Plague of locusts compounds Madagascar’s food crisis
Meals of fried locusts cannot compensate for the devastation of crops
A swarm of the red locusts 20 kilometres north of the town of Sakaraha, south west Madagascar, on April 27th last year. The swarms will return later this month, devastating food crops. Photograph: Bilal Tarabey/AFP/Getty Images
First, bring a large pot of water to the boil. Add a bagful of live locusts – untreated by pesticides – and stir. Simmer for a few minutes, then drain. In a separate pan, heat up some oil. Toss in the locusts and sauté until crisp. Add salt to taste and serve with boiled rice.
For more lasting nutritional value – and to get that umami kick in vegetable soups and stews – make a powder with the sautéed insects: grind them finely (a stone will do it), leave to dry, then store in an airtight jar. Stir a large spoonful into any dish requiring a nutritious, meaty hit. Or simply add to boiling water for a high-protein drink.
Locust powder stays fresh for up to two years, making it a favoured option for planning ahead while turning the adversity of a locust plague into a culinary opportunity.
In the sun-scorched village of Ambatovanda, in southwest Madagascar, the local children giggle and look on with curiosity as widowed farmer and mother of four Françoise Neka gently outlines each recipe. They whisper and nudge each other in wonder not only at the idea that their visitor does not know how to catch locusts (a sheet or mosquito net is best, as everyone in these parts knows, and if you dig a trench in the soil you can find them at the larval stage) but also that someone has gone through life never having tasted their favourite dish: “les criquets frits!” (fried crickets) they shout in unison when asked.
It was not by choice, however, that the people of this village of about 250 in the commune of Andranavory acquired a taste for insects. Their region of Atsimo Andrefana is at the epicentre of Madagascar’s locust plague – the worst this island nation has seen since the 1950s – which since June 2012 has destroyed up to 40 per cent of rice crops in 17 of the country’s 22 regions, and threatens the livelihoods of 13 million people.
Some four million of this former French colony’s 21 million population are food insecure, according to a joint study by United Nations agencies the World Food Programme and the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). The locust plague, coupled with the effects of cyclones, poor rains and erratic weather, has placed a further 9.6 million at risk of food insecurity.
Where the locusts get to the food crops first there remains little to eat but the insects themselves. And even though locusts provide five times more energy, weight for weight, than beef, says Justin Miha Haingondrainy, head of the evaluation unit of Madagascar’s National Anti-Locust Centre (NALC), the amount caught cannot compensate for the food losses incurred by the plague.
The swarms will likely arrive over Ambatovanda later this month when the rainy season, always late on this part of the island, gets under way. The villagers know what to expect. “They come in huge swarms, like big black clouds,” says 53-year-old farmer Philibert Maharanga, who is head of the village and a volunteer with the NALC. “Then they descend, and they keep eating until there’s nothing left. They even eat while they’re sleeping, and eliminate at the same time, without stopping. They don’t stop until everything is gone.”
The Malagasy migratory locust, which can reproduce for four generations and eat its own weight of 2-3g of food each day, is the main culprit. Within two days of the locusts’ arrival in this area last year, all 10 hectares of Maharanga’s corn crop had been stripped. “Nothing was left,” says the father of 20 (and husband to two wives) who in the past year has had to sell 10 of his 15 zébu, valuable hump-backed cattle, for his family’s survival.
In local Malagasy tradition it is a mark of shame to have to sell cattle, says Daniel Paul, who supervises the ToliaraSakaraha zone for the NALC. “This is a famine, and people have to do what they can to feed their families and stay alive. The world usually associates famine with drought – but here it is caused by the locusts.”
What the migratory locust doesn’t eat often gets consumed by the red nomadic locust, also present in this area. Any remaining food and cotton crops are vulnerable to destruction by cyclones. Neka (42), holding three-year-old daughter Marie on her lap, recalls how her five hectares of corn were gobbled up by the insects while her cassava crop, not a favourite of the migratory locust and so left behind, was later destroyed by cyclone Haruna last February.
“We were left with nothing,” she says stoically. “I go to the forest now and search for wild berries and fruit – cactus fruit, tamarinds, wild potatoes . . . anything to feed my family. And of course we eat the locusts.”
In October the Malagasy government, which declared a national disaster in late 2012, launched a $43.9 million (€32.4
million) three-year programme with the FAO involving aerial surveys to map locust populations and the spraying of more than two million hectares with pesticides. A funding gap of $17.7 million (€13 million) could, however, jeopardise the programme, the FAO has warned.
Farmers stress the importance of ensuring that locusts caught for food have not been sprayed with pesticides. “If they are dead, we don’t touch them – it’s too late,” says father of 12 Soja Marine (63), who lost two-thirds of his seven-hectare crop of corn to locusts last year in Ambatovanda. Conservationists criticise the use of such chemicals for their effects on rare insect and bird species in Madagascar’s biodiversity-rich national parks. Local officials concede that alternatives must be found.
“We cannot deny that these products have adverse effects” on animals and people, says NALC director John René Walson. “We need to find alternatives. And we need to focus on finding the positive aspects of this crisis – how we can turn it around and get solutions from it, such as finding new ways of cooking and storing locusts.”
His team is examining ways of using less harmful biopesticides more widely. The current campaign involves the use of a certain amount of biopesticides, according to the FAO’s response co-ordinator, Annie Monard. However, “biopesticides, despite obvious advantages for human health and the environment, are slow-acting pesticides and therefore incompatible with large-scale control operations over huge areas that have to be carried out quickly to protect cropping areas and successfully control a plague”.
Back in arid Ambatovanda, the rainy season is, as usual, overdue. Without rain the villagers’ crops of corn, rice, cassava, cotton and peanuts will not grow. When the rain comes, however, it will also bring the ideal humid conditions for locusts to reproduce.
“Either way, the people lose,” says Daniel Paul. “The rain is good for growing their crops – but it is also good for the locusts. This is life in Madagascar.”