Eating locusts no substitute for Madagascar's lost rice harvests
SAKARAHA, 14 August 2013 (IRIN) - Madagascar locust swarms are devastating rice fields and leading to hunger in some areas but locals are trying to make the best out of a bad situation, catching as many of the insects as they can to supplement their meagre diet.
There are reports of people catching locusts using mosquito nets, while in the Sakaraha area of the central Atsimo-Andrefana Region children are venturing into the swarms, grabbing the insects with their hands and drowning them in buckets of water. The insects are then dried in the sun and either roasted on sticks or fried.
According to villagers who have eaten them, the insects tasted salty. The UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) said locusts were a rich protein source and presented no health risks, as long as they had not been treated with pesticides.
In the village of Aboka Manamboay in the same region, subsistence farmer Celina (one name only), who feeds a household of 10 from the three annual harvests she gets from her two fields (one for the staple rice, the other for vegetables), told IRIN of the damage the locusts had caused.
"Normally we can live from the food we grow, but this is the hardest year we have ever had. The locusts ate all the rice, everything. Just the roots that were under the water are left," she said.
"It's not a life right now, we are just surviving," she said. Despite locusts still in the area, she recently planted rice - gambling that the insects would not return.
"What else can we do? The children have to eat, so we continue to plant. When the locusts come, we clap, chase them with some burning sticks, or with our clothes."
As a substitute for rice, locusts are far from suitable, Celine said. "You can only store them for about a week. Rice you can store much longer."
To supplement her income, Celina works the fields of farmers whose crops have so far been left unscathed by the passing swarms; she also has four chickens left to sell.
The last time preventative measures were taken against locusts in Aboka Manamboay was June 2011, Hasibelo Rakotovao, the National Locust Agency's (CNA) Sakaraha agent, told IRIN.
"These locust swarms have come from the south and since it became dry there, they have moved to our area. They fly around during the day, and then settle down somewhere for the night. Normally, we have special shock treatment [organophosphate pesticide, potentially dangerous to human health] for swarms, which we apply early in the morning," he said.
However, CNA agents said their work was being made nearly impossible because of the restructuring of the under-funded Agricultural Ministry.
"At the beginning of the year we had no petrol and no pesticides. Then, at the beginning of June, we received a bit of petrol, which we used to survey the area. Three weeks ago, we were given 2,500 litres of pesticide, which is about a tenth of what we need for this area," Rakotovao said.
However, even this meagre pesticide supply was sitting idle in the warehouse because of logistical bottlenecks. "We don't have petrol any more and our car is also very old, so on the rare occasions that we have both petrol and pesticides, we drive into the bush until the car breaks down, usually after about 5km, and do our treatment around there."
Locusts in Sakaraha Region began swarming in April 2013 and since then, the area has seen 2-3 swarms a week. "These swarms are now in their fifth generation [having reproduced five times]. The situation will get even worse if nothing is done by September/October  and another generation starts up again," Rakotovao told IRIN.
Locusts can fly up to 100km a day. An adult locust can consume its own weight - roughly two grams - in food daily. When locusts swarm, the area covered ranges from less than 100 hectares to several tens of thousands of hectares. In Madagascar swarms generally cover some 800 hectares. A swarm covering an area of 100 hectares of say the staple eats what 35,000 people would eat in a day, according to the FAO.
"The locust swarms we see now started flying two months after Cyclone Haruna in February. The extra rainfall made them develop even faster. We are now dealing with 30-35 swarms [in the southern region from Fianarantsoa to Toliara]," CNA's Toliara-based national director Walson John Rene told IRIN. "Right now it's still winter, but once the temperatures start to rise in September, the insects will reproduce."
Current national and international efforts to rid the country of locusts are falling short for lack of funds.
In late 2012 the government appealed to the international community for US$10 million to fund measures to combat locusts in the south. However, the international donor community has withheld all but emergency aid following the 2009 coup.
FAO has been struggling to provide funding for anti-locust programmes since 2010. In 2010-2011 donors gave $7.4 million in assistance - half of what was needed - and in 2011-2012 funding fell to just over a quarter (26 percent) of the total amount required, according to the FAO.
The Agricultural Ministry and FAO believe three successive years of campaigns, with a total estimated budget of $41.5 million, are required to eliminate the locust threat. The programme is pencilled in to start in September 2013, with large-scale helicopter spraying.
So far, however, only $24.2 million for the three-year campaign has been secured.
"We've been asking for help with this locust problem since 2010. Last year we received a little aid, but this year, until now, there has been nothing at all," CNA's Rene told IRIN.
In the absence of adequate funding, there are fears locust infestations could reach levels last seen in 1997, the first year of the last locust "plague", during which the international community spent $60 million to treat four million hectares.
The use of helicopter spraying by FAO is seen as an urgent response. Meanwhile, CNA is scheduled to start its own campaign in the south using two light aircraft borrowed from the army.
"It is not the same as helicopters, but we don't want to wait any longer, so in the meantime, we'll work with what we have," Rene said. Helicopters are favoured for their greater manoeuvrability.
Rene also believes more research is required into locusts and how to combat them. "Things have changed. We have been using the same techniques for 40 years, but do we know if we are still doing the right thing?...
"The forests have been cut and made into fields, so our biotope is not the same any longer. But obviously, without money, there is nothing we can do at all."