IN Medina Salaam, Mauritania, the locusts ate the tree seedlings in the villagers' first attempt at planting a nursery. In Rosso, they ate the schoolchildren's garden. In fact, from Tunisia to Senegal, these plant-devouring insects have wreaked havoc for the last two years. And as summer approaches, bringing the rains that trigger locust reproduction, people in North and West Africa are waiting to see how large an onslaught this year will bring.
All indications, according to officials in Morocco, Mauritania, and Senegal, are that the swarms will come - but they will be considerably smaller than those of the last two years.
Nevertheless, the intensity of the 1987-88 attacks and the obvious lack of preparation in a number of countries have left bitter memories. Officials and civilians fighting the locust attacks are searching for ways to strengthen national readiness, combat tactics, and follow-up environmental evaluations. They are also seeking the establishment of an international ``strike force'' to treat remote and disputed areas.
Morocco, for example, has about 2,500 persons and several planes dedicated to infestation control and crop protection. With the help of the United States Agency for International Development (AID), it is launching a comprehensive effort to examine the environmental effects of two years of spraying pesticides.
Mauritania, on the other hand, has about 200 people dedicated to ``crop protection.'' At this point, its follow-up is a ``body count'' - estimating how many locusts per acre have been killed by spraying.
``It's not just a problem of funds. The problem for many countries is that they don't have the trained resources,'' says Adel Cortes, representative of the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization in Rabat, the Moroccan capital.
The gulf between the resources different nations have for fighting locusts is one of the two greatest hindrances to controlling infestations. The other is the inaccessibility of areas pinpointed as breeding grounds because they lie in disputed or extremely remote regions - areas such as the Western Sahara, northern Mauritania, northern Chad, southern Sudan, and northern Ethiopia.
A war for control of the Western Sahara, now winding down, has long kept the area closed to survey and treatment. Mauritania lacks the resources to cover its vast northern reaches, and swarms will continue to move from these areas to Morocco.
To get the locusts before they cross the border into Morocco, Moroccan officials, backed by AID and FAO, have spearheaded a proposal drawn up at an international conference last fall. This plan includes designs for better ``preventive'' systems, using Morocco as a model; staff training in the use of equipment, pesticides, and protection; an organized strike approach; and data collection. Additionally, the proposal calls for establishing an international force that would spray by air in disputed or remote areas.
The plan, however, is losing steam because it is expensive and politically sensitive - and because there is, at the moment, no ``emergency.''
THE proposal is ``very heavy administratively,'' says Bill Thomas, an entomologist for AID in Nouakchott, the captital of Mauritania. He says it foresees $33 million for Mauritania's program. ``Do donors really want to spend that kind of money on Mauritania?'' he asks.
Additionally, officials in Senegal, Morocco, and Mauritania all say that the idea of an international force remains touchy to some countries who feel it would impinge on their sovereignty.
Like many others, AID's Mr. Thomas has his doubts about an international force. Experience has shown that regional forces break down as member countries don't pay their bills. Equal access to equipment and supplies is tough to guarantee, he says.
But, FAO's Mr. Cortes says ``I don't think it would be any problem to get political channels open for this special program ... and, we will keep putting forth this idea.''
Experts see the proposal's push for better striking and survey systems as vital. Since locusts swarm as they begin to reach adulthood, it's especially important to spray them just after hatching. Survey and striking systems are generally weakest in remote areas where the bulk of residents are subsistence farmers. It is these people - usually the poorest farmers, the most heavily dependent on a single crop for their existence - who feel the real weight of the devastation.
As the infestation continues, it becomes increasingly important to monitor better the effects that the pesticides have - on people and the earth. ``We are currently using [chemicals] in proportions that they have never been used before [in Africa]. We don't know the effects over the long term,'' says Joe Kitts, an AID locust control representative in Rabat.
Morocco's own system, widely considered the best in Africa, requires employees to be tested every two weeks for chemicals in their bloodstream. They are put on a 15-day mandatory paid rest if the count is too high.
The debate over which chemicals to use seems never-ending, and would have to be agreed upon in any ``international'' proposal. FAO's Cortes insists that the pesticides being used are the ``safest'' known. The US, which provides a disproportionate share of the funding and equipment for operations, has been criticized for not allowing its funds to be connected with more toxic chemicals.
Still, even the pesticide most in use right now, malathion, has its drawbacks. One study, recorded in the Journal of Economic Entomology last fall, indicates that, because this pesticide is ``nonselective.'' (It kills both good and bad bugs.) It may be killing natural predators of the locust.
Also, malathion does not kill on contact, which means that repeat spraying of a single swarm sometimes occurs - wasting money and time. In some areas, locusts are eaten by villagers and fed to animals, but villagers have no way of knowing if a just-arrived swarm was sprayed only a few hours earlier. Another problem the proposal deals with is the disposal of old pesticides.
It looks, however, as if these old chemicals, like the proposal, will have to wait another year at least. Drier weather than the last two years in North and West Africa will keep infestations - and crops - down.
But meanwhile, this corner of the world is waiting for the rain - and watching the skies.