Malawi food crisis response: Elegant grasshoppers and army worms

First came too much rain, then a drought when successive harvests failed. Now over 3,500 farm families within the Mulanje District of Southern Malawi are facing yet an other challenge to growing a successful crop this year... armyworms , not armed but dangerous. Like all armies this one is marching on it's stomach devouring fields of maize, rice and other crops. The local Ministry of Agriculture Officer told us that 647 farms have already been "wiped out".
They arrived in Olive Joseph's field last week "I came to weed my field only to find out that the maize plants were covered with these black worms." This isn't a new problem for her "We have been seeing these worms in the past years, however this year it is too much. I am worried that my grandchildren will die of hunger." A field worker from the Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation thought that the situation was probably three times worse than previous years. After seeing the worms Olive went to see the village chief and found that "he had gone to inform the field assistant to come and see the war (army worms) and while I was waiting my neighbours came with the same sad news. The chief them came with some chemicals and only one sprayer, so he advised us to use brooms, grass and leaves to save our maize." She'd just received some pesticide "I've been spraying since 11 o' clock this morning (it was now after 3 in the afternoon) and they're not dying." Looking over Olive's shoulder the devastating effect of the "war" was obvious. Without spraying machines Olive and other women were using traditional 'natural' technology...stems of millet dipped into plastic bowls containing Dursban (chlorpyrifos) and 'sprayed' over the crops. The Ministry field workers thought the reason why the worms were not dying was because the solution was too weak; in an attempt to make the small amount of pesticide go further they had diluted it with too much water.

Just a few kilometres down the road a village headman and his community were eagerly awaiting a pesticide delivery. Village Headman Wanama told us "Last year we had erratic rain which lead to this hunger situation and this year we have this outbreak of worms. This is an indication that we are having another food crisis ahead of us." When asked about the current food crisis he said, "It is very bad. People have very little to nothing to eat. We are going to die if God won't come to our rescue. People are having one meal a day, others sleep on mangos and I don't know what will happen when they get finished. Most of them spend their time doing casual labour in people's gardens to buy food, instead of working in their fields. I thank Oxfam for the free food and seed that we are getting and I appeal to them to continue helping us in this time of need. We still need more chemicals and sprayers to save our crop so that maybe we can harvest enough for our families."

Surrounded by the men of the village a Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation field worker demonstrated how to use one (of six for the whole area) of the motorised sprayers... within seconds the army worms were dying.

Later I discovered that both the pesticides commonly used to kill army worms are potentially highly toxic, easily absorbed through the skin and likely to have adverse health effects, especially for those who are HIV positive and when used under the conditions described above. Maize is particular susceptible to army worms and it does not recover after an attack, where as crops like sweet potatoes, cassava and sorghum can.

There continues to be a real need for education and awareness at all levels on the use of pesticides and their alternatives, as well as research into and development of appropriate agricultural practises. Education and training in Malawi continue to be under funded, under resourced and under threat.

Jane Beesley
Information & Communications Officer
Oxfam Great Britain Malawi Food Crisis Response