A plague of biblical proportions?

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iol scitech may 9 locusts REUTERS A member of the National Anti-locusts Committee fumigates locusts in the village of Soatanimbary in the Menabe region of western Madagascar.

Antananarivo - For three quarters of an hour a giant swarm of locusts streams across the sky above southwest Madagascar.

Along National Route Seven, normally an artery for tourists enjoying breathtaking views of the island's vast open spaces, a 15 kilometre long swarm clouds the sky.

Travellers today see little more than a natural disaster in progress - a plague of locusts which has already destroyed half of the Indian Ocean island's crops.

Madagascar's worst locust plague in 60 years has infested about half of the island, destroying crops and raising concerns over food shortages.

“There's already little rice. Not many people have more than ten hectares of crops, so after the locusts, there's nothing left for our women and children to eat,” said local farmer Zefa Vilimana.

“The cattle have nothing left to eat either, so we're left with nothing once the locusts have been here.”

In Ranohira, a village further to the south, Joseph Rakoto has lost half his rice crops since the swarms came.

“We buy pesticides against rice parasites ourselves but it doesn't work against locusts. The government doesn't give us anything,” he said.

According to experts, there are currently one hundred swarms across Madagascar, made up of about 500 billion ravenous locusts.

They get through around 100 000 tons of vegetation every single day.

“They can create a lot of damage, they eat the pastures, and then also the rice and the corn, which is about to be harvested,” said Tsitohaina Andriamaroahina from the Ministry of Agriculture.

Andriamaroahina headed a joint scout mission into the plague with UN food agency FAO end April.

“The facts drive me to my knees,” he said, frustrated with the scale of the destruction.

Locals often eat the hoppers, which usually occur in moderate numbers in the southern and southwestern parts of the country.

When they became more numerous, the authorities declared a state of emergency in November and tried to kill them - but the swarms were simply too big.

Then Cyclone Hurana hit Madagascar in February, and the floods created a perfect breeding ground for the locusts.

“Not enough measures were taken, and so we had a locust invasion. In one day, we counted five swarms over a distance of 20 kilometres. It's extremely serious,” Andriamaroahina added.

Around 13 million people - over half the island's population - face food shortages or malnutrition because of the destroyed crops, according to the FAO.

Madagascar developed a three-year emergency plan with the agency to spray pesticides by air over the millions of hectares of contaminated land.

But it is still waiting for around $40-million in aid to finance the project and donors have not yet given the green light.

“The big problem here is that we don't have money, so we can't buy pesticides and we can't buy enough fuel all at once,” said Rakotovao Hasibelo, a regional official of the National Anti-Locust Centre.

“The field officers, the managers can't do their work, and while we're not working, the farmers suffer and the locusts multiply,” he said.

The Agriculture Ministry points the finger at mismanagement for the lack of funds.

“The National Anti-Locust Centre has a monthly budget of 2-billion ariary ($918-million), but 1.5-billion ariary goes to salaries,” said the ministry's Andriamaroahina.

Madagascar is no stranger to natural disasters. Droughts and cyclones regularly affect the more than 70 percent of the population which lives under the poverty line. - AFP

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