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Low rains bring optimism to African locust outbreaks

BARAKA, Kenya (AP) – In a convoy of pickup trucks equipped with spray guns, soldiers roam the hills of Baraka, leaving behind a trail of dust and puzzled villagers.

Vehicles brake when soldiers see the enemy: billions of invading locusts that have landed in a shrinking swarm where a wooded area meets farmland.

The deployment of soldiers among regular farm officials is testament to the severity of the threat as the locust outbreak in East Africa continues well into a second year. Young locusts arrive in waves from breeding areas in Somalia, where insecurity is hampering the response.

It is the start of the planting season in Kenya, but the late rains have brought some optimism in the locust control, although farmers are still worried about their crops.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, swarms of locusts have been spotted in the Rift Valley – which produces Kenya’s staple foods of maize, wheat and potatoes. .

But the FAO says that due to poor rains in Kenya and neighboring Ethiopia, swarms in both countries remain immature. Their number also continues to decline due to ongoing control operations.

Without rain, the swarms will not breed, severely limiting the magnitude and extent of their threat, FAO said in a recent update.

“For this reason, there is cautious optimism that the current upsurge ends in the Horn of Africa, especially if light rains limit breeding this spring in northern Kenya and southern Ethiopia. , followed by equally light rains during the summer in northeast Ethiopia.

Last year, authorities managed to contain what was considered the largest locust infestation in Kenya in 70 years, largely through coordinated aerial spraying that quickly covered large areas.

Many of these swarms were in uninhabited areas. This year the swarms presented a different challenge by landing in more populated areas. This means spraying is out of the question as it could adversely affect people and livestock, says Ambrose Nyatich, livelihoods recovery specialist at FAO.

Late rains are therefore an advantage – in part.

Desert locusts pose unprecedented risk to agriculture-based livelihoods and food security in already fragile Horn of Africa region amid economic crises, drought and conflict, FAO says .

A typical desert locust swarm can contain up to 150 million locusts per square kilometer, according to the East African regional body, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development. “An average swarm can destroy as many food crops in a day as it takes to feed 2,500 people.”

Farmers like Hannah Nyokabi from the community of Baraka – which means “blessing” in Swahili – find themselves in a difficult situation. Poor rains could lessen the locust threat but will almost certainly mean a poor harvest.

“Things have gone very badly. If you look at the farm, there is nothing, “she said.” We have children going to school and we were dependent on the farm for their expenses.

Another farmer, Anne Wa Mago, 60, called a poor harvest better than nothing.

“We’re lucky (the locusts) arrived when we hadn’t planted, otherwise they would have wiped out our produce,” she said, gesturing to thousands of voracious insects cluttering up a branch of the tree. tree.

Groups of schoolchildren, some still in uniform, ran around the farms pulling locusts out of the air or on the ground.

For them, the swarm that has just arrived, almost destroying the sun, is a godsend like no other. A kilogram of locusts will raise money from a non-governmental organization that wants to turn the insects into food for livestock.

“It was money that came to our door,” said John Mbithi, 16. 12-year-old Anne Wangari said she collected 35 kilograms before leaving for school.

But Nyatich with FAO warned against using locusts for food as they could have been sprayed with insecticide.

“The initiatives by some organizations to try to use locusts for food for fish or animals is something that should be looked at in terms of how can we regulate it in the future, maybe in the future. future, ”Nyatich said.

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