We are only into the second month of 2009, and already Liberia has been struck with two plagues of caterpillars. Now those caterpillars from that first wave have crossed over into Ivory Coast threatening the cocoa crop. They have also crossed over into Guinea. The first wave of caterpillars were identified as Achaea catocaloides. The caterpillars devour everything, cocoa, cash crops, food crops. Sikoun Wague, spokesman for Guinea’s Agriculture Ministry, told Reuters:
“The equipment we have means we can only spray up to a height of 6 metres (yards), whereas some trees are 30 metres high. We absolutely must have air support,”
“These insects suck the sap from trees and leave tonnes of waste in channels and water courses, which are then unusable for two weeks,” he said.
The threat to the water supply is particularly serious. The threat to food security, and the danger of hunger is large and rising.
GBOLUMUE, Liberia, Feb 11 – Martha Kermel holds out rail-thin arms covered with a latticework of scratches from her encounter with a plague of caterpillars that has devastated crops and spread fear through this corner of West Africa.
“They scratched my arms when they moved,” said Kermel, a mother of four, telling how the small creatures poured down onto her from the tree branches overhead as she set out from her village to a rice farm cultivated by her community in Liberia.
That was two weeks ago. Now the millions of caterpillars which covered the road and nearby bushes have retreated into cocoons, or hatched already into moths ready to spawn a new generation of grubs here or further afield.
She and her family, subsistence farmers like most people in the area, live 16 km south of the border with Guinea and 45 minutes by foot from the nearest passable road.
When the bugs attacked, Kermel had nowhere to go, and worried about feeding her children.
She said the ‘kotin’, as locals call the pests, fouled the creek near her home with their faeces, turning the water black.
Every day since then, she and her children have had to walk several miles to the main road to gather water at a borehole.
The Liberian government has said the caterpillars are threatening the food security of 350 000 people, and President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf declared a national state of emergency.
The species can travel up to 100 km per day. Ivory Coast is already sounding alarms.
Ivory Coast is:
… the world’s top cocoa grower and an important producer of coffee, rubber, palm oil and other cash crops.
The creatures were first thought to be army worms, a moth caterpillar, but they were identified this week as the young of another kind of moth, the Achaea catocaloides, which are also known to damage cocoa and other tree crops.
For the time being, the moths are headed north, and experts in Ivory Coast said this week they should avoid Ivory Coast’s valuable cocoa belt, which produces about 40 per cent of world supply.
But they remain a risk to Ivory Coast’s central borderlands, which produce around 100 000 tonnes of cocoa and 70 000 tonnes of robusta coffee a year.
“I think this is a seasonal threat. From our experience in Benin, the moth will disappear by early or mid-March,” Georg Goergen, an entomologist at the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA), told Reuters.
While the caterpillars feed on trees, adults belong to a group known as fruit-sucking moths for their penchant for piercing ripening fruit and sucking out the juice, often causing the fruit to rot and drop prematurely.
Spray teams, each member with a plastic tank of insecticide strapped to their back, have started work. But Jobson Momo, an agricultural programme officer in the town of Carey, said his team did not have enough pesticide, protective gear or vehicles.
The entire first wave of Liberia’s caterpillars has now turned into moths. Scientists at the Ministry of Agriculture fear they are are now reproducing and could cause secondary and tertiary waves of infestations that, if uncontained, may destabilise an already volatile region.
This plague has been described as the worst in at least 30 years. And now Liberia has been struck by a second wave of caterpillars. The new ones are a different species, but appear to have the same appetites.
Monrovia, Feb. 18: “On Friday… we got information that there was an invasion of caterpillars in the Margibi County area. We know that is not the same species that was found in Bong, Gbarpolu, Nimba and part of Lofa,” Agriculture minister Christopher Toe told a press conference late on Tuesday.
“Our task force, our crop protection people, are now on the ground addressing this particular issue,” Toe said
It will take some time to identify the new species.
Toe said the areas first affected in Liberia by the caterpillars are still suffering from the after-effects.
“The problem that we face has implication beyond agriculture,” Toe warned. “Damage for example to food crops now could lead to food insecurity in the future as well as to loss of revenue and income.”
He added that the community was also facing health issues as water sources were being polluted by the caterpillars’ droppings and by dead caterpillars.
The local population has been warned not to drink affected water.
to neighboring Guinea, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast unless it is quickly contained, said entomologist Winfred Hammond, who is also the agency’s representative in Liberia.
Hammond blamed the outbreak on last year’s unusually long rain season in the country.
FAO also said that the caterpillars … are clogging wells and waterways with excrement. In some communities, villagers can’t reach their farms as they are surrounded by the pests.
Experts are trying to identify the exact species to choose the best pesticide to combat them, the agency said. However, aerial spraying risks further contaminating the water and hand spraying has proved ineffective, as the pests dwell on the leaves of giant forest trees that can rise more than 26 feet (8 meters).
The last African armyworm outbreak in the area occurred in Ghana in 2006, the agency said.
The countries in the region are responding:
MONROVIA (AFP) — Four West African nations have joined forces to do battle against a species of caterpillars laying waste to crops in the region, a statement said Saturday.
The agriculture ministers from Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast have created a team to look into the threats posed by what are believed to be Achaea Catocaloides caterpillars.
Crops in central Liberia and southern Guinea have already been ravaged by the caterpillars, and other countries in the region fear the damage will spread further.
“The five-man technical committee will begin work immediately,” the ministers from the four countries forming the Mano River Union said in a statement after meeting in Monrovia on Friday.
“They will design plans of action that will be implemented by all member countries.”
An expert from Brazil already working with Liberia will assist the new committee.
This story gets me worrying about our farms, and the safety and comfort of people around us. So far the threat is not near, but it can travel fast.
h/t African Agriculture for links