Mauritania: "If locusts get my field, it is a real catastrophe"

As swarm after swarm of desert locusts arrive in the agricultural south of this West African country, farmers say they need urgent help

5 August 2004, Kaedi, Mauritania -- As swarm after swarm of desert locusts - some of them up 40 kilometres long and containing billions of insects - arrive in the agricultural south of this West African country, farmers, herders and government alike say that without outside help the region's population is facing catastrophe.

The locusts are invading the region from spring breeding grounds in northwest Africa, where massive control operations protected most of the agriculture from damage but did not prevent some locusts from escaping control and returning to the Sahel.

"We have had big damage in the oases already, especially to market vegetable gardens," says Mohamed El Haceu Ould Jaavar, Chief of Intervention at Mauritania's National Locust Centre. "The situation is critical. We don't have the means to cope with the situation. We need vehicles, planes and pesticides to treat the locust."

"There will be famine if the locusts wipe out the crops. It is what the people depend on," he adds.

Farmers struggle to cope

While the start of the rainy season is a signal to subsistence farmers in the Sahel to plant fields of sorghum, legumes, rice and melon, it also provides ideal conditions for the locusts to reproduce. Farmers work in their fields with hoes or horse-drawn ploughs even as swarms fill the sky above them.

"I can't just stand here with arms crossed - I have to plant my crops even if I know the locusts are going to come and eat them," says Jidhoum M'Bareck, a farmer near the town of Kaedi, who is working a small field with a horse and plough. "Between six and 10 people depend on this field."

Another farmer, 82-year-old Amadou Binta Thiam, still tills his fields by hand. "I have a big family - 20 people depend on me. I have no children working outside who can send me money. If locusts get my field, it is a real catastrophe."

Grazing lands stripped

Rural Mauritanians also depend on their herds: the country has 17 million head of cattle, sheep, goats and camels -- compared to 2.8 million inhabitants. The livestock has competition for forage now: a typical swarm of three billion desert locusts, which would cover a 60-square-kilometre area when feeding, eats about 375 large truckloads of vegetation in a day.

Ahmed Ould Bah, who owns a herd of several hundred animals, says he already notices the difference only weeks into this locust upsurge. "When the locusts spend the night here they don't leave anything. I have to go further and further away to find grazing."

Unprecedented numbers of swarms

Mauritania , composed of the Sahara in the north and centre and the semi-desert Sahel in the south, has suffered desert locust upsurges in the past. However, senior locust survey officer Jacob Habab doesn't recall any similar dramatic upsurge, with two to three sightings a day being reported to the National Locust Centre in late July.

"In 1988, during the last plague, I never saw so many insects," he says. "And it's only the beginning of the season."

The centre has 70 people fighting the invasion at present, including seven survey teams locating swarms and two aircraft and a few vehicle-mounted sprayers that treat the insects. Despite a shortages of resources, the centre has treated 325 000 hectares since October 2003.

"We have prepared an action plan for international donors, partners and FAO, which envisions mobilizing 50 to 60 field teams and treating up to 800 000 hectares," says Mr Jaavar. "We can tap into army reservists for personnel. They are already trained. But we need equipment and cash for pesticide."

"If we don't receive any outside help, we'll continue with our own funds, mobilizing everyone -- but if the international community doesn't intervene, it is going to be a disaster for our country, obviously," he concludes.


Peter Lowrey

FAO Information Officer
(+39) 06 570 52762