Every morning at dawn, Khojamiyor Umarov leaves his house in the Mastchoh district of Tajikistan and rides his motorbike through the small hills and rocky terrain of this agrarian area in the northern part of the country. As he has done for more than 20 years, he is checking the fields for locusts.

Why? Umarov, a senior specialist with the state entity “Locust Control Expedition,” knows just how important it is to be vigilant about these voracious pests. The work he does here helps to ensure early warnings of locust outbreaks and thus timely responses to them.

‘When locusts come, disaster comes.’

Locust populations began to increase in Tajikistan In the 1990s, in a country fresh off the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Tajikistan civil war. The increasing populations of locusts began devastating crop fields and affecting the livelihoods and food security of Tajik farmers. Year after year, farmers kept losing their harvests to locusts. Due to limited resources, the national locust management system wasn’t able to provide effective control; it lacked trained and experienced staff and didn’t have modern monitoring, communication, positioning and control equipment. Plus, there were inadequate resources for conducting timely and efficient survey and control operations.

The agriculture sector is a major employer in the Mastchoh district, and it’s an important regional industry. In the past, farmers have had limited capacity to face seasonal and unpredicted events, and they have been particularly vulnerable to attacks from locusts or other pests.

“There is a saying among the local people,” Umarov says. “They say that when locusts come, disaster comes. Unfortunately, locusts do not respect borders. We became the witnesses of the damages caused by locusts in the past. It was so horrible and stressful to see the consequences. The farmers were very vulnerable, hopeless and too upset because they knew that, beyond any reasonable doubts, they would lose their livelihoods as a consequence. They did not know what to do and how to react to locust outbreaks to save their crops.”

Historically, locust infestations have been a widespread phenomenon, particularly from April to August. Locusts can fly up to 100 km per day and settle in new areas. Because of the locust attacks, the level of food insecurity increased, and farmers were losing their yields.

“We had very limited capacity to fight against locusts: insufficient number of sprayers, lack of funds to purchase pesticides and means of transportation, including vehicles for transporting personnel and water carriers,” Umarov says. “Some areas had to be treated repeatedly because of several waves of hatching. There was not any coordination of activities and operational efficiency. We tried to help local farmers as much as we could, but unfortunately, due to the lack of resources, it was not enough, and the results of our work were not so tangible.”

Fighting back against locusts

FAO, with funding from Japan, has been working since 2015 to improve the situation in Tajikistan and in neighbouring Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan. The project has been framed by an FAO programme to improve national and regional locust management in the Caucasus and Central Asia, launched in 2011 in ten countries.

Through the project, Tajikistan has received equipment for conducting locust survey and control operations – including communication equipment, vehicles, sprayers, motorbikes, pesticides and more – in addition to extensive staff training on a wide range of locust-related topics.

“Now we are better equipped with new modern technologies to cope with locust infestations,” Umarov says. “We have better working conditions, and it facilitates our work greatly.”

Workers in the field are able to transmit data they’ve collected on the locust situation directly to the central offices. Data analyses, including forecasts and recommendations, are sent to the highest authorities for timely decisions on control operations. The added efficiencies mean that workers are able to treat between 200 ha and 400 ha of land every day – a huge jump from the 30 ha to 40 ha that could be treated daily in the years before the project, Umarov says.

Fostering collaboration

Traditional locust habitats and breeding areas often span national borders, meaning that locusts frequently cross countries’ political boundaries. A main objective of the programme is to develop and strengthen regional cooperation among countries in the area – key for the successful management of transboundary plant pests such as locusts.

“Joint surveys have been conducted between the neighbouring countries, particularly with specialists of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan,” Umarov says. “The situation is quite productive, and it contributes to preventing locust outbreaks more effectively.”

Umarov loves his job, and he enjoys it – especially when he sees the happy and grateful eyes of farmers who meet him in the fields. They approach Umarov to greet him and ask for pieces of advice. Umarov is eager to help farmers ensure the success of their agriculture-based livelihoods, he says.

Despite the difficulties, the results of the project so far have been tangible, he says. The project has contributed significantly to reducing the duration, severity and frequency of locust outbreaks in Tajikistan.

The ongoing aim of this preventive locust control strategy is to contribute to reducing the annual number of infested and treated hectares, to help preserve the food security and livelihoods of highly vulnerable rural communities, and to reduce the negative impacts of control operations on human health and the environment.