UN rings warning bells as locusts threaten African crop and grazing lands

Rains that have helped boost farm production in some parts of Africa have also brought a plague as worrisome as famine -- voracious swarms of locusts threatening vast tracts of crop and grazing lands. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization is ringing warning bells, and FAO Director Edouard Saouma has asked donors for aid to buy, transport, and store pesticides to be used to minimize damage to crops.

For the first time in decades, the continent faces simultaneous invasions of all four types of the age-old pest. FAO experts estimate it will take several years to bring the situation under control.

The organization is requesting $8 million this year, $10.6 million for 1987, and $5.7 million in 1988 to fight the locusts.

The return of the rains has dampened the earth, providing perfect breeding conditions for locusts. Locusts lay pods of up to 100 eggs each in warm, moist ground.

Swarms of locusts moving in tens of millions have been known to devour 80,000 tons of food in a day -- enough to feed 400,000 people for a year.

Brown locusts from South Africa have flown north into Botswana and the stream has ``developed in such a critical way that it is now possible to speak of a true plague in that country,'' the FAO warned in a report released last month.

Also facing serious threats are nine countries in the Sahel region, a drought-plagued belt south of the Sahara dessert that stretches across north-central Africa. Spraying has already begun in Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Chad, Guinea-Bissau, Gambia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, and Senegal. A number of these countries remain to be ``critical need'' cases on the UN list of nations still suffering from the effects of the 1984-85 famine.

On the eastern coast, red locusts have moved into several regions of Tanzania.

In the north, the locusts have been reproducing in Sudan and migrating to northern Kenya, Uganda, and southwest Ethiopia. This is the first time the locusts have been in Kenya since 1937.

A spokesman for the Nairobi-based Desert Locust Control Organization, Teshale Abebe, said spraying for both locusts and grasshoppers ended in June.

``They didn't do much damage and the threat to Kenya is very much reduced now,'' Mr. Abebe said.

Swarms of desert locusts have been sighted in Saudi Arabia, and FAO experts are concerned for the horn of Africa, where rains have created extremely favorable conditions for them to breed.

The FAO is warning that past experience indicates that the upsurge of locust activities in East Africa and the fact that locusts now in Tanzania have left traditional breeding grounds signal that plagues are imminent.

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