In the deep south of Mauritania, swarms of locusts appear on the horizon like dark menacing sand storms and then arrive to swirl around the countryside like blizzards of thick, yellow snowflakes.
The grasshopper-like insects settle on every tree, plant and bush and begin to munch away at the green vegetation springing up with the rainy season. They even settle on the walls of houses and electricity poles and cover the roads like a thick yellow carpet, searching for a promising new breeding ground to lay another batch of eggs.
There are hardly any government control teams to be seen and local peasants are resigned to the massive destruction of crops and pasture that this insect invasion will bring.
“There is nothing to be done against the will of Allah,” says Aichetou, who belongs to a women’s agricultural cooperative in Kiffa, a provincial town 700km east of the capital, Nouakchott, on the southern edge of the Sahara desert.
“We just pray that this invasion will be short-lived and that the locusts will fly away again quickly so that we can do something with what is left of our fields. But there is not much hope because the rainy season is coming to an end,” she adds.
Nearby, farmers are lighting fires to try to drive away the clouds of bright yellow insects that are settling on their vegetable gardens.
Control teams absent
During a three-day trip to the heavily infested south of Mauritania, where light rainfall allows some crops to be grown, an Irin correspondent did not see one single locust control team sent out by the government.
Some local people reported seeing the control teams occasionally.
“They come by now and then and give us insecticide or spray themselves, but they are not always around when the swarms arrive,” said Salek, who runs a small market garden at Aioun, 200km west of Kiffa.
In fact, many Mauritanian peasants, who rely more on livestock herding than growing crops, have grave doubts about the wisdom of spraying at all. They fear that all the chemicals dumped on the land will merely poison their camels, cows, goats and sheep.
“Spraying toxic substances on the ground is more serious than having to deal with locusts,” said Sidi Ould M’barak, a local councillor in Tintane, a small town halfway between Kiffa and Aioun.
“The teams come sporadically, pump a bit of insecticide on to the land and move on,” said Mohamed, a schoolteacher in the nearby village of Aghoratt. “That doesn’t kill the locusts, but it does harm the cattle which drink from pools of surface water.”
Agricultural experts estimate that at least 1,6-million hectares of land have been infested by locusts in Mauritania and the authorities in this mainly desert country of 2,8-million people admit they are overwhelmed.
“Action to spray the infested zones continues, but given the extent of the invasion, it is insufficient to stop the development of new swarms,” said Mohamed Abdallahi Ould Babah, the director of Mauritania’s locust-control campaign.
Earlier this month, he confided that the government’s underfunded control campaign is only covering 10% to 15% of the country’s needs.
“We have to get local people involved in the struggle,” Ould Babah said. “That is why we have opted for the continuous broadcasting of messages on radio and television to explain and try to revive the old traditional methods [of dealing with locusts].
“We are trying to make people aware that they should not just sit back with their arms folded waiting for the authorities to deal with this problem. They themselves can do something about it by acting locally to stop the locusts from advancing and increasing in numbers.”
Such traditional methods of control include the lighting of fires to dissuade locusts from settling and the digging of trenches in which to bury alive the advancing hopper bands of black, flightless locust larvae.
Ould Babah said his control teams are too thinly spread to be on the scene every time a swarm of locusts descends on a particular patch of countryside.
“That is why our action seems so derisory to local people in the worst-affected regions,” he admitted.
Many peasants seem resigned to the fact that this plague of insects is set to destroy the green pasture and healthy crops developing in the first season of good rainfall enjoyed by Mauritania after three years of drought.
“Tradition says that plagues of locusts only come during the good years,” said Mohamed Lemine, a nomadic shepherd guarding his flock of sheep by the roadside near Tintane.
“That is not because the locusts themselves are good, it is because the rains came on time and in sufficient quantity for the locusts to develop, even if the popular saying is not always understood in that way,” said Mamadou Ndiaye, a forest ranger in the same district. — Irin