— The caterpillars, which travel in large groups and feed on young plants, have wiped out fields of maize, eggplants, pepper, cocoa, and cabbage crops in Bong and are doing the same in the two newly announced counties.
An armyworm invasion that is rampaging in Bong County, destroying crops and contaminating drinking water sources, has also attacked farmers in Nimba and Gbarpolu counties, the Ministry of Agriculture has said.
The Ministry, through its field offices in Gbarnga, Sanniquellie, and Bopolu, has received reports of caterpillar invasions in towns and villages affecting food crops and contaminating waterways, a release issued on Wednesday said.
The caterpillars, which travel in large groups and feed on young plants, have wiped out fields of maize, eggplants, pepper, cocoa, and cabbage crops in Bong and are doing the same in the two newly announced counties.
Farmers in the two Bong districts -- Zota and Jorquelleh Districts -- informed the public about the armyworms invasion over the weekend. The situation, they said, has halted agricultural activities across several towns and villages, leaving farmers helpless and unable to begin the new planting season for upland farms.
“Unless the spread of these worms is contained, food insecurity and malnutrition are likely to result, as affected towns and communities will not be able to carry out farming activities this year,” they added.
The farmers are claiming they fear the risk of being displaced as the warm weather continues to invade their dwelling places on a daily basis.
“It is so disheartening to watch as they watch helplessly and are unable to do anything,” the farmers distressingly told our reporter. “Farms and villages are being overrun by the army worms, and if nothing is done about it, we are going to encounter severe hardship as our farming season would be interrupted.”
In its Wednesday release, the Ministry said it has since dispatched technicians to assess the invasion’s coverage, determine the types of caterpillars and evaluate damages done.
It added that preliminary findings recommend immediate intervention in those affected areas.
“More so, the findings discovered the worms are similar to armyworms and called Achaea, which are fast-moving and dangerous to the growth of cocoa, bananas, and other food crops,” the release said. “As this emergency was unforeseen, the ministry is vigorously involved in resource mobilization to source and procure appropriate types of environmentally friendly agrochemicals to curb the spread of worms’ widespread.”
The ministry did not provide information on the level of damage the armyworm invasion has caused in the affected areas.
However, twelve of Liberia’s 15 counties have experienced such worm invasion — a natural and periodic occurrence in Liberia since 2009. Three counties are often hit, but Bong has always been the hardest hit, suffering invasions multiple times.
Armyworms are no strangers to Bong, mainly in Zota District. The last attack was in 2020 when armyworms struck and destroyed more than 2,000 hectares of crops in the district, leading to farmers spending huge amounts of money to fight them.
Some succeeded, while others lost their entire crops.
Charles King, a scientist at the Central Agricultural Research Institute (CARI), said in an interview at the time that planting the short-term crops gave the armyworms a longer lifespan as they found a host.
“Farmers should not have planted maize again after struggling with the pests for the better part of the year. The new maize crop became the host of the pests until this planting season,” King said.
Four years earlier, in 2016, thousands of armyworms also invaded towns and villages in Zota, which led to the destruction of crops, contamination of drinking water, and caused residents to flee the area.
Also, back in 2009, the district was hit hard by the worms, prompting then-President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to make an urgent visit to the area to support the government’s swift intervention.
According to the Ministry of Agriculture, armyworms are migratory pests, with adult pests having the capacity to fly over 30 kilometers while drifting through air currents. The pests are described as ferocious feeders that, upon invasion, quickly destroy crops.
“The caterpillar feeds on the outer foliage, making large and ragged holes. Attack on the crops at the early vegetative stage can result in 100 percent loss if no control measures are taken,” says the ministry in a note.
King, the CARI scientist, has claimed that genetically modified crops boost the fight against emerging armyworms, saying modified crops have the ability to resist worms.
“The situation is very serious. It has affected most of our crops and farmland areas,” Agriculture Coordinator for Bong County, Kollie Nah. told reporters last week “A majority of the farmers who are affected are small-scale farmers who produce more than 90 percent of their crops.
With the start of the farming season, the ministry said in its release that it remains focused on working collaboratively with local communities, farming households, governmental agencies, and collaborating partners to ensure the invasion is contained.