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It was first detected in Africa barely a year ago, yet the fall armyworm, a type of caterpillar whose name derives from its tendency to maraud in vast numbers, has already infested hundreds of thousands of hectares of maize across more than a dozen countries on the continent, presenting a serious threat to food security.
Spodoptera frugiperda is a formidable foe. Pesticides only work when the larvae are very small and before they have begun to cause visible damage to the crop. After that, there are no quick fixes.
The pest can cause crop losses of more than 70 percent.
In Zimbabwe, El Niño-induced droughts left four million people needing food aid during the 2015/2016 agricultural season. This year, good rains had raised hopes of a decent harvest, but now the fall armyworm is dashing them for many farmers.
Vavariro Mashamba, 51, hoped to harvest 10 tonnes of maize from each of the 20 hectares he planted in his farm in the Karoi district, in north-central Zimbabwe. But when he started to see ragged holes on the foliage of his crop and sawdust-like frass near the whorl and upper leaves of the plants, he knew he was in trouble. His best hope now is a yield of six or seven tonnes per hectare.
“At first I thought it was the African armyworm (Spodoptera exempta) that was damaging my crops. I bought Cabaryl pesticide and sprayed on the plants. There was no change. Instead, the worms continued to multiply in my field,” Mashamba told IRIN.
Experts from the Ministry of Agriculture visited his farm, but by then it was too late to eradicate the fall armyworm (The “fall” part of the name comes from the caterpillar’s feeding habits: In its native Americas, it does most damage in late summer and early autumn – or “fall” in US English. See here for more details).
Mashamba experimented with different pesticides, but to no avail.
According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, which held an emergency meeting on the pest in Harare in February, up to 130,000 hectares of maize and corn could already infested by fall armyworm in Zimbabwe, 90,000 in Zambia, and 50,000 in Namibia. It was first detected in Africa in Nigeria in January 2016 and its presence has also been confirmed in Botswana, Congo, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, South Africa, Swaziland, Togo, and Uganda.
Shingirayi Nyamutukwa, acting head of plant protection at the government’s Department of Research and Specialist Services, said all of Zimbabwe’s 10 provinces had reported being affected by the caterpillar but it was difficult to ascertain the extent of the damage to yields now as crops were at varying stages of growth.
“We started receiving reports that there was a pest causing damage on crops in October last year in Matabeleland North,” said Nyamutukwa, warning that most of the country’s 1.3 million hectares of land under maize cultivation was potentially at risk.
Zimbabwe Farmers Union Director Paul Zacariya said the country was ill-prepared for the arrival of fall armyworm.
“No information or warnings were given to notify farmers of the pest. As such, many farmers could not identify the pest and lacked the knowledge and requisite skills on how to contain the damages caused,” he told IRIN.
Food security threatened
Noting its stubborn resistance to available control methods, FAO Sub-regional Coordinator for Southern Africa David Phiri said he was worried “the pest could be here to stay”.
“The costs and implication of such a scenario are very serious indeed, as seen in places where the pest is endemic, like in Brazil where the government incurs control costs in excess of $600 million per annum,” he warned. “The implications for livelihoods and food security are also too serious to contemplate, and assessments have to be done to ascertain the damage caused.”
At the emergency meeting, the FAO advocated a countrywide response as part of a regional programme of integrated management of fall armyworm.
“Already, we are working in collaboration with other partners. We are ready to assist countries with the necessary assessment activities aimed at improving understanding on the extent and intensity of the fall armyworm threat to the region,” said Phiri.
Researchers train agricultural extension workers about the pest
But he warned that it could take several years to develop effective methods to control the pest.
“Planting quick-maturing crop varieties and early planting may lessen infestation and damage caused by the fall armyworms,” he said. “And no single method or product has been found to completely eradicate the fall armyworm.”
Additional measures proposed at the meeting included the deployment of other insects such as lacewing, ladybirds, minute pirate bugs, parasitic wasps, and flies – all of which feed on armyworm eggs.
Nyamutukwa said farmers should treat their crops before armyworm larvae burrow deep into the whorl or enter ears of more mature plants.
If applied early enough, insecticide applications by ground rig using at least 30 gallons per acre (340 litres per hectare) and high pressure are believed to give the best results.
“It is also advisable to apply pesticides early or late in the day, because fall armyworm larvae are most active at these times,” said Nyamutukwa, adding that ministry experts who directly advise farmers, known as extension workers, were now better placed to respond to the infestation.
“So far, 479 [extension] officers and task force teams have been trained in all 10 provinces in the country and procured chemicals, which were distributed for free in all provinces for the management of the fall armyworm,” he said.
In addition, the Zimbabwean government is preparing for the winter wheat season by putting in place community-based armyworm forecasting systems and intends to put plant clinics in rural communities.
“If farmers do not control the pest and it attacks the cobs and developing grain, then farmers lose by a percentage yet to be determined because crops are still in the field. Fall armyworm infestation impacts negatively on yield, [so] a reduction in yield is a threat to food security and nutrition,” he explained.
