June 8, 2014
Huge Locust Swarms Plague Madagascar
As one of the dreaded Biblical Plagues, a swarm of locusts conjures up an archetypal fear in many people’s minds. In the imagined nightmare, the sky turns black with millions of insects and when they land, they devour everything in sight, just as they ate all of Egypt’s crops and created famine in the Old Testament. This is not just a bad dream for the people of Madagascar. It is their daily reality. The greatest plague of locusts since the 1950s has ravaged the country, according to the Guardian.
The devastation is so bad, with crops being wiped out in some areas, that local people have taken to eating the locusts instead of their normal food. This is not a viable long-term alternative to a balanced diet and could even be hazardous if the insects are contaminated by pesticides.
The numbers of insects involved is hard to envisage. Each swarm can contain more than a billion individuals and several swarms are threatening to engulf up to half of the land. Madagascar is already a tough enough place to live. It is one of the world’s poorest countries and the World Bank estimates that four out of every five people have only about one US dollar a day on which to eke out a living. Political upheaval has meant that in the recent past the country became something of a “pariah” state and lost much needed aid and support from the outside world. This has only made the plague problem worse. Less funds than ever are available for locust control and eradication. The aerial monitoring of swarms has been severely hampered due to lack of funding.
According to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), the current plague, which has been going on since 2011, could eventually cover up to two-thirds of the agricultural land (almost 4 million acres) in Madagascar and result in severe food shortages for 60 percent of the population. That would put around 13 million people at risk of starvation. Once locusts swarm in this way, it can be a long-term problem. They do not, as I suppose many of us would believe, come and go very quickly. An infestation of this size can last years. The 1950s locust plague on the island lasted 17 years.
Controlling locusts is an expensive operation. The cost of providing the helicopters and pesticides needed to kill the swarms is beyond anything Madagascar itself can do and the FAO is trying to raise funds to help carry out this urgently needed work. Last September, in conjunction with the Ministry of Agriculture, it launched a three-year emergency program in an attempt to stem the tide. As the FAO points out, “Timely and adequate support not only saves livelihoods, but also millions of dollars in humanitarian assistance”.
With its rich and diverse unique ecosystem, Madagascar has in the past attracted increasing numbers of tourists, but this lucrative source of income for the island’s economy has been much reduced because of the political turmoil. The FAO aims to protect the valuable ecosystem by only using “biopesticides” when spraying near national parks or sensitive areas. It has started to produce regular updates on the situation. You can read the latest one here and view some dramatic pictures from the aerial surveys here.
Image Credit: Thinkstock