2. Madagascar: Farmers at risk from locust outbreak (FAO, IRIN, VOA)

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Madagascar is at risk from a plague of locusts, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Agency, or FAO. The government of the island nation estimates that the locust outbreak could affect 460,000 rural families.

In early August, a team from FAO travelled to Madagascar. Together with national authorities, they confirmed that the situation is serious.

FAO says that Malagasy migratory locusts are usually restricted to the southwest corner of the country. However, an unknown number of immature swarms have formed and begun to spread east and north, as far as Maintirano on the central west coast.

Annie Monard is a locust officer with FAO. She explains that there were already swarms in the southwest at the end of the previous rainy season, and “…due to the fact that a number of them escaped this area − for us it’s a good indication that locusts are becoming a very dangerous pest.”

Madagascar is currently in its dry and cool season. Such weather is unsuitable for locust breeding. But in mid-October the rainy season begins. Locusts breed rapidly in the wet and hot rainy season. They can produce a new generation roughly every two months and up to four generations per year.

There are many different kinds of locusts. Ms. Monard says that Malagasy migratory locusts can be particularly hungry and destructive. The locusts form what are called “hopper bands” of young, wingless locusts. When these bands begin to swarm, “… they are able to eat everything. And of course in particular rice crops and all kinds of cereals.”

Alexandre Huynh is FAO’s Emergency and Rehabilitation Operations Coordinator in Madagascar. He says, “When there is a locust infestation, Malagasy farmers do not even sow any more as they know that their harvest will be destroyed.”

FAO estimates that about 15 million American dollars are needed to mount a major control effort. They are currently preparing to start the campaign. It will cover half a million hectares by ground and by air. FAO aims to prevent the locusts from “reaching plague proportions.”

Ms. Monard says, “They [the locusts] should be controlled as soon as … the first groups are observed.” She says that the pesticides they will spray are “less harmful for the environment than they were in the past.”

Mr. Huynh agrees there is no time to waste, saying, “We have to start operations by mid-September. If the response is delayed, food production will be directly impacted and the necessary anti-locust campaign would be much more costly and would spread over several years.”