President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia declared a national state of emergency last week after caterpillars were reported to have infested more than 100 villages, including several across the border in Guinea. As well as devouring coffee, cocoa and plantain crops, the insects have polluted drinking water sources.
The identification of the pest, which is endemic to west Africa, came from experts at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, based in Nigeria.
"The farmers in Liberia know these caterpillars," said Winfred Hammond, an entomologist with the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation, "but they have never seen them on this scale." The next step, Hammond said, is to step up a programme of pesticide spraying. "But in the long term," he told the BBC, "we have to take this as an opportunity to develop early-warning strategies for countries in west Africa. Not only for these caterpillars, but for other migratory pests."
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