Mali is already bedeviled by the messy aftermath of a military coup, Tuareg rebels who’ve declared their own state, Islamists trying to impose strict religious law in the north, and waves of hunger.
Now Mali and neighboring Niger are facing swarms of locusts, which were left uncontrolled while Libya and Algeria, which normally keep local locusts from moving south, grappled with conflicts and insecurity of their own.
The swarming desert locusts, which can eat their own weight in fresh food every day, threaten to devastate crops in a region where millions of people are already menaced by food shortages. In some stretches of northern Mali and Niger, some people have resorted to eating plant leaves, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the World Food Program have said.
Locusts are usually managed by spraying chemicals that stop the swarms from spreading. Algeria and Libya ordinarily attack the swarms, preventing them from hitting Mali or Niger.
But in the last year, as Libya was wracked by fighting between rival militias in the aftermath of the ouster of Moammar Kadafi and Algeria suffered insecurity along its border, local teams and international experts have been blocked from stopping the swarms, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization said.
Teams trying to combat the locusts had treated more than 200 square miles of infested land in Algeria and Libya as of the end of May. More than $700,000 has been dedicated to the problem, the FAO said.
But locusts have reportedly already been spotted in the northern Mali region of Kidal, as well as neighboring northern Niger. “How many locusts there are and how far they move will depend on two major factors: the effectiveness of current control efforts in Algeria and Libya and upcoming rainfall in the Sahel of West Africa,” FAO senior locust forecasting officer Keith Cressman said Tuesday.
The onslaught is especially alarming in Mali because the unrest has crippled its ability to fight them off. Bloomberg News reported Thursday that the equipment Mali needs to stop the swarms was destroyed during the Tuareg rebellion, quoting an interview with a locust control official broadcast on state radio.
Even before it was threatened by locusts, Mali has been facing its worst crisis in 50 years, Amnesty International said last month. Rebels and soldiers alike have violated human rights with executions and rapes. Tens of thousands of people have fled the region.
-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles
Photo: Malian refugees arrive at the Imbaidou refugee camp in Niger on May 29, 2012. Credit: Issouf Sanogo / AFP/Getty Images