Diagnostics in action: A proactive plant laboratory in Comarapa, Bolivia

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Ladiplantas (Plant Laboratory) in the agro-town of Comarapa, in Bolivia’s low Andean Valleys, is well integrated into the farming community. Ladiplantas is run by agronomist Olivia Antezana, as part of CIAT (Research Centre for Tropical Agriculture), of the Departmental government of Santa Cruz, since 2000 (Bentley and Boa 2004). CIAT is one of the three agriculture agencies of the Government of Santa Cruz. The others are DSA (Directorate of Agricultural and Food Health) and Sedacruz (Departmental Service for Agriculture, Livestock and Food Safety; formerly Sedag).

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Map of Ladiplantas’ main area of action

The lab takes up three small rooms in an unassuming brick house. The reception room has a stainless steel sink for receiving samples. Plantwise supports Ladiplantas as one of the two major diagnostic laboratories providing assistance to plant doctors in the region. The other one is Saveedra, also run by CIAT. Plantwise contributes to the purchase of materials and reagents needed for the processing of the samples. Olivia has received continuous training on diseases and pests diagnosis and she has also had the opportunity to go to England to interact with CABI specialists in UK.

We visited Ladiplantas in March 2016 and Olivia guided us through the laboratory. There was a tray of bean leaves and a dying peach plantlet in the reception area. Even before doing lab tests, Olivia already had a good idea what went wrong with the young peach tree. “It is deficient in nitrogen and minor nutrients,” she says. “You can see that the tree was healthy on the bottom and that the leaves were discoloured. But look here, where it was grafted; the graft was too loose and they did not use grafting tape.”

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Olivia Antezana blends field and laboratory experience in her diagnostic work

“This is one of my newest pieces of equipment,” Olivia says, showing off a microscope with a built-in camera. “I can use it to take pictures, so I can create a photo album of the structures of disease-causing organisms, and use the pictures as reference material or for when I teach training courses.”

Olivia manages to maintain her aging equipment. She got the microscope as part of a research project for tomato farmers that ended in 2005, 11 years ago, and it is one of the newest tools in the lab. The only newer equipment in the lab is a cheap microwave, which is five years old.

Most of the equipment arrived around the year 2000, as part of a CABI potato IPM (integrated pest management) project, including an incubator, glassware, a simple microscope, a scale, and a magnetic stirrer. The equipment is still maintained and functioning.

As Gabriela Rivadeneira, head of the Integrated Crop Management and Biotechnology Unit of CIAT explained, with the cuts in petroleum revenues, CIAT managed to keep most of its staff, but had to cut salaries and eliminate much of the operating budget. This makes it difficult to get supplies.

Even without fancy equipment, the Ladiplantas is top notch. Ladiplantas is one of the five laboratories in Bolivia that have been certified by the National Service of Agricultural and Livestock Health and Food Safety (Senasag) to perform legally valid diagnoses.

Becoming a plant pathologist

Olivia is from an old family in Comarapa, and went to university in the city of Santa Cruz, where she studied agronomy, but she is basically a self-made plant pathologist. As a young intern in the early 2000s, on a CABI IPM project, Olivia learned how to diagnose fungi under the microscope, using a taxonomic key (published description of genera and species). One of her most important tools is the CABI Crop Protection Compendium, an encyclopaedia on a DVD. Olivia searches her 2003 version of the Compendium for additional keys, as need arises.

From 2004 to 2015, Olivia together with other colleagues from the government of Santa Cruz took various CABI short courses in Bolivia on photography, how to run a plant clinic, disease diagnostics, data management and use and a writeshop to develop Pest Management Decision guides. Olivia was selected as one of the plant doctor trainers in Santa Cruz and she has helped Plantwise to facilitate some training events. Olivia uses the prescription forms provided by Plantwise. She likes them because they are easier to fill out than the ones she used to type on her computer, but she says that her old forms were nicer looking.

Conclusion

Ladiplantas continues to work, 16 years after starting, because it has been institutionalised within CIAT and because the lab is run by a dedicated person who received some proper training, and some basic equipment, much of it from CABI. Olivia has continued to train herself, to become a plant pathologist, run a nationally certified laboratory (as part of CIAT), and to serve farmers, because she enjoys working in the lab and helping farmers. Ladiplantas is the reference laboratory for the plant clinics that survive in Santa Cruz. Ladiplantas and the clinics it supports were the early inspiration for the plant health system approach which is now encouraged by Plantwise.

Contributed by Jeffery Bentley, Javier Franco, Sol Danielsen, Yelitza Colmenárez and José Gómez. Photos by Jeffery Bentley, Javier Franco, Sol Danielsen.

Juan José Lagrava and Mauricio Ayarde Flores of the DSA supported this work with logistical help and information. Thanks to the people, mentioned by name in the text, who generously gave us their time to be interviewed.

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