By JOHN BURNETT
Tribune-Herald staff writer
A family whose Kapoho papaya farm was vandalized two years ago has been struck again.
Police said on Friday that about 100 papaya trees were cut down overnight Thursday at a farm off Highway 132 near the 4-mile marker. The victim, according to papaya grower and Hawaii Papaya Industry Association board member Peter Houle, is J.R. Bernardo. Bernardo is the son of Jimmy and Erlinda Bernardo of J and L Papaya Farm, who lost five acres to machete-wielding vandals in July 2011.
“He was very, very teary-eyed, his head down all day,” Houle said of J.R. Bernardo, who’s also a college student. Houle said that the young Bernardo has about three acres in production.
The trees were 3- to 4-feet tall and police put the damage estimate at $3,000.
“I think the real loss is inside that young man,” Houle said.
Houle, who said he leases the land from Lyman Estate and sublets it to the Bernardos and other farmers, stated that it looks like five individuals were involved in the vandalism.
“One was probably keeping watch, and they cut four lines. And they stopped at a certain point,” Houle said. “They were systematically cut down, four in a row. It looks like four people going right down the row, because it was done evenly.”
In June 2010, vandals cut down about 8,500 papaya trees grown by Laureto Julian, who has since died.
When his crop was destroyed, and when the Bernardo family’s five acres were cut down in 2011, speculation about who might have done it centered on rival papaya growers and anti-GMO activists.
“Farmers wouldn’t do that, especially at night,” Houle said. “They go to bed; they’re tired. Other people would probably come out at night to do this. I can’t prove it, but somebody asked Jimmy Bernardo what was growing in those fields. Was it GMO? And the Bernardos’ field was cut down shortly thereafter. Coincidence? I don’t know.”
Houle said the vandalized papayas are SunUps, a GMO papaya developed to be resistant to papaya ringspot virus. He blamed anti-GMO legislation and the debate over the bills before the county council for creating “a rift in the community.”
“Was it activists? I don’t know,” he said. “But we’re fighting these three bills and the community’s divided — organic people or non-GMO vs. GMO.”
Houle said the “ripple effect” of the debate over the measures have caused Hawaii papaya farmers to lose markets in Canada.
“That I can verify, because I’ve called the brokers,” he said.
Asked if a $30,000 reward announced in December 2011 for information leading to the arrest and charges against the person or persons responsible for the crop destruction is still in effect, Houle replied: “I think so.”
“I’d the governor’s help and the Department of Agriculture’s help,” he said. “Then, I’d like some help in stopping some of these GMO bills that are harming our farmers.”
Anyone with information is asked to call Officer Cala Arnold at 965-2716 or the police non-emergency line at 935-3311.
Those who prefer to anonymity may call Crime Stoppers at 961-8300 and may be eligible for a reward of up to $1,000.