LA PAZ (Reuters) - Bolivian farmers and government officials are fighting a locust plague threatening corn and sorghum harvests, just as agricultural areas were starting to recover from the South American country's worst drought in a quarter century.
The locusts, first reported in late January in Bolivia's eastern grains belt, have affected around 1,000 hectares (2,470 acres) of crops and 500 producers, said Vicente Gutierrez, president of a corn and sorghum producers group.
Government authorities and farmers were preparing on Friday to fumigate 300 hectares of crops, with the ultimate goal of spraying some 17,000 hectares and preventing the plague from spreading and endangering the food supply.
"This fight will not be short," said Reinaldo Diaz, president of Bolivia's oilseed and wheat producers' association. "We're trying to identify where the eggs are, where the nymphs are - those are the initial stages of the plague and where we can control it most efficiently."
The plague follows a severe drought in Bolivia that prompted controversial water rationing, conflicts between miners and farmers over aquifer use, and slashed agricultural harvests, requiring a sharp increase in imports.
Recent rains have relieved Santa Cruz and inspired optimism for this year's crops although drought continues to afflict the main city of La Paz.
For the moment, the 1,000 hectares affected by locusts represent only a small fraction of the 100,000 hectares planted with grains in Santa Cruz department.
Bolivia, normally self-sufficient in grain production, had to import more than 100,000 tonnes of corn worth $21 million in 2016, largely from Argentina, according to the private Bolivian Institute of Foreign Trade. The country also imported 2,000 tonnes of sorghum worth $5 million.
Argentina, the world's No. 3 corn exporter whose output has been rising since corn export taxes were slashed in late 2015, had sent experts to assist the fumigation effort, Bolivian producers said.
"They have lived with this since 1920; we are learning how to combat this problem," Bolivia's President Evo Morales said after flying over affected areas.
Producers in Santa Cruz, one of Bolivia's wealthiest areas, have for years lobbied the government to lift export restrictions and liberalize regulations on the use of genetically-modified seeds, which they say will help produce crops that are resistant to plagues and adverse climate events.
Reporting by Daniel Ramos; Writing by Luc Cohen; Editing by Caroline Stauffer, Andrew Hay and Lisa Shumaker