| KEEMBE, Zambia
KEEMBE, Zambia The foul odour of pesticides hangs in the tropical air as a team of men in blue work suits and respirators sprays a field of maize in this rural corner of Zambia, the frontline in a battle against an invasion of ravenous armyworms.
Comprised of Zambian soldiers, the team is part of a mobilization campaign aimed at stemming a pest that threatens tens of thousands of hectares of the staple maize that feeds this impoverished southern African nation.
"I sprayed this field twice before but the armyworms are still there," 42-year-old small-scale farmer Mary Sikaona said, pointing at the caterpillars in her 1.5 hectare field in Keembe, about 100 km (60 miles) north of Lusaka.
The worms become moths and their name derives from the fact that they "march" across the landscape in large groups while in the caterpillar stage, feasting on young maize plants and wiping out entire fields.
Zambian President Edgar Lungu ordered the air force last month to join other government agencies in an emergency operation to contain the spread of the pests that have raided maize fields in many parts of the country.[nL5N1EN264]
By late last month, the worms had been spotted in six of Zambia's 10 provinces.
Some 124,000 hectares have been infested and the government has so far managed to spray 86,000 hectares, the head of Zambia's disaster management unit Patrick Kangwa said.
Nearly 40 percent of the affected crop, representing an area large enough to produce 200,000 tonnes of maize, would have to be re-planted, Kangwa told Reuters in an interview.
"There will be damage but we hope that the majority of the affected crop will be able to get back and produce," Kangwa said.
Zambia's maize production rose to 2.87 million tonnes in 2016 from 2.60 million tonnes the previous year, the only producer in the region to largely escape a scorching drought triggered by an El Nino weather pattern.
Most of the maize was attacked when knee high and there are high chances of it recovering after spraying with pesticides, Coillard Hamusimbi, the head of agri-business at the Zambia National Farmers' Union, said.
However, Hamusimbi said the heavy rain that Zambia is experiencing was holding back the spraying.
"We have cases of 100 percent control among some commercial farmers but we also have farmers who are now going into their second spray because the chemical was washed away by the rain," Hamusimbi said.
(Editing by Ed Stoddard and Susan Thomas)