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Last Updated: Thursday, 7 October, 2004, 08:18 GMT 09:18 UK
Taking arms against the swarms
By Pascale Harter
BBC, Kiffa, southern Mauritania

Braika and her husband in Kiffa, southern Mauritania.
Braika and her husband use grain as currency
"I can show you my field but you won't see anything," says Braika.

It is dusk in Kiffa, southern Mauritania.

Momentarily swathed in green farmland and pasture at the end of the rainy season, this region will soon be eaten up by the desert again, like the rest of the country.

Usually Braika and her husband rest beneath the stars after a hard day's work in their field.

But today there was no work. Just two weeks before harvest, the locusts arrived and ate everything.

"I'm so tired. It was a beautiful field," Braika says sadly, before asking if I'd like to buy it.

Life on the land

Like everyone over a certain age in Mauritania, Braika and her husband say they are 60, a way of saying "we don't know exactly, but we're old".

For their whole lives they have been working these fields in Kiffa. They do not have money, trading grain for basic necessities instead.

They have weathered years of drought and poor harvests, but they have always stayed.

Men with their goats at Kiffa's cattle market in Mauritania
"There is nothing left for my sheep to eat," says Hamoud

It is not easy for them to think of selling it. During what the Mauritanian Centre for Locust Control says is just the beginning of the worst locust plague to hit the country in more than 20 years, there is not much of a market anyway.

At Kiffa's dusty cattle market Hamoud puts an arm around his friend's shoulder.

"There's nothing left for my sheep to eat," he says, "But Allah will show us a way."

As I travelled around the vast desert country, I heard the same resigned tone from many Mauritanians whose entire livelihood had been wiped out in a matter of hours - a mixture of legendary Mauritanian pride and unshakable faith in God.

But this stoicism belies a catastrophe of Biblical proportions and Mauritanians in their "sixties" have been around long enough to know it.

Alien armies

Swarms of pink locusts filling the sky have become a common sight in much of the country.

Newly-hatched yellow and green locusts advance like alien armies, devouring everything in their path.

In a single day, an average swarm can eat the same quantity of food as 2,500 people.

Locusts crammed on the branches of a tree, Kiffa, Mauritania
A swarm of locusts can devour as much crop as 2,500 people

Mohamed Lemine, of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in Mauritania, estimates anything from 40% to 100% of crops have been wiped out in some areas.

But with branches and homemade shovels, the villagers of Olo Loge in south-eastern Mauritania are fighting back - digging up locust eggs and burying the young.

Sarr Mohamedou works for the humanitarian organisation World Vision which has been teaching villagers in the south to use these traditional methods.

"It's very hard to live here because it's very difficult to grow anything. But the most important thing is the people are very motivated to fight the locusts."

It is so hard to make a living off the land in southern Mauritania that most of the men have left in search of jobs in the towns.

Responsibility to feed the family now falls on the older women in the village, women like Tilo, in her "sixties" who make up Olo Loge's locust task force.

The Boghe locust task force, Mauritania
Communities are taking the fight into their own hands

"I come out every day to fight the locusts, and there are many people my age who do," she told me.

"We've never seen a plague like this. I have eight children and many grandchildren, and we all depend on my harvest."

Tilo knows the homemade shovels and branches are not enough to combat all the crawling carpets of newly-hatched locusts around her village.

"If we had pesticide from the government, maybe we could beat the locusts," she says.

But the government of this vast desert country simply does not have enough pesticide or planes.

The staff of the locust control centre work around the clock. The planes spraying pesticides take off at first light.

But often they are grounded because they have run out of pesticides. Dr Abdelahi Ould Baba, director of Mauritania's Centre for Locust Control, says the Mauritanian state has mobilised all its resources, but is still only managing to treat 15% of the plague.

With a heavy sigh, Dr Abdelahi rubs his lined forehead. "It is in fact a nightmare for us," he says. "We are scared of having a year without any yield."

Some 80% of Mauritanians depend on their crops and livestock for their living.

If they do not have a harvest or cannot find pasture for their sheep and goats, it is hard to see how they will survive in the overcrowded towns where jobs are scarce.

Trickle of aid

They will surely need food aid on an unprecedented scale.

This crisis could have been avoided if international donors had responded to increasingly urgent appeals from the FAO beginning in December last year.

Instead, this is likely to be just the beginning of a regional disaster as the locusts move across half the African continent, spreading starvation.

International aid is now trickling in, but the FAO says of the $100m needed to stop this plague becoming a regional disaster, the organisation has still only received $15m.

More is promised, but every moment that the money is not in the hands of the FAO and local locust control centres, the insects are breeding, and now a second generation is taking to the skies.

Mauritania 'on brink of famine'
21 Sep 04  |  Africa
Africa declares 'war' on locusts
12 Oct 04  |  Africa
Locusts ravage northern Nigeria
19 Aug 04  |  Africa
In the eye of the swarm
31 Mar 04  |  Science/Nature


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