Locust invasion response unacceptable


A village elder shows locust devastation at Kanukurmeri Village in Turkana County on January 20. PHOTO | JARED NYATAYA

It’s amazing what well-meaning people can sign others up for. Take locusts. Last week, I saw the saddest video, courtesy of Bloomberg, of women rattling plastic pots with stones in and banging saucepans as swarms of locusts flew around them.

The aim was to get the locusts to move on, because, as some of our NGOs have been pointing out in letters sent directly to every agricultural journalist we have, noise can shock locusts and make them fly onwards – elsewhere.

It’s a counsel riddled with problems. For a start, how long did those women shake the pots before their arms just could not shake any more? Try it, with anything, start shaking it – for hours.

You won’t be able to. Your arms will get heavier and heavier until your shaking is done. It’s a short-term solution and for much smaller swarms than we now have.

For, now, it’s got hotter and more locusts are hatching our locust problem is growing exponentially. Scientists are reporting that swarms have become huge, one in north-eastern Kenya is 60km long and 40 km wide.

There can be 80 million locusts in a swarm, claims National Geographic, and we look set to have 500 times more locusts by June, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation warns.

So back to our pot-shaking women: in the millions of locusts, there were three women shaking on that one eighth of an acre. We don’t have three people for every plot of land. Over half our rural population lives in areas with under 250 people per square kilometre. There are 247 acres per square kilometre. So less than one person to shake the pot for every 8 plots.

And those women anyway appear to have failed, for the saddest piece of footage was the seemingly same piece of land later, the women gone, the locusts covering the ground three layers deep, eating everything.

Pot shaking can’t work against millions in swarms the size of cities: it’s deceit.

If those same NGOs had their homes filled with tens of thousands of biting fleas, and we all said, ‘listen, don’t fumigate, please collect them with your fingers a flea at a time and hold them under water, it will drown them’, or the same well-meaning advisers were seeing their homes eaten by termites at a metre a day and we say, ‘no, it’s ok, capture them with a teaspoon that you scrape over the wood surface,’ or whatever wonderful advice, they could watch their homes disappear too.

Only in this case the disappearance is these families’ food plus income: both gone in just hours.

The truth is we seem lost.

Our agriculture ministry fiddles and faddles, as I write, yet to approve pesticides that the FAO says farmers can use and that it says are safe and approved elsewhere. It hasn’t put out advice on any ways for farmers to protect themselves, like netting, or how to locust-proof greenhouses and at least save some horticulture. So what is our agriculture ministry even for?

We are heading to devastation and we are talking about shaking pots? Or silent on the multiple mitigations there actually are?

I can only imagine how coronavirus will play out here when it arrives: get used to it, you will get coronavirus and some of you will die from it, while the Health ministry does as the Agriculture ministry has done and takes months to move.

Of course, it’s difficult for urbanites and especially privileged ones to imagine those locusts destroying everything this afternoon, and maybe the government thinks something about Kenya will survive that ravaging, because, after all, most farmers are in the informal sector and not paying taxes, but they are three quarters of our consumers.

Once they are starving and buying nothing, everything else tips too. No more phone time being bought by farmers with no crops left.

Beyond the sheer human suffering and starvation ahead, everything is set to close now. And still no advice to farmers – ‘you can do this to protect your crops’. And there really are options, beyond saucepan lids. So we need to move now, before the crops are all gone: every one of us.