U.N. says latest phase of Madagascar locust campaign a success

Reuters News
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Posted: Oct 03, 2014 1:33 PM

By Chris Arsenault

ROME (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - In the fight for control of Madagascar's fields, farmers and the United Nations declared a partial victory this week, after pushing back a plague of locusts threatening to ravage the livelihoods of 13 million people.

Annie Monard, coordinator of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation's response to the insects, said the agency helped mobilise three helicopters and a plane to combat an infestation on more than 1.2 million hectares of land.

"The first phase of the campaign was a success," Monard said in an interview with the Thomson Reuters Foundation on Friday. "We reached the objective of halting the plague. It's difficult to say how much food was saved."

In a country where about 90 percent of the population lives on less than $2 a day, every ear of corn or grain of rice counts.

"Each day is a fight to feed our children and send them to school," an FAO statement quoted Hantanirina Florentine, a resident of central Madagascar, as saying. "Our main source of income is our 100 square metre plot of land and my husband's odd jobs." Losing their crops to locusts would make "our daily life even harder," Florentine said.

Locusts are a type of grasshopper that in groups transform into creatures of biblical infamy, able to fly long distances in swarms containing up to 80 million pests packed into one square kilometer. This is not the first time a major locust infestation has hit Madagascar, and it remains unclear what caused the weather patterns which precipitated the recent plague.

An initial phase of the anti-locust campaign, launched in 2013, cost $28 million. The crisis is not over, however, as scientists worry they will run out of money before finishing the eradication campaign.

"We only have funding until February 2015. We can combat the first generation of breeding but not second or third," Monard said. U.N. agencies need an additional $14.7 million to finish the eradication.

PESTILENT HISTORY

In 2010, wet weather conditions led to an initial upsurge of the pests which morphed into a full blown plague by 2012. Madagascar's government requested international assistance and by September 2013, Monard and her team began their intervention.

"There were a number of swarms, they are highly mobile and they aren't easy to locate," she said. Relying on local people for help gathering information on the location of the pests, as well as aerial surveys, helicopters and planes launched powerful pesticides and fungicides at the bugs.

Crop production increased in Madagascar between 2013 and 2014, according to preliminary surveys, Monard said, and analysts believe the international campaign played an important role.

"An immediate food crisis has been avoided," David Phiri, the FAO's subregional coordinator for Southern Africa, said in a statement. "But an economical and humanitarian crisis could still threaten Madagascar if the two next campaigns are not implemented in time."

(Reporting By Chris Arsenault; Editing by Ros Russell)