One million face famine after rats feast on crops|
23 March 2008 08:23
New Delhi, India - The people of Mizoram, a tiny, remote
state of north-east India squeezed between Burma and Bangladesh, have
known for the past 48 years that they would face famine in 2008.
Confirmation came last November when the local species of
bamboo that dominates the state's landscape began to burst into flower
-- a peculiar ecological phenomenon that happens about twice a century.
A plague of rats rapidly followed, feasting on the bamboo's
protein-rich avocado-like fruit, before swarming to consume the farmers'
rice paddies, grain harvests and food stockpiles. Now up to a million
people are facing hunger, according to aid agencies.
Mrinal Gohain, of charity Action Aid, said: "There were rats
all over the fields. Farmers would go to harvest their crops and find
that the entire field had been eaten overnight."
Although the state government had ample warning and has been
making preparations for four years, its emergency measures have proved
inadequate in the face of the exploding rat population. A bounty on
rats was announced last year (a rupee for every tail), public bonfires
of slaughtered rats were held and free rat poison and traps were
distributed, but to little avail.
Gohain said: "The crisis is unfolding and is going to get
worse. We anticipate that if this continues, we will see something
terrible happening here."
The luckier villagers in the worst-affected areas are living
on one meal a day, he said, while thousands more are foraging in the
forests for food, surviving on roots, herbs and leaves.
Although no hunger deaths have yet been reported, stockpiles
of food are rapidly dwindling and few villagers have enough money to
buy the subsidised supply of relief rice, he said. Most farmers have
no seed for new crops and the true impact of the disaster will only be
felt later in the year.
Twenty years of violent guerrilla unrest followed the last
appearance of the bamboo flower and the famine, known locally as
mautam ("bamboo death"), in 1959. Politicians had then dismissed
villagers' warnings of imminent disaster as local folklore. This time
nobody has questioned the bamboo legend.
Feast of fruit
The fruit of the Melocanna baccifera, which flourishes
across hundreds of thousands of hectares of Mizoram, is delicious to
rodents and attracts rats from neighbouring states and countries.
Locals suspect it has aphrodisiac qualities for rats, fuelling their
Scientists have found that more baby rats survive when the
bamboo has flowered as the adult male rats, which are known to eat
their newborn offspring, tend to leave them alone when they have had
their fill of fruit. As a result, litters of up to 13 rats survive and
are ready to reproduce themselves within three months.
Gulsogi (40), a widow from a far-flung region of the state,
told Action Aid researchers last week: "My family could starve if we
do not get relief soon. How long can we forage to survive? We are
walking longer into the forest each day to find anything edible."
The state declared a disaster in December but the crisis has
been largely unreported within India, where national media tend to pay
little attention to the problems endured by the nation's 700-million
rural population, preferring to focus on Delhi-centred political
intrigue and Bollywood gossip.
Describing the crisis in Mizoram as a "silent tragedy",
renowned Indian blogger Shantanu Dutta lamented that "while a bus
overturning in a ditch and killing passengers or a rail derailment
attracts a lot of attention, silent disasters like the bamboo-flowering-induced
famine in Mizoram don't attract much news".
Aid workers say that the state-run Bamboo Flowering and
Famine Combat Scheme (Baffacos) has largely failed, but local officials
blame India's national government. PC Lalthlamuana, director of
disaster management in the state, said no help has arrived from Delhi.
"We have applied for aid, we are expecting it, but it is
rather slow in coming," he said by telephone from the state capital,
Aizawl, adding that the poorest villagers are suffering the most
because they have no access to alternative food supplies. He warned of
deaths from malnutrition over the coming months.
Reports of rodent-borne disease have increased, but most of
the rats are now said to be dying from hunger.
Original article: Mail and Guardian Online
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