The Damaging Impact of Locust Plagues on Pastoralist Communities in Kenya.

By Laura James

Key Facts on the 2020 Locust Plagues:

  • The Desert Locust is considered the most destructive migratory pest in the world and a single swarm covering one square kilometre can contain up to 80 million locusts. (FAO)
  • One mega-swarm of locusts detected in 2020 in Kenya covered 240,000 hectares of land, an area the size of Luxembourg. (FAO)
  • At their peak earlier in early 2020, swarms were eating 1.8m tonnes of vegetation a day across 350 sq km the FAO says. (BBC)
  • It was predicted more than 25 million people in east Africa would experience food insecurity in 2020 with the locust infestations compounding the situation. (International Observatory Human Rights)

Georgina Smith is a photojournalist based in Nairobi, Kenya and recently appeared as a guest speaker at one of the Photojournalism Nights online events. At the event she spoke of the impact climate change induced locust plagues are having on pastoralist communities in the County of Isiolo, Kenya. Having grown up in a rural area of Zambia, Georgina has lived in close proximity to the natural environment herself, which is one of the reasons for her investigating this story. Below Georgina answers my questions regarding the locust plagues and highlights how the local pastoralist communities living on the ‘front lines’ of climate change are suffering human rights abuses.

Moses Lomooria, 34, cattle herder, a father of 6. He is also a peace ambassador in his community. He holds dead locusts found near his animals. ©Georgina Smith.

How is climate change linked to the locust plagues in Kenya?

‘With the story that I was working on for the locust invasion most people are saying there was a climate (change) link. This is because the increased heavy rainfall meant that there was more breading going on in the locus populations, so that combined with some other things meant that there was this huge influx of locusts coming into Kenya from other parts of Africa such as Yemen and Somalia. When they arrived in Kenya last year (2019) it was the worst outbreak for 70 years. Most people had never seen them in that many numbers before, so it was quite a shock for people.’ 

What was your motivation for investigating this story?

‘I think it was the fact that at the beginning of 2020 and the end of 2019 there were all these news reports coming in about this invasion and that it was the worst one in 70 years. So that was the broad news story, but I really wanted to dig into it and find out who specifically was being affected as I knew in those areas there are pastoralist communities and they are very vulnerable communities anyways. They really are hit by so many different things; the impact of climate change in a normal year, by so many other elements and the weather. They are very close to the environment and so anything that happens they feel the impacts first.

The plagues also have impacts with regards to security and conflict, because once the food runs out for the animals, those herders have to take their animals to different pastures and perhaps trespass on other lands. So I was interested to show how these communities are struggling with those multiple impacts, and this was the time Covid had just hit so that was another thing. There was all these layers of challenges that they were facing.’

Samburu herders bring home their herds in the evening, in Samburu East sub-county, Samburu county. ©Georgina Smith.

Is the locust plague causing food insecurity there?

‘Yes, so the issue was that the locusts were eating the food for the animals and in this area the community is very dependent on the animals. So if the animals die, which they did, they don’t have meat, milk and they don’t have income as they often rely on the animals for income as well. This created a triple effect in the sense that they basically lost everything. Also, some of the people we spoke to said some of the pesticides that were being sprayed (to kill the locusts) also killed some of the animals, but that hasn’t been verified. In any case the animals were being wiped out so the communities were being put in a very difficult situation.’

Leshidungule, a 30-year old Samburu pastoralist, who narrated how the locusts wiped out animal pasture. ©Georgina Smith.
Young members of 40-year-old Turkana herder Erupe Lobun’s family keep back baby goats in an acacia-thorn cattle pen, so they do not suckle too much. Lack of pasture means their mothers do not have enough milk. ©Georgina Smith.

What type of practices were they putting in place to try and resolve the issue? 

‘So they (the communities) were working with FAO the government to try and spray the locust swarms to stop them from spreading. That was the main effort that was happening. Yet, at the beginning of the pandemic there were some issues around the logistics of getting all of the equipment in place. But then as the pandemic went on that was less of an issue. So that was basically how they were trying to control it, and this was in July 2020. So that was the situation at that time.’

FAO control operations for the vast areas of Samburu, Isiolo, Laikipia and Meru, sprayers are alerted to tackle the desert locusts. ©Georgina Smith.

You mentioned earlier that the communities were having to trespass on land, did this cause conflict?

‘Well we didn’t see anything, but one of the people we spoke with who was a peace-broker as it were, said that she had worked with the communities to try and resolve conflict so it was definitely tense. But I haven’t seen anything as a result of that yet, but I could be wrong as I wasn’t there to see it.’

Josephine Ekiru, peace-building coordinator, Northern Rangelands Trust. She warns of conflict among pastoralist groups due to lack of pasture. ©Georgina Smith.

 Will you be following up with the communities in the future?

‘Yes I think so, I haven’t done anything yet but I hope that it is something I can go back to and revisit as the locust plague is still a big problem at the moment and they didn’t manage to get rid of all of them. They come back once the seasons change so it is this constant cycle. Right now other people are following up with it.’

Is there anything you’d like to add about the communities and the impact this is having on their human rights?

‘I think something to add is that in general the poorest communities are the ones who are dependent on the land and are the ones who face the biggest impacts with regards to climate change. We all see the impact of climate change around the world but it’s the people who are living with the environment, on the front lines, who see these first. I’m sure there are things we can learn from these communities about how we can manage our natural resources and land better so that we don’t make these challenges worse.’

From left, two Samburu warriors talk to thirty two year old Tiampati Leletit. who lost 80 of his goats when the locusts arrived. Now he has an empty pen, since he gave his four remaining goats to a neighbor to look after. ©Georgina Smith.
Locusts. ©Georgina Smith.

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Georgina Smith

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