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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.

George Carner’s interview was conducted by John Pielemeier on May 23, 2018.

Read Geroge Carner’s full oral history HERE.

Drafted by Aaron Wheeler

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Excerpts:

“Their proposed plan was to have four DC-7s [airplanes] do blanket spraying over the infested areas…”

The Problem and the Plan: I arrived in Senegal in the summer of ’86. I must have been in Dakar all of six weeks when Sarah Jane got a call from the Minister of Agriculture, Famara Sana. He said we have a big problem; we have a locust infestation that is beginning to explode which is devouring farmers’ fields and everything in sight.

They spent three days roaming around the Peanut Basin, came back, and confirmed that there were baby locusts marching all over the area in big swaths, crossing the roads and fields, and even farmers’ houses. Sarah Jane got the program office to prepare a disaster declaration and give the Ambassador the first $25,000 walking-around money to quickly start efforts to fumigate until we could assess what else could be done. That small amount of money was enough to signal that we took the locust threat seriously.

Shortly thereafter we brought out a team from OFDA (Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance) of entomologists [otherwise known as bug specialists] and disaster response experts…. The OFDA team looked at the results and saw how serious the infestation was, and then came up with a response plan. Their proposed plan was to have four DC-7s [airplanes] do blanket spraying over the infested areas in swaths of 77,000 hectare. [Mission Director] Sarah Jane and the Ambassador reviewed it and the Minister of Agriculture, who was thrilled, approved it.

Within three weeks, OFDA had contracted a company out of Phoenix, Arizona that had a lot of experience spraying forest fires to come out to Senegal and begin spraying operations…. We had four of these planes with a crew of four—a pilot, a co-pilot, a navigator. They had an engineer for maintenance who was the vice-president of the company. Even the president of the company came to visit at the outset. I assume this was a big contract for them. They started operations. This was an enormous operation by Senegal standards; this was aerial spraying on a large scale. They would fly high to get to the site then drop down to 150 feet, which was pretty impressive to see—a four-engine DC-7 with booms spraying Malathion [an insecticide] over farmers’ fields at that altitude.

“You guys, avoid Touba. If you get anywhere near it…”

Challenge #1: The first challenge was keeping the Ambassador abreast and comfortable with what we were doing. Our Ambassador, Lannon Walker, a very charismatic fellow who spoke Wolof as well as French and had a lot of contacts not just in government but in society, including the Muslim brotherhoods led by imams, who were the religious figures in Senegal. These imams had disciples and ran the mosques. They had a strong influence and even control in many rural areas, especially in the Peanut Basin. Their religious capital was Touba. The Ambassador was concerned that these planes not fly over Touba and start dropping pesticide on the imams and their religious sites.

Clearly, one of the real challenges of a mission director is gaining the trust and confidence of one’s ambassador and forming a partnership. Not a subordinate role, but a partner that allows the mission director to play a leadership role in the development arena and allows the ambassador to exercise his or her leadership and control of the overall relationship with the host country. A strong partnership between a director and an ambassador can advance U.S. foreign policy and our development objectives; that’s key.

I went out to Yoff airport where our team had set up a command center with the Senegalese military. The planes were dispatched every day based on maps with the coordinates for spraying. The team included entomologists who helped identify the priority areas. The planes only had enough spray to go once or maybe twice over the same area and then come home. As I said earlier, they laid down swaths over 77,000 ha. a day. I took a big red marker and put a big red circle around Touba on the map and said, “You guys, avoid Touba. If you get anywhere near it, turn off your booms and this way we will keep good relations with our Ambassador, and that’s in your interest as well as ours.” To their credit, there was never an incident of any misdirected
pesticide.

“The French began to badmouth our operations and say it wouldn’t work…”

Challenge #2: The second challenge we had was the French, who were really upset at being upstaged by the Americans. The French had a specialized locust center in Montpellier. They knew everything there was to know not only about Senegalese locusts but about migratory desert locusts in the Sahel as well. So these folks were upset that the Senegalese government had not called on them.

I think in the end what the French were most upset about was that we were using American-made Malathion; in the past they had been using French-made pesticides. There was a lot of profit in pesticides for the donor country’s suppliers. The result was that the French began to badmouth our operations and say it wouldn’t work, sneering that we were taking a typical American cowboy approach to things.

Of course, it didn’t take long for operations on this scale to catch the attention of the media. The fact that I spoke French meant that pretty soon I became the spokesman for the operation answering local and international media questions. I was getting phone calls from French TV and radio in the middle of the night after having worked all day on the operations; they were concerned: “we hear you’ve mounted this environmentally damaging locust spraying operation.” So I was able to correct the record in French.

