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Friday 23 December 2005
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SENEGAL: Fighting locusts with hoes and mobile phones

[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]


Farmers near the village of Mekhembar sweep locust larvae into a ditch to bury them alive and suffocate them

MEKHEMBAR, 1 Sep 2004 (IRIN) - In a sandy field of half-grown cassava plants, a group of 30 farmers were fighting a plague of locusts with long-handled weeding hoes and improvised brushes.

Some had dug a shallow trench five metres long. The rest were sweeping hundreds of thousands of newly hatched locust larvae into it with bunches of leafy twigs.

The black insects, known as hoppers, were the size of large ants. They had hatched a day or two before and covered the ground for 300 square metres like a rippling black carpet.

But being young, they had no wings to fly away with. And being small, they could not jump out of the 40 cm deep trench, where the farmers of Mekhembar in central Senegal gleefully buried them alive.

"If only we had insecticide we could do a fantastic job," said Massamba Gueye, the chairman of the local farmers' association, who was supervising the work.

He said there were at least 20 farmers in the village who had been trained to fight locusts during the last invasion of insects in 1988.

“The powder is really effective, but they won't give us any,” he added sadly. "There is none left."

“Our stock of powder has run out. We are waiting for more to come in,” chipped in Abdoulaye Mar Ndoye, a technical advisor from the agriculture ministry, as he watched the scene which is being repeated across Senegal.

“People call from mobile phones or drop into our office to tell us about new hopper bands that have appeared, but when there is no powder left we just have to tell them to use mechanical means (to bury the insects),” he said.

Giving encouragement, but no insecticide

Alerted by phone, the local authorities had come to see what was happening in Mekhembar, a village of 1,500 people set among thorny acacias and baobab trees with their bulging trunks.

The prefect (district administrator) from the nearby town of Tivouane was there in his khaki uniform with black and gold epaulettes.

So too was a colonel from the Senegalese army in battle fatigues. The armed forces have been mobilised by President Abdoulaye Wade to fight the locusts, which have swept south from Mauritania over the past two months.

And leading the small convoy of official vehicles down the dirt track to Mekhembar and its fields of millet, beans and cassava, was a pick-up truck from the Ministry of Agriculture.

But this official delegation had not come to bring insecticide for the farmers fighting a plague of locusts that is threatening crops in a dozen countries across the Sahel.

Recently hatched locust larvae known as hoppers cover a fence post near Saint Louis in northern Senegal
They were simply there to offer encouragement to the farmers using their bare hands to fight the insect invasion. The prefect and the colonel commended the farmers for their initiative in a couple of short speeches and moved on.

The Ministry of Agriculture officials accompanying them had half a dozen motor-driven spraying kits in the back of their pick-up truck. But these spraying kits, which are worn like a backpack, were not a gift from the government to the farmers. They were a gift from the farmers of Mekhembar to the government.

Ndoye, the agriculture advisor, explained that all the spraying kits needed repair. The villagers hoped government technicians could fix them and put them to good use.

Self-help the answer

With no practical help coming so far from the authorities, the people of Mekhembar have clubbed together to buy their own supplies of insecticide powder to deal with the next swarm of bright yellow locusts that will almost certainly come to lay eggs in their fields.

The mature insects do not actually eat much greenery, having sated themselves elsewhere during their growing phase. But once their eggs hatch after 10 days of incubation, the concentrations of hungry young hoppers can reach 10,000 per square metre.

Dusting insecticide from sacks on top of these armies of small flightless insects is an easy and efficient way to kill them.

“Yesterday we decided that every single person in the village should contribute 500 CFA francs (90 US cents) towards buying insecticide powder,“ Gueye, the head of the farmers’ association, told IRIN. He said someone would be send to Thies, a large town 35 km away, to buy it.

“A 25 kg bag costs 25,000 CFA ($46) and a full bag is enough to treat two hectares,” he added.

Two weeks ago a swarm of millions of locusts descended on Mekhembar and a line of villages stretching 20 to 30 km to the west and the Atlantic coast.

They laid a batch of eggs and disappeared the next morning. Now the young have hatched and are congregating in large hopper bands that voraciously devour every item of greenery in their path.

If they are allowed to survive for more than three weeks, these hoppers will grow wings and a new swarm of locusts will take to the skies in search of new vegetation to destroy.

Like a blizzard of thick yellow snow flakes, the swarms go wherever the prevailing winds carry them.

Over the past two months, they have flown south across the Sahara and as far west as Chad. They have even drifted 450 km out into the Atlantic Ocean to reach the Cape Verde Islands.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has appealed to the international community for $100 million to help contain this locust invasion, the worst which West Africa has seen for 15 years.

But everywhere, too little is being done too late. The FAO has so far received only a third of the money needed. And had donors responded fully to its first appeal for help last February, the bill would only have been $9 million.

Military campaign

At Saint Louis, a coastal town on Senegal’s northern frontier with Mauritania, Colonel Abdurahman Cisse, the regional military commander, plans his own campaign against the enemy insects.

The colonel is chairing a crisis meeting with his senior officers, the regional director of agriculture and the head of a locust-spraying unit sent by the Algerian government to help out.

In front of them, a huge map of northern Senegal fills the entire wall. The area along the Senegal river valley which forms the border with Mauritania is covered in yellow dots. These are the main locust breeding grounds detected so far by the teams sent out every day to scout the position of new swarms.

“Since 6 August we have trained 1,200 soldiers in control techniques. We are training 100 more each day and so far we have sprayed over 60,000 hectares. Within another month we will have done 120,000,” Cisse told IRIN.

“Our people are determined to fight to the end. They are determined not to see the locusts move on to other countries,” he said.

