Tim Roske/AP

Liberia Takes Urgent Action to Stop Spread of Caterpillars

March 13, 2009 03:31 PM
by Cara McDonough

Another wave of caterpillars is attacking crops in Liberia; officials have declared a state of emergency and have asked foreign experts to help thwart the pests.

New Wave of Caterpillars on the Move

Agriculture officials announced this week that Liberia has been hit by yet another wave of caterpillars. The last attack of the virulent pests occurred in February.  

Moses Subah, head of the agriculture ministry's technical team, said that officials have "two weeks maximum to react" and that teams have dispersed, prepared to contain the situation, Breitbart reports. 

Liberian agricultural officials have mobilized experts from the sub-region of the nation, as well as from Brazil and the United States. The teams have been spraying the caterpillars, as well as searching for adult moths. The procedures have been "very successful" in containing further spread of the insects, said Agriculture Minister Chris Toe. 

Authorities worry that hundreds of thousands of people could face hunger because of the damage the caterpillars inflict on the crops.

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Background: Liberia’s economy threatened by growing caterpillar problem

A wave of the caterpillars—identified as “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 have been 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 this year's 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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