The reactionary way in which the Uganda government responded to the locust threat, which involved marginalising technical and professional personnel and using the military against the invaders – real or imagined – motivated me to write this article.
The lack of experience with locusts has meant there are no professional and technical skills other than those associated with the use of dangerous chemicals against those invaders. Besides, it has meant narrowing of essential dimensions of consideration and action to two: political and military, both unable to think and do beyond spraying the invaders.
This article argues that locusts have given us a warning that we should stop sleeping and start taking long-term political and financial look at the locust challenge before another series of massive locust plagues ravage East Africa in general and Uganda in particular.
At the moment we have no category of people known as locust experts. We have to train Ugandans to become locust experts. It is not enough to have insect (entomology) experts or ecologists or environmentalists or conservationists. These are important to have but cannot effectively manifest as locust experts.
The threat of locusts has exposed our lack of preparedness, the low priority given to research and training in Uganda, inadequate collection and use of data on locusts in areas of the Sahel and elsewhere, where the desert locust and other locusts are, or have been, a menace. During the current talk and action on the locust invaders of Kenya and Uganda there has been virtually no reference to such data. There has been poor coordination and missed opportunities in the early stages of the buildup of the locust menace. As a result the Uganda government has allocated and spent, or wasted, billions of shillings on emergency, not long-term measures. All the emergency measures have focused on spraying the locust invaders.
There is need for government to work closely with different relevant agencies and the universities and perhaps the Nile Basin Initiative, which have been silent during the current locust invasion of Kenya and Uganda, to ensure there is adequate support and research to maintain continuity of concern and support for efforts to contain future plagues. This must begin as soon as the locust menace recedes.
The locust menace in Kenya and Uganda, particularly the latter, has brought to the fore the truism that there has been reduced interest in environmental and ecological approaches to pest management, let alone practical research in agriculture and pure research.
However, it has become clear in Uganda that even if we had adequate research generating adequate data the current political dynamics in the country would prefer military approach to locusts, the same way it is approaching almost every issue in the country, particularly agriculture, water and fisheries. Consideration of alternative methods of prevention and control has been totally squeezed out of political decision-making.
The political choice of overreliance on the expensive emergency crop protection tactics, greatly impregnated with military tactics, is a short-term measure with almost no value on long-term control of future locust invasions. What is necessary now is to begin monitoring locust populations (in this case nymphs and eggs, which the locusts may have left behind) and using a range of pest management methods to control them.
It is absolutely important that we take the locust challenge or problem as a development issue. If we do, then we accept that it is not just a political, technical or military issue, but a multi-pronged one: policy, institutional, social, economic, cultural, environmental, ecological and ethical-moral issue. This way, when a military, technical and political approach is taken we must ask:
1. What would be the value added if all other dimensions of the problem were taken into account”?
2. What is the ethics and morality of adopting just a political and military approach?
3. What would be the value deducted if we ignore the cultural, social and land tenure systems in the areas invaded by the locusts?
4. And if famine emerged in the wake of the locust invasion, how would we marry all the dimensions to combat it instead of relying on good handouts from the World Food Programme?
But is there a relationship between locust attack and famine? All these will now need to be studied.
At the same time, we should remember that some people will argue, and do argue, that there is no need to develop locust control measures. They base their argument on the fact that locust plagues are naturally occurring phenomena, which both develop and collapse through self-regulatory processes. This school of thought, however, ignores the reality of localised effects of locus invasions. It also ignores the considerable potential of improved control and prevention measures; especially the holistic one, which takes all dimensions of the locust problem in account. With the upsurge of locusts in our lifetime, pest management must be taken more seriously in an anticipatory rather than reactionary manner.
There is need for reliable information using remote-sensing methodology. This could be achieved by combining national, regional and international efforts. East African Community and the Nile Basin Initiative have a new role here, away from concentration on large infrastructure development and simply economic development. A well-developed and established information base on locusts would be an opportune asset for the people of Uganda, Kenya, East Africa and the Nile Basin. It is quite possible Ethiopia has made a headway in this direction.
In the meantime, the universities should get interested in improving our understanding of the biology of locusts, perhaps with cooperation of East African Community, Nile Basin Initiative, IGAAD, UNDP and FAO.
The issue of pesticides remains central to pest management. It is an easy choice yet dangerous in multiple ways. Often the pesticides chosen for use are the most dangerous, not only to pests but also their enemies, plants, soils, domestic and wild animals and humans. The beneficiaries are the pesticides firms and those who make decisions to use the pesticides. Yet these are likely only to harm the adult insects but not the eggs.
Research into other technologies will be useful. But this must be combined with training and adequate budgetary allocation to fighting locusts now and in future.
NGOs too will have a big role to play, popularising new and less dangerous approaches, raising awareness about locusts and pesticides, proposing policy guidelines especially towards minimising use of pesticides, and expanding the national budget for agriculture and research, et cetera.
Lastly, the threat of locusts requires that we take the issues of accountability, transparency and open-mindedness seriously. The issues of funding, training, spending and others all require these virtues. Open-mindness is critical in ensuring that people can demand to know what is going on rather than wait to be told anything just to convince them. The issues of time, energy and money must be taken seriously as the most critical resources in locust control. All these are critical in scientific research, technical work, decision-making, collaboration, priotising and policy-making.
Currently a lot of time, energy and money are being spent in political schemes to ensure power retention by those in power. Patriotism requires that most of the time, energy and money being spent that way is redirected into productive activities.
I hope the article will trigger meaningful debate.
- A Tell report / By Prof Oweyegha-Afunaduula, a former professor in the Department of Environmental Sciences of the Makerere University, Uganda