An area covering 700,000 hectares (1.7 million acres) in northern Argentina has become overrun with a locust infestation unlike any that the country has seen in over half a century. The cause of the plague is currently an issue of hot debate, with some pointing to climate change as the spark for the sudden explosion of insects, while others blame government complacency, saying insufficient effort was made to nip the problem in the bud when population numbers began to rise last year.
Rural Confederations of Argentina – an organization representing around 100,000 farmers – recently reported (in Spanish) sightings of swarms measuring 7 kilometers (4.3 miles) in length and 3 kilometers (1.9 miles) in depth. Considering each locust can eat its own body weight every day, the sheer numbers involved in these swarms could ravage local crops.
Locusts have long posed a threat to northern Argentina. Farmers in the region have had to battle against infestations for several centuries, with one particularly catastrophic plague wiping out 75 percent of the corn harvest in the state of Santa Fe in 1875. While pest control measures have advanced over the years, unseasonal weather events can still have a dramatic effect on locust populations, often giving them the upper hand – which could explain the current infestation.
In November of last year, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations warned of an impending locust surge in the Middle East and North Africa, after unusually heavy rainfall and warm temperatures associated with El Niño created optimal conditions for the bugs to thrive.
According to FAO senior locust forecasting officer Keith Cressman, “Extreme weather events, including torrential downpours, have the potential to trigger a massive surge in locust numbers. Rain provides moist soil for the insects to lay their eggs, which in turn need to absorb water, while rains also allow vegetation to grow which locusts need for food and shelter.”
The recent southern-hemisphere winter was the third warmest on record in Argentina, and the wettest since 1932, which could well explain the current locust plague. Large numbers of the insects first began to appear in the north of the country in June – as can be seen in the video below – sparking fears of an impending infestation of unprecedented proportions.
Many are now blaming the administration of then-president Cristina Kirchner, who is accused of not taking recent warnings – such as that issued by the FAO – seriously enough. Whether or not the current situation could have been avoided by taking stronger action last year is unknown, although attention is now turning to what can be done to bring the country’s worst locust plague in 60 years under control.
Fumigation teams have managed to identify and exterminate 60 breeding sites, killing the locusts while in their infant stage, before they develop the ability to fly. This phase of their lifespan is thought to last about ten days, providing a window of opportunity for the authorities to terminate them before they form into swarms. However, since much of the terrain in the affected areas is inaccessible, it is not possible to know how many other breeding sites may exist.