Tens of millions of caterpillars have invaded more than 80 towns and villages in central and northern Liberia, preventing some farmers from reaching their fields and causing others to flee their homes. The inch-long insects – the caterpillar life stage of the noctuid moth – have also spread to neighboring Guinea and are threatening Sierra Leone, which has set up monitoring teams along its border.
The outbreak began in central Liberia, and was set off by the unusually long rainy season. Regarded as one of the most destructive agricultural pests in the world, the caterpillars were first found in forest plantations and then spread to farms, devouring banana, coffee, cassava, rice and other vegetable crops.
The pests are capable of completely destroying a crop within days, after which they travel to another field during the night. While the creatures present no direct threat to humans, the scale of their invasion has caused panic among villagers.
With the caterpillars threatening some of the country’s most productive land, the country’s president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, has appealed to the international community for financial and logistical help in dealing with the plague, which she said had ‘the potential to set back our progress in the production of food and export crops’.
Struggling to recover from years of civil war, and hard hit by the global food price rises last year, Liberia is particularly sensitive to food security issues. About 90 percent of the local staple, rice, is imported and sharp price increases have made local cereal production even more important.
One way to contain the spread of the caterpillars is via arial spraying, however the Food and Agriculture Organization has cautioned against this due to the danger of further contaminating water supplies – which are being spoiled by the caterpillars’ faeces.