Tuesday, 24 July 2012


Locusts swarm in wake of Libya uprising


The death of Muammar Gaddafi continues to reverberate across Africa – this time in the form of desert locusts.

The Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations warned on Tuesday that croplands in Niger and Mali were at imminent risk from locust swarms moving south from Libya and Algeria.

The revolution in Libya played a major role in allowing the pests to breed, it said.

“The fall of Gaddafi was an enormous factor, to be honest,” said Keith Cressman, FAO senior locust forecasting officer. “It depleted the Libyans’ capacity to monitor and respond as they normally would.”

Insecurity along the Libya-Algeria border – a fallout from the uprising – meant that teams are still unable to properly spray the affected areas.

Desert locusts have the capacity to destroy vast areas of croplands. During a plague, a swarm can stretch for several hundred square kilometres comprising billions of locusts, each capable of eating its own weight in food a day.

A 2003-05 plague affected farmers in two dozen countries, mainly in Africa, and cost more than $500m to bring under control. The current infestation is nowhere near that level, but the FAO fears that the insecurity in Mali will hamper the response efforts there.

Desert locust swarms formed in Libya and Algeria in mid-May, after good rains and the resultant growth of vegetation on which they feed. The first swarms have already been sighted in northern Niger, which is currently experiencing a food crisis.

Small farmers are especially vulnerable since their entire crop can be wiped out. The FAO said that the number of locusts and their spread would depend on control efforts in Libya and Algeria, as well as rainfall in the Sahel region of West Africa.

During Muammar Gaddafi’s reign, Libya had an effective and well-resourced locust control programme, Mr Cresswell said. While the administrative structures were still there, the vehicles, sprayers and other equipment were no longer available.

Before the revolution, Libya would even send large convoys with survey and control teams to other countries in north and west Africa,” he said. “But now they are the ones needing help.”

The continued insecurity in southern Libya meant that the FAO’s in-country expert was unable to travel there. Local teams have managed to spray pesticide on 40,000 hectares of infested areas in Algeria, and 21,000 hectares in Libya. Spraying the locusts while on the ground prevents them from mating and laying eggs. It takes several generations of locusts hatching for a plague to develop. “We are a long way from that stage,” Mr Cressman said.

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