Date released
14 December 2022

Networks developed through the ACIAR Pacific Plant Biosecurity Partnership program continue to help strengthen capacity in the prevention of the spread of pests and disease in crops throughout the region, despite COVID-19 disrupting the program.

Mr Abel Ximenes has worked as a plant pathologist in Timor-Leste’s Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries for 15 years. He has contributed to several scientific papers on disease in crops and is an active collaborator with the Northern Australia Quarantine Strategy.

But even with his considerable experience, he said being involved in the ACIAR Pacific Plant Biosecurity Partnership program was invaluable.

Through the program, he learned new techniques in surveillance and diagnostics as well as processes to assist in safe trade. And he built relationships that continue to enhance his work in biosecurity, long after the program officially ended.

‘Meeting people and developing networks was important because those connections have given me very good information on plant biosecurity and how to handle disease and pest issues,’ said Mr Ximenes. ‘We have a WhatsApp group and when I share a picture, members of the group give me feedback.’

This peer network provides smaller, resource-poor countries such as Timor-Leste with diagnostic support, but also builds real-time knowledge around biosecurity threats throughout the region.

‘It’s a strong network,’ said biosecurity specialist Mr Bill Magee, who co-managed the ACIAR-funded program modelled on successful ACIAR capacity-building work in Africa.

a large group of smiling people

The Pacific Plant Biosecurity Partnership program began in 2019, providing fellowships for 19 participants working in plant protection organisations from 9 countries across the Pacific region: Fiji, Kiribati, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Timor-Leste, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu.

Mr Magee said participants developed their network during the 2 weeks of workshops in Brisbane looking at in-country control processes, trade and communication. New relationships were also formed with Australian biosecurity researchers and service providers during 3 weeks of placements with agencies for practical training.

Participants were embedded in government departments, universities and industry bodies focused on their nominated priorities including quarantine processes, plant risk assessment and diagnostics.

‘It was really hands-on, intensive, on-the-job training,’ said program co-manager Mr Rob Duthie, CEO of Pacific biosecurity specialists Kalang Consulting Services. The placements also worked as a two-way exchange,he said.

Australian host institutions gained valuable insights into operations, processes and people involved in biosecurity in neighbouring Pacific countries. And this understanding and relationship building ultimately leads to strengthened biosecurity in the region and safer trade.

For example, Mr Ximenes was placed with the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries (NSW DPI), gaining insights to improve his surveillance methods to detect pests and disease and learning how to use molecular tools to diagnose disease. He now regularly sends samples to Australia for testing through contacts he made in the program. Meanwhile, NSW DPI staff gained an understanding of the biosecurity challenges facing Timor-Leste through a presentation and insights Mr Ximenes provided during his placement.

Building capacity

Mr Duthie said collaboration in the region is critical for managing biosecurity risks that are growing with an increase in agricultural trade and tourism and the impacts of climate change that are aiding the spread of new pests and diseases.

Biosecurity threats include African swine fever moving from Indonesia into Papua New Guinea, coconut rhinoceros beetle incursions in Vanuatu and the spread of ant species through the Pacific region that can threaten exports.

Building skills in trade negotiation around biosecurity issues to support greater market access and ensure safe imports was a key component of the workshops. Participants took part in a trade simulation exercise replicating the negotiation and advocacy process on biosecurity protocols for safe trade. In Timor-Leste, Mr Ximenes used these new skills to inform protocols and increase exports of coffee beans and copra (dried coconut flesh).

As part of the project, the Crawford Fund supported a masterclass in communications strategies for a variety of audiences, such as those looking for guideance when informing the public and those wanting to have greater influence within their organisations.

‘They went back armed with specific communication plans and a strategy for change in-country, which was great,’ said Mr Duthie. The program has also aided their careers.

On their return, program fellow Tongan Mr Semi Hausia was appointed to the team negotiating a free trade agreement in the Pacific region. With new skills in surveillance and monitoring, Vanuatu fellows Ms Sylvie Boulekouran and Ms Touasi Tiwok became heads of the response team against the coconut rhinoceros beetle. And Ms Talei Fidow-Moors, a Fijian who was working in quarantine services in Samoa, now has a high-ranking position with the New Zealand Ministry for Primary Industries.

Model for the future

2 award recipients at the pacific plant biosecurity partnership event
Attendees at the Pacific Plant Biosecurity Partnership convened in Brisbane in 2019

Although COVID-19 travel bans forced the cancellation of follow-up workshops in-country, the program was successfully completed via a remote model – a success aided by the strength of the online relationships the program had already fostered.

The resulting ‘learning management system’ comprises a range of online training modules on topics including monitoring and surveillance systems, diagnostic techniques and technologies, and risk assessment programs for imported products. This training package remains an enduring resource for future use.

Ms Irene Kernot, ACIAR Research Program Manager, Horticulture, said other projects including the Pacific integrated pest and disease management project led by Professor Michael Furlong at the University of Queensland (HORT/2016/185) are also realising the importance of informal networks to complement formal interaction. During the COVID-19 pandemic, regular meetings have built a strong community of practice integrating biosecurity into a broader pest management community.

ACIAR PROJECT: ‘Improving plant biosecurity in the Pacific Islands’ (FR/2021/039)