Madagascar: The coup and the locusts

Political upheaval and swarms of attacking insects proved a disastrous combination. But hope may now be in sight.

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    There's something biblical about swarms of locusts, something strange about writing "billions of locusts threatening millions of lives" - strange but true.

    What's even stranger is the connection between Madagascar's coup in 2009 and the flying menace.

    By some awful twist of fate, the coup coincided with the perfect weather conditions for locusts to swarm.

    There was plenty for them to eat so they reproduced rapidly and, when their numbers reached a tipping point, they became what scientists call "gregarious" which basically means they grouped into huge, ravenous flying armies.

    Madagascar does have a national monitoring centre.

    But [and here's the connection] when international donors cut off the purse strings following the coup, the government ran out of money for many basic services, let alone their locust experts. And now it's paying the price as billions of locusts have been rampaging across 70% of the country in a hurricane of humming wings and spiky legs.

    Add in a cyclone or two and successive harvests have been hit.

    Now the World Food Programme and the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation says a third of rural households are going hungry and millions more face food insecurity.

    So Malagasies have not only been trying to cope with a political and economic crisis that means now 92% of them live on less than $2 a day, but they've also had locusts to deal with. It's like being kicked while you're down.

    But hope is in sight with a three-year emergency plan that's about to be put into action.

    It involves the FAO and WFP sending experts into the field along with local talent to train teams in the worst infested areas.

    They will locate and monitor the swarms [which are now on the ground breeding].

    Then they'll start spraying them with pesticides.

    The whole project is going to cost about $41m and there's a $10m shortfall.

    On the aid front, Friday's presidential election, the first since the coup, has been declared free and fair by international observers.

    That should mean the aid that was cut off returns. Emergency aid has been getting in but nothing direct to government's coffers.

    A legitimate government should change that.

    Of course there will be challenges.

    The locusts numbers are vast and we're yet to learn the elections preliminary results.

    The EU, AU and SADC are concerned the outcome may not be accepted by the losing candidates and their supporters, possibly leading to renewed unrest and ongoing instability.

    So there are still many hurdles but at least now the path appears to be straightening.


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