Swarm of locusts threaten crops in post-Gaddafi Africa

Desert locusts in Niger.
One of the immediately obvious consequences of the ousting of former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was the large number of weapons that went missing in Libya, many of which ended up in neighbouring countries. However that’s not the only way his downfall affected the region. Another, more surprising, consequence is now becoming apparent: it has caused a mass influx of desert locusts into the Sahel desert, which spans eight countries, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea.
Alarm bells have been ringing since the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) released a statement on the June 5 that emphasised both the gravity and urgency of the situation. Despite measures taken in Algeria and Libya after locust infestations were reported in both countries in January, desert locusts are now also being spotted in Mali and Niger and threaten to decimate the region’s crops. Libya used to possess equipment for eradicating huge swarms of locusts, but the spraying machines were destroyed during the uprising, and eradicating locusts is not high on the new government’s list of priorities.
The Commission for Controlling the Desert Locust in the Western Region (CLCPRO), an inter-regional FAO committee that works with eleven countries in North Africa and the Sahel, says it plans to double its efforts to stop the plague. At the end of May, swarms were spotted in the north of Niger, mostly in the regions of Arlit and Agadez. Locust control teams were sent there straight away to prevent the locusts from breeding. The task was made more difficult by the fact that heavy rainfall earlier in the year had created ideal breeding conditions. So far, 700 hectares of land have been treated. But the swarms of insects are starting to head south, where most of the country’s agriculture is based, and around 500,000 hectares of crops are at risk of being decimated.
Photo by a desert locust in Mauritania in 2004, published on Flickr by Sopfcim.
However, the efforts made in Niger may all be in vain if Mali does not take pre-emptive action against an imminent plague of locusts on its territory. The presence of armed separatist and Islamist groups in the north of Mali, a breeding area for locusts, has prevented both the authorities and FAO teams from treating the area.
The last time this region suffered a plague of locusts was between 2003 and 2005. Coupled with an unprecedented drought, the plague resulted in the worst famine Niger had experienced for decades. Almost 3 million people were affected by the famine, 800,000 of whom were children. Poor cereal harvests last year mean that Niger is now facing another food crisis, and a plague of desert locusts could greatly exacerbate this already precarious situation.
Photos taken during a recent mission by the National Centre for Locust Control in northern Niger.

“We’re worried about September’s harvest because that’s the month when the locust population will be at its highest”
Mani Tanko is the director of a locust control centre in Agadez, a city in northern Niger. This centre is part of Niger’s National Centre for Locust Control.

Since we identified the first swarms of locusts in our region, our job has been to inform people of the risks posed by the desert locust. Our survey teams go out to the villages and organise training sessions with local officials. The officials then inform the village residents. It’s very important that people know how to recognise a desert locust because this enables them to tell us the exact location of a swarm. We can then go and spray this area with insect repellent. Over the past few weeks – thanks to the telephone network that now covers the majority of the region – we’ve received lots of calls from people who are keen to help, and this has greatly improved the effectiveness of our missions.
At the moment, the main problem is the Malian border. Political instability has made it too dangerous to send any of our teams into Mali. So far, there haven’t been any encounters with armed groups in the north of Niger but there’s a risk that we could be attacked by Islamists or drug traffickers who are hiding out in this region.
Unfortunately, the unrest in the north of Mali means that nothing is being done to prevent the locusts from migrating south, where they will breed during the rainy season in June. And whilst the current situation is bad, I fear that the worst is still to come in the autumn. We will need to harvest our crops in September, but that’s the month when the locust population will be at its highest. We’re doing everything we can in Niger, but we cannot control the locusts coming from Mali.

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