Millions of invading caterpillars have forced thousands of Bong County residents to flee their homes and the situation is “getting worse”, according to county superintendent Rennie Jackson.
The caterpillars, also known as army worms, have destroyed crops, entered houses and contaminated water sources with their faeces, local authorities say.
“The situation is getting worse,” Jackson said. “Most drinking water sources, including creeks and wells, have been polluted with the faeces of the worms. The number of affected people is in the thousands.”
Authorities in Bong County, 150km from the capital Monrovia, held emergency meetings on 20 January and are scheduled to meet with representatives from international organisations on 21 January. Agriculture Minister Christopher Toe has appealed to the international community to help fight the infestation.
Representatives from the ministries of agriculture, health and internal affairs and Liberia’s Environmental Protection Agency are assessing the extent of the damage in Bong County alongside experts from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
The caterpillars invaded Sanoyea District of Bong County on 15 January, rapidly spreading to Zota and Suakoko districts, invading an estimated 31 villages, according to county superintendent Jackson.
Army worms are caterpillars that eventually develop into nocturnal moths. In their larval stage they can be very destructive, attacking cereals and grazing land. This is the first major invasion of the insects in Liberia, according to an 18 January statement by the Agriculture Ministry.
Hundreds of hundreds of villagers were witnessed fleeing in vehicles and on foot to Bong County’s capital Gbarnga, where people are sheltering with extended family members or in public buildings.
Farmers say they will lose their crops to the caterpillars. Farmer Eric Kollie, who returned to Liberia from Guinea to farm his land in 2007, was in tears as he said: “I saw caterpillars eating up my cassava farms and I am in pain as all of my efforts [of] last year have gone in vain.”
“The caterpillars are destroying the rice farms that we were about to harvest,” said a 50-year-old woman. “There is nowhere to go as the caterpillars are still entering our homes.”
“The government really has to come to the rescue of the residents as the situation is getting worse by the day,” said Joe Urey, chief of Zota District. “So far 15 major rice farms have been destroyed by the army worms.”
After Lofa County, Bong County is Liberia’s most important food-producing area, growing much of the country’s cassava, eddoes, plantains, bananas and potatoes, according to the Agricultural Ministry.
Entomologists from the Agriculture Ministry have travelled to Bong County to spray affected areas with insecticide but they do not have enough spray, according to Agricultural Minister Toe.
“Additional insecticides, motorised sprayers and other protective gear are urgently needed to combat the situation,” Toe confirmed on 20 January.