Hunger in their wake: inside the battle against the desert locust
What's at stake when locusts invade?
What do a shepherd in Northwest Africa, a plant protection expert in the Sahel and a Ministry of Agriculture official in either region have in common? Their lives at the moment are dominated by an invasion of highly mobile winged insects that are marauding over their territories.
In this Focus, people from all three groups - small-scale farmers and herders, technical experts and government officials - explain in their own words what is at stake for them, their communities and their countries during the worst desert locust upsurge in more than 15 years.
Nature of the pest
The desert locust is a pest of unusually destructive powers. A small part of an average swarm, about one tonne of locusts, eats the same amount of food every day as 2 500 people. Swarms can travel up to 200 kilometres in a day. Female locusts can lay a maximum of four times in their lifetimes, up to 70 eggs each time.
During long recession periods, desert locusts exist harmlessly in small numbers in the desert. When favourable breeding conditions occur, as they did in West Africa in late 2003, the insects increase in number. When weather and ecological conditions force the insects into a small area, they stop acting as individuals and start acting as a group. Within a few months huge swarms form and set out flying downwind in search of food. Locusts that originate in West Africa can invade Northwest Africa and reproduce. Their offspring then return south in a cycle that can last years. (See "Portrait of a locust campaign" in related stories at right.)
Here is what Morocco has to say about an invasion it has spent around 25 million euros (US$30 million) to fight during the 2003-2004 campaign. It is defending an agricultural sector worth US$7 billion in 2002, US$1 billion of which is export earnings. Four million people work in the sector.
"We don't only consider the economic damage caused by the locust. Small parcels of land support whole families. If crops fail, people are going to migrate. There aren't very many jobs in the cities, and if people have no work how are they going to eat?" says Said Ghaout, Director of Morocco's National Centre for Locust Control.
"The locusts would have made it to Spain without all our efforts," he maintains. "History is there to prove that the swarms can reach Europe. In the 1950s, desert locusts were found in the UK and in Rome, for example. It is true that our mountains are a barrier against a southern invasion, but the locusts get through in many places."
Most of the affected countries of Northwest Africa - Algeria, the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, Morocco and Tunisia - have major agricultural sectors that can justify expensive control operations. But the invading locusts come from the Sahel, an even poorer part of Africa, where agriculture is mainly at a subsistence level and resources for locust surveillance and control are woefully inadequate.
Donors should accept the wisdom of spending money to stop the problem in the south, says Brahim Boudarine, provincial director of agriculture in Figuig, the Moroccan region that straddles the main locust invasion corridor between the Sahara and the country's principal farming region.
"For each dollar spent on control in the Sahel, it saves $3-4 being spent here in the north later on [after the locusts reproduce]," he says. "And it goes the other way too because they multiply here and return to the Sahel and then they have to spend $10 on treatment during the following season."
In the Sahelian countries hit by the 2003-2004 upsurge, agriculture contributes between 20 and 40 percent of gross domestic product. Skies filled with desert locusts cast a shadow over the lives of millions of farmers and herders. (See "Counting the human cost" in related stories at right.)
A plea for international help
Officials in the affected countries all had the same message for the outside world: We need help.
"The situation is critical. We don't have the means to cope with the situation," says Mohamed El Hacen Ould Jaavar, Chief of Intervention at Mauritania's National Centre for Locust Control. "We have only seven teams in the field and two aircraft for spraying. We can tap into reservists for personnel - they are already trained - but we need equipment and cash for pesticide."
Back in Morocco, Mr Boudarine sums up a control campaign that lasted throughout the winter and spring of 2003-2004.
"We stopped them reaching the agricultural heartland in the north of the country this time, but if there is another invasion and they come in the same intensity or greater, they can get past us," he says.
"We can treat them down here by plane because the population density is low, but if they reach the north there are too many people. We would have to use vehicle-mounted sprayers and if there are huge numbers of locust we couldn't cope. It would be a catastrophe."
13 October 2004
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