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Senegal’s Locust Plague in the late 1980s

The year is 1986. A Senegalese farmer walks out in his field a short while after the drought season has ended and the rains have come. As he enters his crops, the field yields before him, bending as in the wind. But there is no wind. Instead, there are countless locusts that part before him like the Red Sea, but not after leaving his only source of income devastated.

A swarm of locusts, not unlike those that tear across Senegal and other regions of Africa, in Tel-Aviv, Israel in 2004. | Niv Singer | Wikimedia Commons
A swarm of locusts, not unlike those that tear across Senegal and other regions of Africa, in Tel-Aviv, Israel in 2004. | Niv Singer | Wikimedia Commons

This disaster occurs frequently in West Africa, and a USAID [United States Agency for International Development] Deputy Director George Carner was tasked with solving this locust infestation in Senegal.

Swarms of locusts are relatively common occurrences in many parts of Africa. The effects of locusts in Senegal can be better understood if examined on a ten year cycle. During the drought periods of about seven years, the locust eggs lie dormant underground. But as the few years of rain return, the larvae emerge, consume everything in sight, and lay eggs for the next generation, perpetuating the cycle. When George Carner arrived in Senegal in the summer of 1986, so did the wet season and the accompanying locusts. After rapid responses from entomologists and disaster relief experts, Carner concluded this was an issue that must be addressed immediately. In this “Moment in U.S. Diplomatic History,” we see that in just two short years, Carner did so by successfully coordinating government contractors to spray much of Senegal with pesticides while balancing the political, religious, and health consequences of such a plan. What’s more impressive, this plan still proved effective in the face of tragedy for his team and the contractors. Read more