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Argentina Battles a Plague of Locusts, Surging After Mild Winters

Farmers and officials are racing to get massive swarms under control

(Ingo Arndt/Minden Pictures/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

Argentine farmers are struggling to fight off the largest plague of locusts the South American country has seen in more than half a century. After several mild and rainy winters, locust populations surged at the end of 2015, leaving officials and farmers desperate to find ways to protect the country’s crops. But despite their best efforts, it might be too little, and too late, to eliminate the swarm.

Locusts have been a thorn in Argentine farmers' side for generations. One of Argentina’s oldest agricultural programs is a government project designed to fight locusts that was founded in 1891. While farmers have turned toward modern pest control methods over the years, some farmers still resort to traditional methods, like burning large bonfires, to drive off the insect swarms, Jonathan Gilbert reports for the New York Times. Nevertheless, over the last five years, the agricultural agency Senasa has reported increasing locust populations, culminating in the massive locust swarms reported throughout the country.

"It is a national scourge which directly affects crops, grazing fields and natural forests, and could be much worse if not controlled in the next 20 or 25 days," Juan Pablo Karnatz, secretary of the local agricultural group Confederación Rural Argentina, tells Diego Yañez Martínez for the newspaper La Nación.

Farmers have had a few lucky years relatively free of locusts. But the country has had several unseasonably warm and wet winters, perfect for the destructive insects to breed. Once locusts hatch, they can quickly grow up to two inches long and devour two to three grams of food every day. A recent outbreak last June saw a cloud of locusts about three miles wide and six miles long consume almost six square miles of crops in just a few days, Kari Paul writes for Motherboard. So far, the locusts reported are too young to fly, but fumigators only have about 10 days to kill them before the insects grow strong enough to travel.

“It’s the worst explosion in the last 60 years,” Diego Quiroga, Senasa’s chief of vegetative protection, tells Gilbert. “It’s impossible to eradicate; the plague has already established itself. We’re just acting to make sure it’s the smallest it can be and does the least damage possible.”

Experts say the warm weather contributed to the locusts’ resurgence, but there isn’t enough information available for scientists to determine whether or not it is a result of climate change.  Many farmers blame Senasa for its lax spraying policies under former President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, Gilbert reports.

Right now, fumigators are trying to hunt down clutches of young locusts before they can fly and swarm, but if the locusts become airborne, the government will be forced to rally aircrafts to spray them with pesticides from above—a more complex operation.

“We don’t know exactly where we’re at,” Karnatz tells Gilbert. “We may have contained some pockets, but it’s not a definitive victory.”

About Danny Lewis

Danny Lewis is a multimedia journalist working in print, radio, and illustration. He focuses on stories with a health/science bent and has reported some of his favorite pieces from the prow of a canoe. Danny is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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