SOCIETY: WHEN THE LOCUSTS ATTACK

October 27, 2019

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A villager burns twigs and branches to repel insects with smoke | Photos by the writer
A villager burns twigs and branches to repel insects with smoke | Photos by the writer

This year’s monsoon showers initially brought with them a feeling of jubilation to Umerkot and Thar. Locals rejoiced the breaking of the three-year-long dry spell in the region and immediately got to work, farming from dawn to dusk. In the recent past, the drought had forced some locals to leave their homes and migrate to other areas. Now it finally felt like the Thari’s troubles were behind them. They took a sigh of relief, expecting a decent crop yield. Little did they know that nature had other plans.

As the rains came to an end, millions of locusts swarmed the fields of food crops and fodder. Along with leaves, grasses and shrubs, the pests destroyed crops that the Tharis would have cashed in on for food supplies as well as for business.

For the past few weeks, the areas of Chachro, Dahli, Nagarparkar and other parts of Thar district lie infested by yellow locusts, causing farmers to lose sleep.

Swarms of locusts in the Thar region are threatening Tharis’ livelihood and livestock

Sixty-year-old Girdhari, who belongs to Bhadari, a village situated some 25 kilometres away from Chachro taluka, has been arriving in his farm early every day. A dozen of his family members, including women and children accompany him. They drum bins and light bonfires to create smoke and scare the locusts away. But just as one swarm flies away, another appears.

Girdhari’s three grand-daughters also try to drive away the locusts. They put stones inside bottles and shake them vigorously, creating a noise as they move through the cultivated fields. While the young ones seem to be enjoying the process, Girdhari does not share their excitement. “There seems to be no end to this menace,” he tells Eos.

Swarms of locusts can be seen on fields in Chachro and other areas in Tharparkar
Swarms of locusts can be seen on fields in Chachro and other areas in Tharparkar

THE INFESTATION

The desert locust is an invasive species that is both well-known and feared because of the large-scale agricultural damage it can cause. It is closely monitored to prevent the risks of outbreaks and invasions.

Explaining the life cycle of locusts, Kiltar Gul, an agriculture expert, says that moist soil and moderate temperature is conducive to their reproduction. “These pests have attacked mostly the bajra (millet) crop and partially the mung bean and cluster beans,” he says.

Villagers have been closely observing the patterns of the insects and have theories of their own. “It is almost 5pm and it is their time to breed,” says Kanji, a teacher and farmer from Bheriyon Bheel. “This is what we have observed in the last five days. The female locusts will lay eggs on the ground, creating small holes in the desert land,” he says pointing out that there are thousands of such holes.

A young Thari man swings rope to create a vibration and scare away locusts
A young Thari man swings rope to create a vibration and scare away locusts

In more than 15 villages in taluka Dahli, Nagarparkar and the bordering villages of district Umerkot, thousands of locusts can be seen flying in the sky, while more sit on the fields. “If they are not controlled soon, they will destroy all our crop as well as grass and leaves,” Gul warns.

Older farmers have dealt with similar infestations before.

Mangal, a 50-year-old man who belongs to village Amarhar in talka Umerkot, remembers similar locust attacks in 1999. “White locusts had eaten all the leaves but the crop had been spared,” he recalls. Back then the farmers were able to beat the pests with help from the government, he says. “The government had run a timely campaign and poisonous powder was sprayed through a helicopter.”

CALLS FOR ATTENTION

The infestation has caught media attention, like it did a decade ago. But locals feel they are being misrepresented this time around. Some news reports are focusing on rumours that the Tharis have prepared several kinds of dishes from the locusts as they are highly nutritious. But the villagers of Amarhar deny this. “We have only been busy trying to save our crop which is an exhausting ordeal,” says Girdhari. Indeed, in the region it feels like the villagers have lost their appetites and sleep.

Yellow locusts flying on the grassland in surrounding areas of Chachro, Tharparkar
Yellow locusts flying on the grassland in surrounding areas of Chachro, Tharparkar

Locusts threaten not only the Thari’s harvest, but also their livestock. With the rains, the Tharis thought they will be able to grow fodder for their goats, sheep, cows and camels. But since the locusts have attacked, the villagers are left with no fodder for their animals. “Our animals refuse to eat grass, leaves and fodder as the pests leave behind an odour that the animals don’t like,” says Mangal. “If we can’t feed them, our livestock will die.”

Mangal says that he has invested around 40,000 rupees on 10 acres of land, which is a sizeable sum for a farmer in Thar. “We are one and a half month late in harvesting our crop,” he says. “If the government doesn’t take immediate action, we may lose our entire crop.”

Teekam Das Jugtani, additional director of the livestock extension department does not think the situation is as dire as the villagers believe. “It is not a critical situation yet in Thar,” he says. “Not that much crop has been harmed by the locusts.” Nonetheless, he says, the federal protection department is arranging three spray machines for multiple villages of Chachro, Dahli, and Nagarparkar tehsils.

While some believe the answer is the agriculture department spraying the affected areas from helicopters, others also question the effectiveness of the sprays.

The same situation prevails in the ‘white desert’ of district Sanghar, where locusts have harmed crops in areas such as Kamil Hingoro, Ranak Dahar, Banko Chanihyun and Ronjho, says Kapil Dev Guriro, a social activist. “The district government has sprayed on locusts in the area but despite that there has been a huge loss in crops and grass,” he says.

The farmers are trying everything they can but they worry they are fighting a losing battle. “Only millet straw remains, leaves and grains have been eaten by locusts,” says Kanji, who was convinced that this year’s yield will allow him to pay off a loan he had taken out earlier. “This is devastating for my family and everyone is worried,” he says. He now does not even know how he will recover the expenses he has made during the cultivation, let alone make a profit.

The writer is a photojournalist and tweets at @genanimanoj

Published in Dawn, EOS, October 27th, 2019