Counting the human cost
Locust damage deepens poverty, hunger
Ain Beni Mathar, Morocco - Despite a massive national control operation that treated 2.7 million hectares of infested land, this farming community got hit by desert locusts. If swarms had reached the rich agricultural north, which begins just 100 kilometres from here, there would have been thousands of tales of similar hardship.
"Around two o'clock big, big swarms came in and when they saw the vegetation they landed," recalls Lahbib Bouhabs, a farmer with a wife and eight children. "If it had been a month earlier it would have been disastrous as I had five hectares of wheat in the field. As it was they destroyed 104 almond trees and 70 olive trees, about 2 000 dirham (US$200) worth of damage."
"It is a lot for me because instead of spending the money on my family it is lost," he adds.
Other farmers say that financial losses due to locust damage are forcing them to cut meat out of the family diet or to borrow money to send their children to school. A couple of farmers say it is not even worth planting.
"If there is a risk next season I am not planting anything," says farmer Miloud Berhil. "I lost my plum trees, two hectares of melons and my vegetables."
Shepherds face destitution
The region's many shepherds are in even bigger trouble, for they own neither land nor livestock, but make their living by herding other people's goats and sheep.
Abderrahman Chergui lives in a traditional tent on the wind-blasted plain with his wife, Naima, and three young children. When the locusts denuded local grazing land, the herd owner arbitrarily cut Mr Chergui's salary, using the savings to buy feed for the animals.
"The owner cut my pay from 1 800 dirham (US$180) per month to 1 000 dirham (US$100) so we are surviving on bread and tea, as the saying goes, and maybe meat once a month. And that's chicken, not lamb," says Mr Chergui. "For the children, no school."
Mrs Chergui is anxious. "I am worried about my children's nutrition. I can't stand to see them suffer," she says.
Farmers with working children at least may be able to count on their children's financial support if the locust problem continues for years.
"I know lots of young people who are leaving the community due to invasion after invasion," says Achour Bouhafs, a small-scale farmer who lost his entire apple and plum crop, worth 10 000 dirham (US$1 000), over the course of three locust attacks. "For the moment, I have five children working locally - they quit school to go to work - but they would like to go to Spain. My wife and I are dependent on them for our income now."
Local officials and residents say the locust upsurge is already exacerbating rural exodus, with implications for nearby Spain, the preferred destination.
The community's beekeepers are also suffering, as their bees are poisoned by the widespread use of pesticide. Abdellah Chanigui, president of a beekeeping cooperative, reports that his 14 members, who depend totally on their bee income, have lost 95 percent of their bees.
Ironically, in the rangelands of Bouarfa Province a couple of hundred kilometres to the south, herd owners recall the Arab proverb that the appearance of the desert locust is a sign of an exceptional year (since the rains that bring the locust also turn the rangelands green). This means that for the moment there is enough vegetation for both locust and livestock. But when the swarms return from the Sahel in even greater numbers later in the year will there still be food for all in the rangelands? That is the question on everyone's mind.
Fear in the Sahel
Two thousand kilometres further south, across the Sahara in Mauritania, farmers who are even poorer than their Moroccan counterparts are sowing their fields even as locust swarms up to 40 kilometres long arrive from the north.
"I can't just stand here with arms crossed - I have to plant my crops even if I know the locusts are going to come and eat them," says Jidhoum M'Bareck, a farmer near the town of Kaedi, who is working a small field with a horse and plough. "Between six and ten people depend on this field."
Another farmer, Amadou Binta Thiam, 82, still tills his fields by hand. "I have a big family - 20 people depend on me. I have no children working outside who can send me money. If locusts get my field, it is a real catastrophe."
"We have had big damage in the oases already, especially to market vegetable gardens," reports Mohamed El Hacen Ould Jaavar, Chief of Intervention at Mauritania's National Centre for Locust Control. "There will be famine if the locusts wipe out the crops. It is what the people depend on."
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