Zacariya, the director of the farmers’ union, noted how critical food security is to Zimbabwe’s rural development and the need for assistance given the armyworm invasion.
“The fall armyworm has the effect of drastically reducing the yields of rural farmers,” he said. “As such, the gap created will need to be covered through local safety nets or government and food aid agencies will have to step in with food aid programmes to avert any shortages that may rise.”
Fall armyworm ravages maize Feature Environment and Disasters Climate change Food Zimbabwe losing battle against armyworm Sally Nyakanyanga IRIN Karoi/Zimbabwe Africa Southern Africa Zimbabwe
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By the time Ilida Alali was 16, she had been a prisoner in her own home for four years. Both government and rebel ordnance fell without warning on the hotly contested Karm al-Myassar neighbourhood near Aleppo’s airport where she and her family lived. In any case, she had nowhere to go. Opposition groups had occupied the area’s schools since she was 13.
In January last year she asked her father, Ahmed, if she could go out to buy some crisps. “I said ‘okay’,” he recalled. “She went as far as the corner shop and that’s when the bomb fell. When I heard the explosion, I ran out and I found the place covered in dust and my daughter in pieces.”
Ilida’s death was the final straw for the family. Ahmed’s wife, Ramia Aldaher, had already lost a sister and three brothers to the war. A month later, the entire extended Alali and Aldaher families – some 41 people – stole out of Aleppo under cover of night.
“We took nothing – just the clothes we were wearing and our IDs,” said Ramia. They trekked more than 1,000 kilometres to Izmir on Turkey’s Aegean coast and crossed to the Greek island of Lesvos in a rubber dinghy.
Stuck in Greece
The Alali family had fled a civil war only to land in the midst of a humanitarian crisis. An estimated 850,000 refugees and migrants arrived in Greece during 2015 and another 150,000 during the first three months of 2016. Most continued through the Balkans towards northern Europe, where member states were increasingly desperate to stem the flow.
Fences went up on the Greek border with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia three weeks before the Alali family arrived. They managed to leave Lesvos just two days before the EU-Turkey agreement went into force, which would have kept them there during their asylum process, but their plan to reach Germany on foot had to be scrapped.
The closed border had left more than 50,000 refugees stranded in mainland Greece – too many for civil authorities to house. Under pressure from the European Commission, the Greek military set up 30 tent cities on industrial sites and disused army bases across the country.
Most of these camps were far from urban centres and difficult for aid organisations to reach. With almost no time to prepare the sites, they initially lacked basic amenities such as running water, bathrooms, heat, and electricity.
Ritsona, a former Hellenic Airforce base north of Athens, was hastily converted into a tent camp for 800 refugees
From warehouse to camp
On 17 March, the Alali family arrived at the place they would be forced to call home for the next six months – a cavernous warehouse behind Gate 10A in Thessaloniki’s port.
“For about the first month we slept on the floor in sleeping bags given out by the army. Then the mayor visited us and asked the army to send us cots,” said Ahmed.
The mayor also ordered the delivery of heating units, portable lavatories, showers, and electricity, but 450 people were still sharing a space where blankets hung from ropes provided the only modicum of privacy.
These arrangements came to an abrupt end when an electrical fire broke out one September morning as people slept. The warehouse was cleared and the Alali family was moved to a tent in Langadikia camp, east of the city.
“The sun hit our tent at seven in the morning and we had to get up. During the middle of the day we had to go to the forest and sit under the shade of the trees,” Ahmed told IRIN. “When winter came, it rained and the whole tent was drenched. The water came up through the ground… Sometimes we asked for new blankets and were told that there weren’t enough, so we slept under wet blankets.”
Surviving the winter
Worse was to come. In mid-December, overnight temperatures dropped below freezing, and, in January, rain turned to snow. Residents of the camp tried to take refuge in the few brick buildings available, “but there wasn’t enough room for everyone,” said Ramia.
And yet there was plenty of room in Greece. The financial crisis and the introduction of a new property tax in 2011 had brought property sales virtually to a standstill. Hundreds of thousands of apartments stood vacant as unemployed adults moved back in with their parents.
In December 2015, the European Commission had announced an €80 million rent subsidy programme to provide 20,000 accommodation places for refugees in Greece during the following year. The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, was tasked with implementing the scheme, but progress was slow. By early October 2016, it had secured only 13,000 spots, leaving thousands of families still living in tents and warehouses during the height of Greece’s coldest winter in years.
“We had this horrible winter and the conditions in camps deteriorated so badly that we were really afraid at one point that people would actually die of hypothermia in the camps – especially newborns, who were turning blue,” said Anne Forget who manages the Thessaloniki office of the Norwegian Refugee Council.
Antipathy and broken promises
The NRC wanted to help address the housing problem before it became a crisis, but it took the NGO months to get its project proposal approved by the European Commission and for the money to be disbursed. Forget was only able to start recruiting her Thessaloniki staff on 12 October, at which point they began touring half a dozen camps in the area to identify those in greatest need of being moved into bricks-and-mortar housing.
