|Locust plague could devastate North African economies - Algeria, morocco have already been badly hit|
|The last big swarm in the region, in 1987-89, ate a total of $300 million in crops
In an invasion of North and West Africa that may take on biblical proportions, locusts are swarming across the Sahara Desert to threaten crop yields in several countries.
The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) announced July 5 that the first swarms of desert locusts were abandoning their spring breeding areas and heading into Mauritania, Senegal and Mali, with more expected in coming weeks, while Morocco and Algeria have already been hit.
Without immediate attention to the plague of locusts, FAO warned, entire fields of maize, cassava and other staple crops for the region will be razed to the ground by the pests' insatiable appetites.
The swarms, which can quickly devour enough food to feed 2,500 people, could make their way across West Africa into western Sudan, which is already facing a dire food shortage due to continued unrest in the Darfur region.
From 1987 to 1989, swarms of locusts stuffed themselves with what amounted to some $300 million in crops, damaging food production in north and West Africa, the FAO said.
Swarm-watching has become a necessary, if repulsive, pastime for many farmers, who have spotted locusts feeding on maize and sorghum in the region.
Locusts have had a field day in Algeria, devouring thousands of hectares of newly planted crops in recent weeks in the fertile zone that runs from Naama in the west to Tebessa in the east, which separates the country's north from the creeping Sahara Desert.
Morocco has seen swarms engulf more than 100,000 hectares since late last month, while Mauritania's pest control agency has reported that hoards of locusts have swarmed southwards through the country since early July, preparing to lay their eggs just as the rainy season arrives.
Though they normally favor the southern Sahara in their laying season, the locusts could return in September, Algeria's Agriculture Minister Said Barkat said, as their laying and hatching cycles are enhanced by the rains that are normally a boon to the dry region.
Locusts are impervious to treatment once they reach their chrysalis stage, so even the 3 million hectares across the Maghreb that have been treated with conventional pesticides to ward off the pests are vulnerable.
Results from field trials of biological pesticides, which are substantially less harmful to the environment and to human health, are still pending.
Mauritania appealed for urgent international aid Sunday as the first swarms of locusts invaded its territory, the official state news agency AMI reported.
The call came from Rural Development Minister Ahmedou Ould Ahmedou and Economic Development Minister Abdellahi Ould Cheikh Sidya, who summoned ambassadors from donor countries, the European Union, and the representative of the FAO.
The ministers said the situation was serious and everyone had to help if a lasting catastrophe was not to ensue.
Mauritania has submitted a plan to treat 300,000 hectares at a total cost of $5.6 million, but Ould Ahmedou said this was a conservative estimate that could be overtaken by the sheer size of the invasion.
A gloomier estimate would require 800,000 hectares to be treated, according to the minister, who said the "serious situation requires the mobilisation of all our partners." He said seven regions devoted to crops and grazing were being invaded, with a threat to farm production and animal husbandry. The rural sector produces 20 percent of Gross National Product and accounts for 60 percent of jobs, he said.
Beirut,07 27 2004
The Daily Star