Opinion | Problematic perceptions of a growing desert locust plague

A recent investigation into the devastating desert locust outbreak spreading across East Africa has led me to some troublesome conclusions on the problematic nature of media coverage on Africa in the United States. (Adam Matan/Creative Commons)

Right now, Africa is facing the most severe outbreak of locusts in decades, and the forecast for the damage they pose is unprecedented. Desert locusts are the most deadly of all the locust species — in a single day they are able to consume their entire body weight in food. 

Hanging like “shimmering dark clouds on the horizon,” these catastrophic swarms can reach the size of Moscow, eating and destroying everything in sight. The locusts are a product of extreme weather swings, and pose deadly consequences for the people who rely on the crops they feed on. Their rapidly increasing numbers are likely to present “an unprecedented threat to food security and livelihoods in the Horn of Africa,” as illustrated by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization on Jan. 29. 

A swarm of desert locusts, like those shown here in a 2014 photo from Satrokala, Madagascar, can destroy — in one day — as many crops as could feed 2,500 people. (Creative Commons)

Kenya hasn’t had a locust outbreak to this magnitude in 70 years, and it is the worst that Somalia and Ethiopia have seen in 25 years. A typical desert locust swarm contains 150 million locusts per square kilometer, which is hard to imagine, but on average can destroy enough crops in one day that would have fed 2,500 people

What are the regional implications? 

The impacts of these swarms are immense, but also vary greatly depending on the region. The regions currently affected by the outbreak stretch across the Horn of Africa, so far reaching Ethiopia, Somalia, and Northeast Kenya. Some say that the locusts have traveled from as far as Yemen. However, if favorable breeding conditions persist, the U.N. fears these swarms could reach over 30 additional countries in Africa and Asia. South Sudan and Uganda are already bracing for their arrival, as predictions show that “current numbers could grow 500 times by June.”

Unsurprisingly, scientists have declared a clear culprit: climate change. Nairobi-based climate scientist Abubakr Salih Babiker stated that 2019 was one of the wettest years on record due to rapidly increasing water temperatures in the Indian Ocean. Warmer ocean temperatures furthermore caused an unusually high number of tropical cyclones off of Africa, providing the perfect conditions for locust breeding. 

Tom Twining-Ward, a senior technical advisor for the United Nations Development Program with expertise in climate change adaptation (and, full disclosure, the author's father), said “historically, the most important natural factor controlling populations of locusts is the weather,” and that “the current invasion in East Africa is no doubt intensified by climatic changes that are neither caused nor fully understood by the local farmers.”

Another challenge is that the only effective method to battle the insects is by the aerial spraying of pesticides, which is not only very expensive, but difficult to implement in many regions due to military presence. It’s also dangerous: for livestock, farmers, and the environment alike. 

So what should be done? A previous outbreak from 2003 to 2005 in Northern Africa cost more than $500 million to control and more than $2.5 billion in harvest losses. Are big organizations and donors willing to step up and fund these efforts? 

Twining-Ward also highlighted that “while the focus in the medium- to long-term should be on coping measures and adaptation to climate change, there is an urgent need for donors to address the significant drop in agricultural output in the region, and provide the necessary resources to address food shortages and hunger in the affected countries.”

Unfortunately most media coverage of the swarms are focusing predominantly on the disastrous effects and implications of the swarms, rather than proposing realistic solutions for controlling them.

A call for action, not a plea for help

The urgency of the situation has not been talked about nearly enough. Now that the U.N. has shared its serious concerns, and Somalia has declared a national emergency, news media is beginning to give the story a bit more attention, but not enough to reflect that this may very well affect millions of people. Photographs have been an effective way to give people abroad some perspective. Pictures and videos show hundreds of millions of locusts’ darkening horizons for miles, forming dense, ravenous, clouds. 

But, as with what has been written in the articles themselves, the pictures in the media portray reoccurring themes of devastation and helplessness: crops wilted, farmers in distress banging on metal pots and pans while whistling, using whatever means they have to scare away the locusts. 

A chromolithograph of locusts from the 1800s, by Emil Schmidt. (Creative Commons)

As a concerned environmentalist and humanist, the lack of action and attention to combat this crisis is even more disappointing, especially when recalling the media attention and public outcry in response to the shocking Australian wildfires. The comparison between coverage, and lack thereof, between the two emergencies is tragic, especially considering the impactful role that the media has in helping create action and awareness —  information that could benefit the countries in need.

I can’t help blaming the tendencies of certain media to make untrue generalizations and to portray Africans as helpless or as careless perpetrators of an environmental crisis, while negating the relevant historical factors that have contributed to the environmental vulnerability of many Africans. 

One aspect of the stories told about African countries — particularly the environmental ones — that I think often goes undiscussed, is that much of this vulnerability is in fact due to legacies left behind by colonial development policies. Let us remember that all countries south of the Sahara, excluding Liberia, have at some point been under European colonial rule, and these structures significantly contributed to the uneven development felt in regions today. African countries dominated by colonial rule were impacted by policies that often promoted unsuitable and environmentally damaging agricultural systems, polluted industrial sectors, furthered inadequate workers rights, disrupted ecosystems and communities with big infrastructure projects, created violent arguments over land dispossession, and so on. 

Exasperation steadily accumulated the more that I investigated this story, reading articles scattered with fragments of outdated stereotypes and tropes, but lacking in relevant historical factors that inevitably impact the severity of the locust outbreak. It is unfair not to consider the geographical, geopolitical, and historical ramifications that have shaped, and that will continue to shape, the way these events unfold. 

I sincerely hope that somehow perceptions sculpted by the mainstream media will begin to fade, as people rely more heavily on local and regional news sources. It is our own duty as consumers of media to expect stories that tell the whole story, and to call out discrepancies when we see them. We should expect equal coverage of stories that tell both the triumphs and tragedies. I hope that the tendencies to depict environmental disasters in vulnerable regions will shift from focusing solely on the crisis and its negative consequences, to more on the solutions that can be implemented to mitigate them.

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