Farmers in southern Madagascar lose nearly all their cereal crops - locusts and poor rainfall to blame

A devastating combination of locust plagues and poor rainfall has nearly wiped out the maize crop this year in southern Madagascar. Other staple crops, such as cassava and sweet potato, have also been affected. The southern area is the poorest part of an island nation where 75 percent of the people live below the poverty line. A Special Report issued by an FAO/World Food Programme assessment mission to the country in August/September 1997 found that harvests in the Southern zone had been hardest hit by a locust plague that started in October 1996, as well as by poor rainfall.

Madagascar: a flying swarm of locusts

Reductions in cereal harvests in the worst affected areas are estimated at between 30 and 80 percent compared to 1996 yields. People are moving north in search of seasonal work and preliminary signs of child malnutrition have been observed. The locusts have also devastated pasturelands in the Southern, Central and Northern zones, leaving livestock thin and hungry. To avoid severe herd losses, farmers are trying to sell an unusually high number of animals, according to the report, but lack of buyers is pushing down prices to well below the norm.

At the national level, the poor harvests in the south have been largely offset by good yields in other parts of the island, where 90 percent of the cereal output is produced. Good rainfall and agricultural extension and food security projects have led to significant increases in production, with rice and maize harvests exceeding those of 1996.

But this is no help to the poor farmers in the south. The report warns: "Given the low purchasing power of the rural population in the south, the Mission considers the food supply situation as very precarious, particularly in the southern coastal areas. The available food supply for many rural households may not exceed two months' requirements." The mission recommends urgent provision of food aid for nearly 500 000 people in the area for three months - in the form of food-for-work.

The current locust invasion in the south was started off by larvae that escaped treatment in October 1996. Their development was favoured by good rainfall at the start of the 1996/97 season and the cyclones Fabiola and Gretel in January 1997. By the end of February 1997, between 2 and 2.5 million hectares had been infested by swarms and hopper bands. Since then, swarms have been spotted across south and southwest Madagascar.

By 26 October 1997, about 700 swarms had been treated over an area of 290 000 hectares. FAO's Locust Information Officer Annie Monard said, "It's now possible to say that 80 percent of locust swarms in southwest Madagascar have been destroyed". But she warned that, as the rainy season has just started, breeding is likely to begin within the next two weeks in central areas and monitoring and quick response will be crucial.

29 October 1997

GIEWS Special Report

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