AYBAK, Northern Afghanistan, May 2002 -- Farmers in Northern Afghanistan are fighting a silent enemy. Afghanistan's bread basket, hit hard by three years of drought and many years of war, is finally blooming with crops and relative peace - but is threatened by hundreds of millions of locusts marching across fields and mountain slopes.

More than 200,000 hectares of farm land have been infested, with up to 70 percent of crop production and the livelihoods of some four million people at risk. Together with farmers, national plant protection experts, non-governmental organizations and international agencies FAO has launched a US$1 million campaign to combat the worst locust plague to hit Afghanistan in the last 30 years. Out of the nine provinces, three are most seriously affected (Baghlan, Samangan and Qunduz).

Invasions of the Moroccan Locust are not new to the people in the northern provinces of Afghanistan. They are used to keeping outbreaks under control mechanically, by digging trenches to trap young locusts.

Over the last year or two, conditions have favoured the locusts. "For security reasons, the Taliban did not allow people to work in the fields and check locust infested areas," says Shah Mahmuud, an Afghan FAO expert. "Many farmers fled to the cities and had to abandon their land. In a politically unstable situation nobody paid attention to locust control. The government was weak, without a proper functioning plant protection service. During this time, the international community also lost interest in Afghanistan and the fight against locusts received fewer resources."

Although the anti-locust campaign started late this year because of problems with security, once it got going many people were mobilised in the provinces affected, such as Samangan. There the governor declared a state of emergency, the city closed down and more than 10 000 people participated in mechanical control. They dug small trenches around the areas where the locusts were hatching, chased the insects with pieces of plastic and blankets into the trenches and buried them. Even now the technique is being pursued in the upland areas where the locusts hatch out later.

This strategy is successful against bands of young hoppers with reduced mobility. Farmers managed to kill millions of them and by early May had treated 81,000 ha of infestations mechanically. But, as the hoppers develop, they expand into larger areas which become more difficult to deal with using the mechanical method. In order to deal with the expanded area, FAO brought in non-persistent insecticides to supplement the mechanical control campaign. Farmers received protective clothing and training and FAO distributed more than 1,500 hand-held sprayers.

Lines of spraying farmers in orange overalls can now be seen moving across fields desperately trying to stop the advance of the locusts. Sprayers were also mounted on pickup trucks and were used to spray even larger areas, provided the terrain allowed the vehicles to drive across it. More than 21,000 ha have been treated so far with chemicals. A carpet of dead insects is already covering vast areas of crop land where chemical control took place.

"Despite some localized losses, we have managed to keep overall damage under control and we appear generally to be winning the battle. One of our important collaborators, the Irish NGO Goal has just carried out a survey of Samangan. Up to 1 May, of 219,187 ha of wheat, 5,827 ha have been destroyed by locusts, which is less than 3 percent," says Andrew Harvey, FAO coordinator of the locust campaign in Mazar-I-Sharif.

"Our main objective is to limit crop damage to the lowest possible level. The campaign has about 30 to 40 days to run, by which time it is expected that the wheat harvest will be well underway. The threat to crops will then be largely over. The Afghan plant protection officers, the villagers, the NGOs and the international agencies are doing a tremendous job in difficult working conditions. If we can keep damage to the present levels, or prevent it reaching more than about 5 percent, we can consider that reasonably successful but the next few weeks are crucial and will show what we have managed to achieve," Harvey says.

It is a race against time. FAO is now planning to air-lift more insecticides, plastic sheets and nets to areas which are not accessible by road.

And the next challenge is already around the corner. Each female locust lays up to three egg pods, each containing an average of 30-35 eggs. "We have to organize the proper monitoring of the sites where egg laying takes place in the late summer and autumn, so that we can be ready for the spring hatching and know where it is going to occur. Preventive control next spring will be planned to start earlier, villagers will be mobilized more quickly to carry out mechanical control and if insecticides are needed we hope to include environmentally benign materials including biopesticides in the armoury," Harvey says.