But the colonel readily admits that there is not enough insecticide to go round, that his men need more vehicles and spraying pumps and that he has only one crop-spraying plane at his disposal. This has been loaned to the locust-control campaign in northern Senegal by a local sugar cane plantation.

President Wade has heavily publicised the army’s leading role in the war against locusts, but the soldiers are only able to focus on a handful of selected areas.

“Spraying teams from the army?” laughs El Hadj Sene, a senior lecturer at the agricultural college in Ndiaye, 35 km up the road from Saint Louis. “I’ve only ever seen them on television.”

He and his friend Babacar Diop, a local rice farmer, would prefer the government to trust the job of fighting locusts more directly to the farmers themselves, by providing them rather than the army, with the necessary, equipment, pesticide and training.

"You should not snuff out the people’s initiative,” said Diop, who is the chairman of the local farmers' association. “Once they see their own interests threatened, they react,” he said. “I think that giving the population the means to defend itself would be best.”

Most of Colonel Cisse's men are deployed around Matam, several hundred km inland from Saint Louis and Ndiaye, where the locust infestation is presently most serious. But sometimes the government spraying teams do manage to respond effectively to pleas for help from the villages closer at hand.

At Niassene, a small village that grows millet, beans, groundnuts and water melons on a dry sandy plain 50 km to the south of Saint Louis, dead locusts littering the landscape are testimony to that.

“Last Friday, the younger brother of the village chief was sent to Saint Louis to ask for help,” Pape Sarr, the headmaster of the local primary school, told IRIN.

“He came back on Saturday and on Sunday the spray teams arrived….They left behind sacks of powder and on Monday all the chiefs of the villages round about met to discuss the situation and begin treating the fields immediately.”

Killing hopper bands the priority

Fode Sarr, the government’s director of agriculture for the Saint Louis region, stressed that treating hopper bands was a much easier task than dealing with swarms of flying insects which settle on the ground or in trees at night and can only be sprayed during the very early morning before they fly off again.

“The first wave of insects to arrive, the mature yellow ones, have not caused too much damage so far,” Sarr told IRIN.

“It is really the hopper bands that we have to do battle with,” Sarr stressed, noting that each female locust can lay up to 90 eggs at a time on three separate occasions.

Mature locusts mating in the outskirts of Dakar
He worries that if the mature locusts breed successfully in northern Senegal, a new generation of hoppers could grow their wings and wipe out this year’s food crops just as they become ready to harvest in October and November.

Jean Pierre Chapeaux, who runs a massive market garden near Saint Louis that produces fresh vegetables for export to Europe, is still calculating whether or not he can win his own battle against the locusts.

“I have two pick-up trucks patrolling with spraying equipment and 1,000-litre tanks within a three-km radius of the estate,” the French agronomist told IRIN. “But I have to decide within the next 15 to 21 days whether or not to plant…. As far as I am concerned, if the risk of crop loss is 100 percent, we should not cultivate.”

Chapeaux’s firm, the Marseilles-based Compagnie Fruitiere, is preparing to grow tomatoes, sweet corn and green beans for the European winter market in 52 hectares of net houses that are nearing completion, and on 106 hectares of open fields.

Chapeaux is fairly confident about the crops in the net houses, although he worries that the roofs could collapse under the weight of millions of insects if a really large swarm landed on top of them.

His big dilemma is whether or not to plant the open fields - and several hundred jobs for local people hang in the balance.

Danger of further invasions from Mauritania

Chapeaux voices openly a fear that many Senegalese officials are too polite to mention publicly. That Senegal will suffer because neighbouring Mauritania, from where the locust swarms have come, has not done enough to tackle the infestations on its own territory.

As a result, fresh waves of insects may move south into Senegal over the coming months.

“It is terrifying,” said Chapeaux, who also manages a market gardening estate on the Mauritanian side of the border.

“The only spray teams in Mauritania are working along the main road (from the frontier) to Nouakchott. They spray whatever they find along it but they don’t even go 500 metres into the bush on either side.”

Within Mauritania, government officials readily admit that they have lost control of a desperate situation.

"We're racing against the clock, but it's an unfair race because we only have 10 percent of the resources we need to win it," Mohamed Abdallahi Ould Babah, the head of Mauritania's Centre to Fight Locusts, told IRIN last week.

Meanwhile, some villagers in Senegal wonder whether all the insecticide being thrown at the locusts will poison the pasture for their cattle, sheep and goats or even their drinking water.

Nayejo Dia, the head of a small settlement of cattle herdsmen near Saint Louis, remembers the helicopters that came to spray his land against locusts during the last plague. Today, behind his family’s collection of grass huts, a small hopper band is munching its way thought the grass, undisturbed.

“What will these chemicals do to our animals? What will they do to the water we drink from the river,” Dia asked. “Will it still be safe?”

 Theme(s) Economy
Other recent SENEGAL reports:

Everyman’s library,  21/Dec/05

Bringing condoms out of the closet,  20/Dec/05

Frozen chicken imports threaten local farmers’ livelihoods,  16/Dec/05

Several hurt in student protests,  16/Dec/05

Climate change impacting hard on semi-arid Sahel nations,  7/Dec/05

Other recent Economy reports:

ZAMBIA: Govt extends maize importation, 22/Dec/05

SWAZILAND: Brighter prospects for textile exporters in 2006, 22/Dec/05

SIERRA LEONE: With no prospects, youths are turning to crime and violence, 22/Dec/05

UGANDA: Britain cuts aid over concerns about democracy, 22/Dec/05

SENEGAL: Everyman’s library, 21/Dec/05

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