Papaya farmers on Hawaii island again have been victimized by what has all the appearance of organized vandalism. Police need to step up their investigation of this criminality and, along with the public, recognize that this goes beyond mere property damage and is becoming a form of agricultural terrorism. The latest incident earlier this week makes it the third such episode in little more than a year, and other papaya farmers are now worried that they might be next.
Papaya trees were decapitated, likely with machetes, on 10 acres of land belonging to three separate farms between Monday morning and Tuesday morning near Tangerine Acres makai of Pahoa. In late June of last year, machete-armed vandals destroyed 8,500 papaya trees at a 17-acre farm in the Kapoho area of the island. Two months previous to that, someone chopped down nearly 400 of 500 papaya trees at a Mililani farm.
In all incidents, the papaya trees were genetically modified. William Julian, brother of the Kapoho farmer, speculated that the destruction was the work of people who oppose genetically modified crops or the use of chemicals to control weeds and pests. Julian said he left the papaya farm business three years ago because someone had been destroying his crops.
Julian’s speculation is not far-fetched. His brother, Laureto Julian, who has grown papayas since 1967, said he had harvested his first patch of genetically engineered, or GE, "Rainbow" and "Sun Up" papayas just three days before what he called "a gang of up to five people" whacked away at his trees. The devastation caused more than $100,000 in damage. Those GE varieties were created by University of Hawaii and Cornell University researchers to counter the ringspot virus that had reduced Hawaii island’s papaya harvests by more than half following its discovery in 1992.
The use of genetical modification to counter the ringspot virus threat to papaya is controversial among farmers. The patented seeds were distributed in 1998 and sold commercially in the United States. The seeds are banned in Japan, which buys 40 percent of Hawaii’s annual $16 million papaya crop from organic farmers. That has resulted in friction between organic and GE papaya farmers. Some organic farmers have said they found GE seeds in their fields.
At this point, of course, there is little way of knowing why any of these papaya-farm vandalisms occurred, or if they are related, though Big Island police are looking into possible connections between the two incidents there. But this rash of agricultural destruction should not be allowed to further degenerate into what amounts to gang criminality by a fringe element of whichever camp; it is an assault on the entire papaya-growing industry. These crimes were not committed lightly by free-spirited graffiti artists out on the town but by organized criminals with a malicious agenda. Hawaii County police should put the attacks high on their plate as the Hawaii Papaya Industry Association grows its reward, now $2,500, for the arrest and conviction of the vandals. Anyone who comes across information about these crimes is urged to contact police.
Amid all the talk today of food sustainability and small-business hardships, the sight of thousands of papayas cut down before their time is tough to see. Swinging machetes at papaya trees cannot continue as a summer sport.