Sanhangy-Tsialih — After years of underfunding its locust management programme, Madagascar is threatened by a major swarm that could infest most of the island country.
"If nothing is done this year, there is a risk that almost the whole country, except for the extreme north and the eastern coast, will be invaded by locusts," Alexandre Huynh, country representative for the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), told IRIN. "Three months ago, locusts were found as close as 40km from [the capital] Antananarivo. We are in a country where 80 percent of the population lives on agriculture, so there could be a huge humanitarian crisis."
International donors provided US$7.4 million to combat the locust outbreak in 2010-2011 - half of what was needed. Last year, funding fell back to 26 percent of the required amount.
"We managed to prevent a humanitarian crisis and to treat the most threatened areas, but it was definitely not enough to stop the plague," Huynh said.
State of emergency
A locust infestation can produce a new generation almost every two months, with each insect consuming roughly its own weight - about 2g - in vegetation daily. When swarming, they can cover up to 100km a day. The insects undergo behavioural, ecological and physiological transformation after their population density passes a tipping point: their body chemistry changes and individual locusts begin to concentrate and act as a synchronized group moving out en masse to devour available food sources.
"They ate everything that was green. There was nothing left to eat"
In November 2012, the government declared a state of emergency across the country, and many fear a return to the locust infestations of 1997, which cost the government and international community $60 million for the treatment of four million hectares over four years. Another such plague began in the 1950s and lasted 17 years because there was no coordinated action plan.
Jean-Babtiste Manjarisoa, a 40-year-old farmer, remembers when his southern village, Sanhangy-Tsialih, lost the fight against locusts 16 years ago. He has since become a volunteer with the National Anti-Locust Centre (CNA).
"They ate everything that was green. There was nothing left to eat. Both the people and the zebus [Madagascar's humped cattle] were out of food," he told IRIN. "So we ate cactus fruits, fed the cactus leaves to the animals, and slowly sold our chickens, our cooking pots and, finally, half of our cattle to survive."
"These insects are carriers of famine. They are the cause of crisis for us," Manjarisoa said.
"We encourage the population to tell us immediately when they have hoppers on their land, but they often wait until the insects are bigger and flying. It's much better when we are early, because there is a window of three weeks to treat the fields. After that, the locusts can get out of hand, and it becomes a lot more expensive to treat them," Herman Gerard Matangison, the CNA chief in the southern Madagascar town of Ambovombe, told IRIN.
FAO's Huynh said the current situation affects the whole western part of the island. "They [CNA] can treat some fields that are under immediate risk, but they are not able to stop a plague, whose control exceeds, largely, their capacities" he said.
In Ambovombe, the CNA office has pesticide stocks to treat 3,500 hectares, which is, according to Matangison, about a tenth of what is required. "The locusts are not in this area yet, but once they start swarming in other regions, they can easily come here," he said.
"It's dangerous because there are bandits there that try to attack us, and the police charge 300,000 ariary ($137) a day for protection"
A deteriorating security situation in the south is also hampering anti-locust operations; Matangison is embarking on a surveillance trip into the mountains with some trepidation.
"It's dangerous because there are bandits there that try to attack us, and the police charge 300,000 ariary ($137) a day for protection, which we can't afford. But if we don't watch the locust populations there, they can swarm and fly over to our fields."
Locusts breed in the southwestern regions of Madagascar during the rainy season, from October to April. According to a 2012 World Food Programme (WFP) survey, an estimated 676,000 people in the 104 southern municipalities are considered at risk of severe food insecurity.
"This region is where the farmers grow the most grains, like corn. That is what the locusts like to eat," Matangison said. Compounding their food insecurity, Madagascar's lean season normally occurs from October to January.
Late last year, the government appealed to the international community for about $10 million to combat the locust threat. Since the beginning of the rainy season, the CNA has treated 30,000 hectares, but a further 100,000 still have to be tackled by April.
The agriculture ministry and the FAO say eradicating the current locust threat in the south will require three successive years of action.
The three-year programme is expected to cost about $41.5 million and will involve large-scale aerial spraying operations. About 2.2 million hectares of both natural vegetation and croplands are earmarked. Some $20 million is required by June to begin spraying programmes in October.
Ignacio Leon-Garcia, head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs Regional Office for Southern Africa (OCHA-ROSA), told IRIN the insects were threatening food supplies among the country's most vulnerable and that the three-year action plan was "the more cost-effective way to respond to the locust outbreaks, before they increase in scale later on."
Donors suspended all but emergency assistance to Madagascar in 2009, after President Marc Ravalomanana was deposed in a coup d'etat. More than three-quarters of the country's 20 million people now live on less than $1 a day, according to government figures - up from 68 percent before the political crisis.