The simple coconut provides a sustainable solution for reducing the scourge of malaria, which kills 2.7 million people every year–more than AIDS. © Malu Cabellos
It's no secret that Bacillus thuringiensis var. israelensis H-14 (Bti) can be used to wipe out the insects that spread malaria. The spore-forming bacterium provides an environmental alternative to highly toxic insecticides like DDT, which is banned in the U.S. But until Peruvian scientist Palmira Ventosilla and a team of researchers developed a cheap and easy incubation method, it might as well have been.
A coconut becomes the only lab necessary when a cotton swab containing Bti is placed inside and sealed. After fermenting for two to three days, the coconuts are split open and left in mosquito-breeding ponds. Mosquito larvae ingest the Bti toxin, which is lethal for them but safe for other life forms and the environment.
“This is the first project of its kind where the community is directly involved in malaria prevention,” says Ventosilla who, in 1998, completed a successful seven-year pilot project on Peru's northern coast. Now her research team has been asked to bring the project to the Peruvian Amazon, where researchers found that tea made from the cheap and abundant yuca plant could replace the coconut. The U.S.-based Rivers of the World (ROW) funded a laboratory, and the first applications began last December. The only ingredient not found locally are the Bti swabs, which the health ministry has agreed to provide.
Ventosilla has already trained a team of Mexican scientists, and ROW has expressed interest in transferring the technology to Africa, where many countries still use DDT to combat malaria-carrying mosquitoes.
“The conservative wing of the scientific community has been slow to accept the possibilities for transforming agriculture with ecological production,” says Luis Gomero of Peru's Action Network for Alternatives to Agrochemicals. Economic power wielded by large pesticide manufacturers poses a further stumbling block, along with fears from nations with high malaria rates.
“We cannot ban these insecticides because we don't have alternatives,” Berhane Mikail, an Ethiopian health official, said last year. Every year around 160,000 Ethiopians die from malaria and millions more contract the disease. But Ventosilla points out that since the early 1970s, mosquitoes have been developing resistance to pesticides, including DDT. She says her team's simple and inexpensive method of producing Bti, combined with such precautions as using mosquito nets and paving irrigation channels, provides the long-awaited alternative for developing nations.