Battling Namibia’s worst locust crisis
“We were expecting a plentiful harvest this year but the locust outbreak is threatening to undo our hard work,” said a visibly distressed Wilhem Asser.
Asser is a communal farmer in Elim, a rural settlement nestled in Namibia’s north central region of Omusati. The area has had its share of the invasion of the devastating African Migratory Locusts (AML) which first hit southern Africa in mid-2020 and which has been overshadowed by the Desert Locust emergency in eastern Africa.
“In all my 75 years of life I have never witnessed something as horrifying as this,” Asser said.
About 300 subsistence farming households in his area have been affected by these locusts that feed on grass, maize, millet, sorghum, wheat and other green vegetation. In all the affected regions, more than 5000 farming households are expected to be heavily impacted by the scourge.
All hands on deck to salvage livelihoods
It is 3:30am on a chilly Thursday morning in Elim when a team of agricultural extension officers clad in white overalls and black safety gumboots arrive in a convoy of pick-up trucks.
The officers hop from their vehicles and quickly join a delegation of senior officers from the government, the FAO Representative in Namibia and other officials from her office in a circle of bodies.
Their sense of haste is evident; there is clearly no time to waste. They are the front line fighting the locust enemy: a swarm is covering a one-kilometre stretch of grassland that serves as a grazing area for villagers’ livestock.
On their feet, the extension officers receive their early morning brief before embarking on their task.
Villages under siege
Elim is just one of the many villages joining a growing list of hundreds of locust-infested farming settlements in the north-central, north-eastern and southern parts of Namibia where thousands of local inhabitants are facing a serious threat to their livelihoods.
Like Asser, many villagers’ crop fields are under threat from the locust swarms and families are worried about the prospects of attaining a good harvest this year.
“Most farmers in this village feel helpless and powerless against the menacing locusts. They come in their thousands and quickly attempt to devour everything in their path that is green; we are very frightened by their viciousness,” said Absalom Nembenge, a communal farmer in Ekamba, located a few kilometres east of Elim.
Meanwhile, the farmers are trying everything from burning tires to making noise to try to chase away the pests.
“They (locusts) descended upon our crop field like a devastating cloud at around 4p.m. yesterday. I was highly alarmed and quickly called my wife and the children to join me in the field to ward them off. We spent an entire afternoon burning tires and banging metals, corrugated iron sheets and pots, to create noise that we hoped would scare the locusts off,” Absalom recounted.
Fighting the good fight
The government locust spraying teams are comprised of agricultural officers and members of the Namibia Defence Force (NDF), under the supervision of two committed women, Violet Simaata, Chief Agricultural Scientific Officer, and Paulina Shilunga, Agricultural Scientific Officer, in the Ministry of Agriculture, Water and Land Reform (MAWLR). They have been at the forefront of the locust control effort since it began last year and are reluctant to throw in the towel.
“We are the last line of defence for thousands of farmers across the country, which is no easy task but we remain committed to ensuring that livelihoods are not severely impacted,” Shilunga said.
The government has so far contributed 30 million Namibia dollars (USD 2.1 million) towards locust control efforts since the start of the outbreak. The government has indicated in its appeal that an additional N$28 million (USD 2 million) is needed to contain the pests.
Margaret Matengu, Head of the Plant Health Unit in the Directorate of Agricultural Production, Extension and Engineering Services (DAPEES) in MAWLR said that the fight against the African Migratory Locust can be won with adequate resources and collaboration from both the private and public sector to avert a major crisis.
Farayi Zimudzi, FAO Representative in Namibia, reiterated FAO’s continued commitment to support the efforts of the government to mount timely and effective control campaigns. She called on the donor community to invest in containing the locusts now to avoid the situation escalating into a humanitarian crisis.
“Only through collaborative effort can we overcome this serious threat to food security and the livelihoods of thousands of people,” she said.
Locusts in Southern Africa
The African Migratory Locust swarms have been ravaging crop fields and grazing lands across four countries in the region: Namibia, Zambia, Botswana and Zimbabwe. However, the pest has now spread across to other countries such as Angola and South Africa.
In Namibia, two other locust species – the Red Locust and the Brown Locust – are known to have swarmed and damaged grazing in southern parts of the country.
FAO support thanks to donors
To complement government efforts, FAO, through funding from the United Nations Central Emergency Fund (CERF), Special Fund for Emergency and Rehabilitation Assistance (SFERA) and the FAO Technical Cooperation Programme (TCP) has so far provided both technical and financial support of N$7 million (US$480 000) to the Government of Namibia since last year.
FAO support ensured that over 130 government staff were trained on how to control the locust outbreak and equipped with spraying and camping equipment, personal protective equipment, bio-pesticides, transportation, and locust surveillance and monitoring tools.
Despite these interventions, more funding is required to ensure that agricultural livelihoods are safeguarded in the immediate term by ensuring that the locusts are brought under control before the next planting season.