, police said.

Police Capt. Randall Medeiros said police detectives were looking into the possibility that the two acts of vandalism are connected.

Police said the trees might have been cut with a machete.

"It was a clean cut," he said.

Medeiros said police detectives were still gathering evidence and did not have an estimate of damage Tuesday afternoon.

Karen Umehara, a manager with the Hawaii Papaya Industry Association, said the acts of vandalism have made papaya farmers wonder whether they'll be next to lose their crops.

"It just continues to be devastating," she said, adding that farmers are worried about the prospect of crop loss.

Umehara said her association has a little more than 120 members and produces about 24 million pounds of papayas annually, including exports to Canada, Japan and the mainland.

She said the affected farmers — Jimmy and Erlina Bernardo, Gerry Barao and Loreto Vallente — were Philippine immigrants who started farms in their new country.

The farmers are leasing the 10 acres from a single owner, police said.

Bernardo said, "We're very shattered. It was so unexpected."

She said the association has raised $2,500 in reward money for the arrest and conviction of people responsible, and it expects to raise more.

Umehara said while farmers talk and speculate, they have no clues about who is committing the vandalism or why it is happening.

"There's no rhyme or reason for these thoughtless acts," she said.

A meeting was held last night to discuss the problem and what affected farmers might do to recoup their losses.

Hawaii County economic development specialist Margarita Hopkins said the Bernardos have indicated they want to secure loans to replant trees but hope there's a way to delay loan payments until the first harvest.

Papayas take from six to 10 months before maturing, according to the association.

Hopkins said the vandalism has created an atmosphere of fear.

"For as long as they don't have the perpetrator caught, they will have this insecurity that their livelihood could disappear," she said.

Police ask that anyone with information about these cases call acting police Lt. Reed Mahuna at 961-2252. Tipsters who prefer to remain anonymous may call CrimeStoppers at 961-8300 in Hilo or 329-8181.

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