Tim Roske/AP

Liberia, Already Reeling from Caterpillar Infestation, Hit by New Species

February 19, 2009 11:31 AM
by Cara McDonough
A new species of caterpillar, different from those that have spent weeks destroying vital food crops, is adding to Liberia’s pest problem.

New Wave of Pests

Agence France-Presse reports that already decimated Liberian crops are now in danger from a new species of caterpillar. The new caterpillars are white and black; the black and yellow pests from a previous plague have now spread to the neighboring country Ivory Coast.

“On Friday … we got information that there was an invasion of caterpillars in the Margibi County area. We know that is not the same species that was found in Bong, Gbarpolu, Nimba and part of Lofa,” Liberian Minister of Agriculture Christopher Toe said Tuesday, according to AFP. “Our task force, our crop protection people, are now on the ground addressing this particular issue,” Toe said.

A UN Food and Agriculture Organisation representative reports that the first wave of caterpillars, which have been identified as Achaea Catocaloides, have moved into the Ivory Coast.

The Liberian government had already declared a state of emergency in January and gave a press briefing during which it outlined the infestation problem and its causes, saying that climate change and changes in agricultural production and land use patterns may be contributing factors. It also called for government agencies to cooperate in addressing the problem and said that a task force of experts has been put together to address the issue.

According to the Daily Observer in Liberia, the Liberian government has allocated $100,000 to the Ministry of Agriculture to address the issue.

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Background: Liberia’s economy threatened by growing caterpillar problem

A second wave of the “African armyworms” had in January forced Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf to declare a state of emergency and request $1.2 million in international aid.

The pests reproduce extremely quickly, laying up to 1,000 eggs within a week, reports the BBC. Around 400,000 people in 103 villages had been affected so far by the situation.

The caterpillars—which are native to Liberia—are eating export crops like bananas, plantains, coffee and cocoa, which are vital to the area’s economy. The U.S. Department of State estimated last year that Liberia’s exports make up $184.1 million of its economy, and the United States is one of the country’s major markets.

UN Food and Agriculture Organization experts are currently helping with the infestation, which has been blamed on last year’s “unusually long rainy season,” reports the Associated Press.

This isn’t the first time Liberia has been hit, but the invasion is believed to be the worst in Liberia in 30 years, Voice of America reported. FAO Representative Winfred Hammond called the situation “quite alarming,” and said that the infestation of caterpillars was "spreading very fast and was also causing damage not only to crops but contaminating waterways and therefore making it difficult for many villagers and the inhabitants to get access to good drinking water.”

Related Topic: Other crop scourges

Farmers throughout the ages have been victims of crop scourges that occur due to pests like the African armyworms, plant diseases or other problems. Perhaps the most famous blight was the Irish potato famine that occurred in the 1840s as a result of a fungus that affected potato plants, causing huge implications for the Irish people, who were largely dependent on the potato for food.

More recently, a crop emergency occurred in East Asia in May when a tiny insect called the brown plant hooper caused extensive damage to rice crops there, compounding what was already a dire global food crisis. Experts said the problem could have been prevented if more funding for agricultural research had been provided over the years. The issue of funding for agricultural research has not yet been brought up in relation to the African armyworm problem in Liberia.

In the United States, a mysterious, microscopic disease begain killing off Florida's state tree, the sabal palm in July. Experts seemed pessimistic about the disease, which caused infected trees to lose all their leaves and research efforts were slowed by a tight budget.

Also last summer, experts were concerned that a fungus affecting banana trees could spread seriously decrease the banana supply. The fungal disease - Panama Disease Race 4 - first surfaced in Asia and some worried it would move to crops in Latin America, although the bananas grown there remain safe for now.

Reference: African armyworms


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