“We were meeting as a donor community every two or three days for two hours at a time…”

Challenge #3: The third challenge was every donor active in Senegal wanted to do something. This was the emergency of the day. The French wanted to do things on the donor level, leaving aside the politics of it. Pretty soon it fell to the U.S. to lead the donor coordination group…. Having been responsible for donor coordination in Africa/DP I was much more positive about it, so it fell to me to handle all the donor coordination. We were meeting as a donor community every two or three days for two hours at a time, each describing what they were prepared to provide, what aid was on its way, and then discussing how best to coordinate and complement each other, etcetera.

Fortunately, the Canadians were mobilized and very active because they had a long relationship with Senegal as a Francophone country. They had a fully staffed Canadian CIDA (Canadian International Development Agency) mission. The director, Carol Voyer, a Québécquoise, was very clear-headed and practical. We had a very good relationship and quickly found common ground.

The other problem we had with the donors was that some of them, particularly the European Commission (EC), the French and the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) were fielding entomologists of their own. It turned out that their soil scientists and entomologists had different taxonomies for describing different aspects of the evolution of locusts. So the biggest problem wasn’t coordinating the donor heads or donor representatives around the table but dealing with technical conflicts when you had entomologists from one donor and ours going out together and not agreeing on what they were seeing or at least using differing terminology to describe it.

“They tried to lighten the plane by releasing some of the pesticide, but it wasn’t enough.”

           
A DC-7C aircraft, similar to the ones used to disperse pesticides in Senegal before crashing. | Akradecki | Wikimedia Commons
A DC-7C aircraft, similar to the ones used to disperse pesticides in Senegal before crashing. | Akradecki | Wikimedia Commons

Tragedies Strike: The plane crews did a superb job for about five weeks going out on daily sorties. They were very well liked by the farmers. After about a couple of weeks of runs, when the planes flew over at low altitude the farmers would wave at them because the Malathion not only killed the locusts, it killed the mosquitoes and every other crawling bug; so they were delighted. It was killing the malaria carrying mosquitoes, as well, which was a major health problem in Senegal…. I can tell you, one of those big planes flying at 150 feet above the scrublands was thrilling—you can see the farmers’ smiles!

And then tragedy struck. One morning the four planes were going out to spray at dawn, probably in late September. The weather was calm and clear. Maybe a bit of smoke from the household fires. The sea was calm too so you could hardly see where land ended and the sea started. One of the four planes on takeoff developed a fire in one of its engines, and the crew got so taken up with trying to put the fire out, that they thought they were higher than they were.

In fact they hadn’t gained enough altitude, they’d got behind the power curve. They tried to lighten the plane by releasing some of the pesticide, but it wasn’t enough. The plane just plopped down on the ocean, not far from the airport. The heavy plane sank to the bottom quickly.

Two local fisherman dove down, went into the plane, checked on the pilot and co-pilot who were dead and saw that the engineer was still alive; they pulled him out, brought him up to the surface, resuscitated him, and he lived to tell the tale, after a short stay in the hospital.

Of course, this put a pall on the whole operation. Around that time, Sarah Jane got really ill and had to be evacuated to the States, starting to fight the cancer that would ultimately take her away. So it fell to me to coordinate the aftermath with the embassy—thank goodness for the embassy’s help; the Ambassador said: “You have to help the plane crews and make the funeral arrangements, get out there and do whatever is needed.”

Coordinating with the embassy, we issued press releases, we contacted the company in Arizona and the families—I called people directly. We held a local funeral service. We made repatriation arrangements for the deceased. I went out to the airport to console the other crews. It was a big tragedy for everybody.

When we had taken care of all these arrangements, we put together a thank-you ceremony for the two heroic fishermen who saved the engineer; the engineer, the Ambassador and I were on hand (Sarah Jane had been medevaced). We gave the two fishermen two big brand-new outboard motors which made them very happy… And delivered speeches thanking them in front of their neighbors.

After Senegal, there was a major desert locust infestation in Morocco, Algeria, the southern parts of Tunisia and into Sudan…. We had pretty much zapped all the Senegalese locusts (which are not migratory) and they were no longer a threat in Senegal, so Morocco asked if the three remaining planes could open up operations in Morocco to spray desert locusts which were already hatching. They wanted to stop their maturing in Morocco before they flew east. So the crews wrapped up their operations with us and left.

They were flying at low altitude over the disputed Western Sahara when a band of Polisario fighters saw this plane and decided to shoot at it with their rifles. As fate would have it, they shot one of them down. (The Polisario were fighting for independence from Morocco.) So a second plane and crew were lost in the service of USAID locust operations. Talk about a sad, sad experience for a contractor going overseas. I heard that news when I was in Tunisia.

TABLE OF CONTENTS HIGHLIGHTS

Education
BA in International Affairs, University of North Carolina 1963–1965
MA in International Affairs, George Washington University 1967–1971
Joined USAID 1971
Kabul, Afghanistan—Assistant Program Officer 1976–1979
Dakar, Senegal—Deputy Director 1986–1988
Tunis, Tunisia—Director 1988–1991