But despite the housing glut, the NRC struggled to find apartments to rent. Landlords were wary of a programme that was funded for only six months at a time, and of having refugees as tenants.
“Mainly the objections were: ‘I don’t want to rent to refugees because they are dirty, they have diseases, they will break my apartment. I don’t want to rent for a short period of time. Your rate is too low,'” said Forget.
In an effort to stay ahead of the worsening weather, the NRC decided to move 400 individuals into hotels. This enabled pregnant women, the sick, the elderly and families like the Alalis to move out of tents. But the cost was high: The NRC paid €25 a night for each hotel resident – some €4,500 a month for the Alali family of six alone.
UNHCR eventually stepped up its efforts, and by the end of 2016 had housed 21,000 refugees, nearly 12,000 of them in apartments.
The agency’s spokesman in Greece, Roland Schoenbauer, said the scheme was designed to provide temporary accommodation for asylum seekers while they awaited relocation to another EU country, and that many more would have benefited if EU members had honoured their pledges to take in a total of 63,000 refugees from Greece. To date, less than 10,000 refugees have been relocated from the country.
Greek Migration Minister Yannis Mouzalas has also come in for criticism for the slow rate of progress on refugee housing despite unprecedented levels of EU funding. “You are responsible for 60,000 people with a billion euros: more than anyone ever had at his disposal,” said conservative MP Miltiadis Varvitsiotis in parliament last month, referring to the funds the European Commission says it has earmarked or disbursed to Greece for refugees since 2015. “I think any local government official would have done a better job than you.”
Privacy, at last
Over the last month, the NRC has finally begun to transfer refugees into longer-term housing. It has put the Alali family up in an apartment for a quarter of the cost of the hotel, and estimates that through such savings it will be able to house some 2,800 people in apartments by July.
For now, furnishings are sparse: “it’s mattresses on the floor; one mattress per person, one pillow per person, a fridge, a double stove… There’s no tables, no chairs, no frames, even, for the beds and no Wi-Fi,” said Forget.
The Alalis don’t seem to mind. After walking across Asia Minor and living in a warehouse, an open-air camp, and a hotel, here, for the first time, they have a space of their own, and they are living among Greeks rather than refugees. They beckon guests to their only furniture – a sofa bed left by the owner, its springs long ago caved in – and sit cross-legged on the tile floor while their four children, aged six to 17, retire to equally empty bedrooms. “We are happy that we are in Greece. We are not in a good situation, but we are safe and better than before,” said Ramia.
Ilaf and Ali Alali recline against three mattresses which comprise their bedroom furniture
Menios Skordas, a hotelier who rents nine studio apartments to Syrian and Afghan families referred to him by the NRC, admits he was hesitant at first, but explained: “When I saw the faces of the children I lost every inhibition.”
He has noticed that they, too, have acclimatised. “For the first two months, they were very afraid,” he told IRIN. “Now they’re going to the supermarket. Once or twice they’ve taken the bus… The kids are amazing learners. In two months, they are able to communicate in Greek.”
Schoenbauer of UNHCR described apartment living as a double benefit. “Just a few weeks ago, I visited a Syrian family in an apartment close to our office,” he said. “They told me: ‘Every day our Greek neighbours are knocking at our door asking whether we needed anything.’ This is the kind of interaction that starts the process of integration from both sides and this is an underestimated benefit of the whole programme.”
There are benefits for the Greek economy as well. The crisis has depressed real estate prices by more than 40 percent since 2007, and 45 percent in the Thessaloniki area. Rents have fallen proportionally. UNHCR spent the European Commission’s €80 million plus another €5.4 million in donations on apartments and hotels last year. It could top that budget this year.
“The money [landlords] get is much, much better than what they’d get on the [open] market,” said Thessaloniki real estate agent Stefanos Vasileiadis, commenting on clients who have rented to Syrian families via the NRC.
Of the original group of 41 Alali and Aldaher extended family members, 27 have been relocated to Germany. Most of the rest are scattered across camps in northern Greece, where conditions are not as bad as they once were. Tents have been replaced by mobile housing units, adults receive a monthly stipend of €150 to feed themselves, and children can now attend Greek schools.
A Syrian boy shows his family’s mobile home at the Diavata camp on the western outskirts of Thessaloniki
Currently, 29,000 refugees are still living in camps, including-,200 on the islands (where the official capacity is just under 9,000), but Mouzalas assured parliament last week that another 10,000 people will be moved to apartments in 2017 and, “if the EU-Turkey agreement holds”, a further 10,000 in 2018.
Ahmed and Ramia have also applied for their family to relocate to Germany, a process that may take many more months. In the meantime, they’re enjoying the privacy and space of their apartment, but they aren’t enrolling their children in Greek schools or putting down roots. They want to start new lives in Germany before doing that.
(TOP PHOTO: The surviving members of the Alali family in their sparsely furnished living room. John Psaropoulos/IRIN)
img_0992.jpg Feature Migration A Syrian refugee family’s year-long Greek odyssey John Psaropoulos IRIN Refugees in Greece finally swap canvas for bricks and mortar THESSALONIKI Europe Greece European Union Syria