Nelly Bassily | January 26, 2009
Tears come to Eric Kollie’s eyes when he recalls the scene on his farm. Small, black caterpillars have overrun his cassava fields, devouring his crops. The farmer returned to his home country of Liberia in 2007. Now he laments that efforts to revive his fields have been in vain.
Described by locals as “black, creeping, and hairy,” millions of caterpillars invaded central Liberia in mid-January. The hordes of caterpillars are destroying crops, contaminating water sources, and taking over buildings.
The caterpillars, believed to be armyworms, will eventually develop into moths. In their larval, or caterpillar, stage they attack all plants and food crops in their path. A 50-year-old farmer from Bong County, Liberia told a reporter that caterpillars destroyed the rice they were about to harvest.
Bong and Lofa counties are among the areas hardest hit by the invasion. These counties represent Liberia’s food basket, where most of the country’s cassava, eddoes, plantains, bananas, and potatoes are grown.
The impact on water is of equal concern. Christopher Toe is Liberia’s Minister of Agriculture. He says that armyworms swarm into treetops and drop feces into creeks and wells. The water turns black with contamination. Thousands of villagers have been left without clean drinking water.
Entomologists from Liberia’s Ministry of Agriculture have travelled to Bong County to spray insecticide. But Mr. Toe says they did not have enough spray. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, or FAO, has assembled a task force, including experts from Ghana and Sierra Leone, to assess the situation and prepare an immediate action plan.
Winfred Hammond is an entomologist with FAO. He says that unless the invasion is quickly controlled, it is very likely to escalate into a regional crisis involving Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Côte d’Ivoire. But Mr. Hammond adds that the method of control must be carefully considered, as aerial spraying could further contaminate water.
There are reports that the armyworms have already crossed into neighbouring Guinea. The last invasion of this scale to hit Liberia came 30 years ago. Ghana suffered a serious armyworm invasion in 2006.