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January 26, 2009

South African Farmers count the cost of plague of locusts

By Bongani Fuzile

Officials of South Africa's Department of Agriculture , who are helping embattled Eastern Cape farmers clear up after swarms of locusts destroyed crops and grazing, have said they were dealing with a disaster . Damage is said to run into hundreds of thousands of rands, maybe millions.

“These farmers will need a lot of money to look after their cattle,” said one official. “We’ve sprayed the area but the cattle won’t be allowed to graze there again for some time.” He added that it was one of the worst years for locusts.

Stali Yabo, a cattle farmer in the Hex River area in Sterkstroom near Queenstown, told how he saw a dark cloud coming towards them. “That scared villagers. We noticed that they were locusts and all we could do was to watch and see where they landed .” Yabo rushed to his farm where, within seconds, 10hectares was covered with the voracious insects. With his farm workers, he tried to chase the insects away. But “there were millions and millions of them. They were so dense and we couldn’t do anything. Millions more just came and landed on the farm as some were drifting to other areas. We just watched in fear.”

Although officials from the Department of Agriculture rushed to spray the locusts with pesticides, it was too late for Yabo. All the grazing fields on his farm had been wiped out. Yabo said he now had no other option but to sell his stock. “There is no way that I can afford cattle feeds for the whole of my stock. Truly speaking, I am saddened by this.” Why weren’t they warned in advance, he asked.

Farmers at Sterkstroom also expressed anger that the department had failed to warn them of the coming plague. If they had been warned they could have prepared themselves for what was to come.

Another farmer, Stoto Manqindi, said the plague had crippled the emerging commercial beef business. “It needs immediate attention from the government ,” he said. Despite promises of help from the department, it would not “bring back the hectares of the grass that have been destroyed”. “We have to wait for rain to bring our cattle back in shape. We’ve lost a lot within this short period,” said Manqindi.

Department of Agriculture officials have been deployed to the area to assess the damage and assist if more swarms arrived. About five trucks had been dispatched to spray pesticides at farms. Officials said they used a special pesticide, which could not be purchased commercially, to kill the insects.

...thousands of locusts were still flying overhead while millions were lying on the ground dead. Another concern raised by farmers was the possible breakout of disease. Livestock farmer Sabatha Lumata said: “Just smell this funny stench coming from them. This will leave this area with diseases and I am worried about the complications for both the people and the cattle. “This is really something we’ve never seen in our lifetime. We only hear about these in the up northern countries of Africa, not here.”

Melville Price of Bushmanshoek farm said his crops escaped. Close to a million locusts descended on his farm on Tuesday but no serious damage was caused. However, the swarms could return.

Head of Crop Research in the department’s Dohne Agricultural Development Institute, Dr Thembakazi Silwana, said it was too early to estimate the damage. “Many farmers have been affected by this and some have lost a whole lot of their crops, but we are working around the clock to assist them. “The department has sent some officials to assess the situation, but these locusts are travelling fast … but we will win the battle. At this stage, we can’t say how much and how exactly we’re going to assist the farmers.” Senior researcher Dr Roger Price, divisional manager of the Insect Ecology Division at Plant Protection Research Institute, said good rains had allowed successful breeding of the locusts.

Daily Dispatch

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