Liberia Overwhelmed By Plague of Caterpillars

A massive plague continues to wreak havoc on agriculture in Liberia. The current infestation of catepillars has spread to more than 100 villages as officials struggle through attempts at solving the growing problem. Dr. Winfred Hammond, who works with the United Nations Food and Agriculture division, explains the bizarre plague.

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I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. In a moment, "Slumdog Millionaire" garnered 10 Academy Award nominations with a heart-rending story about three orphan street children, but now its very success is fueling a debate about exploitation and social responsibility. We'll have that conversation in just a few minutes.

But first, we're going to continue our international briefing. In Liberia, an invading army has displaced more than 20,000 people and devastated vital cash crops like coffee, cocoa and bananas. President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has declared a national state of emergency, and the United Nations warns of a threat to neighboring countries. But this is not the kind of army that carries guns. It's an infestation of caterpillars.

Here to tell us more is entomologist Winfred Hammond. He is the permanent representative in Liberia of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Dr. WINFRED HAMMOND (Permanent Representative, United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, Liberia): Thank you very much for having me on your program.

MARTIN: And Mr. Hammond, first, I have to say, I think it might be hard for many people to imagine caterpillars causing so much harm. How is this possible?

Dr. HAMMOND: They do because caterpillars depend on a lot of plants, green vegetation to grow and to develop. And so when they come in large numbers, then you have either three kinds of food crops that are in danger of being destroyed and causing famine when the situation is very severe. So caterpillars in general, which are also the developing stages, the young developing stages of moths and butterflies, special in this end(ph) to the agriculture, but you got to pay attention to them when they come in large numbers like we are experiencing in Liberia at the moment.

MARTIN: Where did this infestation come from? How does something like this start?

Dr. HAMMOND: Occasionally, when you have a prolonged rainy season, they come in large numbers, and when this is also interrupted, like say you have a dry spell and it's heavy rain, and let's say in sharp changes within the environment, within the weather changes, bring about these type of infestation. So they develop from the forest trees, one of which has been identified, the (unintelligible) tree, and then they move from there to plants, lower shrubs and lower plants and food crops, and then eventually cause damages to either cash crops, which is cocoa, coffee, banana plantain, or eventually they get onto food crops like rice, maize and other food crops.

MARTIN: So what can you do to bring this under control?

Dr. HAMMOND: There are two things to do in this our situation in Liberia. First, we need to do a proper evaluation of the extent of damage, which we are doing and we're coming to a conclusion on that by close of day today. Tomorrow, we have a regional meeting of experts to agree on the approach of first containing - what we call containing the pests, bringing the populations down by use of either chemical pesticides or biopesticides. These will depend on some of the rations in the field. But eventually, we need to put in place a surveillance - monitoring and surveillance system that even our rural community will be educated to the level where they can signal, give an early warning that there is trouble coming where they see certain sign.

MARTIN: That was going to be my final question is looking forward, is there anything that can be done to prevent infestations like this from happening in the future? I understand that there was a similar infestation in the '70s. Is there anything that can be done to keep this from happening again?

Dr. HAMMOND: What we need to do to prevent this happening in the future is what I was suggesting. A proper extension(ph) system, but more importantly, rural communities need to be educated because in many other parts of Africa, they have played a role in giving the same signal that, hey, we have a caterpillar, we have this, and we have that. They will be the ones who tell us to pay attention and come in quickly before the large populations of maybe a thousand or a million develop.

So, there was a kind of approach we believe that engages rural communities, build their capacities to be part of this control, but more importantly, the preventive aspects.

MARTIN: Dr. Winfred Hammond is an entomologist and the United Nations Food and Agriculture permanent representative in Liberia. He was kind enough to join us on the phone from Monrovia, the capital. Dr. Hammond, thank you so much, and good luck to you.

Dr. HAMMOND: You're welcome. Thank you very much for having me on your program.

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