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The long boll weevil saga of South America

Don’t count the boll weevil out yet. It is a curious fact that as we began to eradicate this infamous pest from the United States, it began to spread in earnest across South America. In fact, its geographic range today is greater than ever before.

Its invasion into Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina now threatens 10 million acres of cotton.

One begins to agree with W. D. Hunter, an early entomologist, who once described Anthonomus grandis as “the evil spirit that dwelleth amongst us.” Or maybe, as the Brook Benton song says, it’s just “lookin’ for a home.”

Brazil used to be an exporter of cotton, but now, because of the boll weevil, is a net importer. Many farmers there have been driven out of business.

On a recent visit to Argentina, fellow entomologist Bill McGovern and I were briefed on the status of the boll weevil in that country by Ingineer Jorge Vartparonian, president of the FULCPA (foundation for the fight against the boll weevil). Jorge’s main business is in the textile industry, where his mill employs 800 workers.

The weevil arrived from neighboring Paraguay in 1994. The area infested was in the sub-tropical Province of Formosa, where there are mostly small farmers with fields of less than 10 acres. Aggressive control measures were instituted, consisting of pheromone traps and insecticide sprays, similar to eradication procedures in the United States.

The goal was to prevent the spread of the weevil into the adjoining Chaco Province, where most of Argentina’s million or so acres of cotton are grown.

The boll weevil containment program was successful for 12 years. But this year (it is spring now in Argentina) weevils have been captured in pheromone traps in several isolated small fields in the Chaco region nearest Paraguay. It is believed that the weevils arrived from Paraguay, since there has been a recent buildup of weevils there, and the prevailing winds favor the westward spread.

Argentina has done a remarkable job in containing the pest for the last 12 years, and savings to the farmers are counted in the millions of dollars.

So Argentina now stands at a crossroads. An aggressive program is needed to contain the weevil and prevent its spread into all of the cotton of the Chaco region. Its presence now is limited to several comparatively small fields closest to the Paraguayan border.

One option being considered is a prohibition on planting cotton in that region for one or two years. Obviously such an approach has social, political, and economic ramifications that will have to be carefully considered. But technically, it offers hope of preventing the spread of the boll weevil further into the Chaco Province and wreaking havoc there like it has done everywhere else it has visited.

Argentina has an opportunity to do what no cotton-growing nation in the Western Hemisphere has ever done — permanently halt the spread of the boll weevil.

Jorge and I sipped wonderful South American espresso in the hotel restaurant in beautiful Formosa, where we could look out over the city adorned with red blooms of the chivato trees.

“If the cotton crop in Argentina is destroyed by the boll weevil, I’ll have to buy cotton on the world market and pay a lot more for it”, he said. “I’ll survive, but I don’t know if the same is true of the farmers in Chaco.”

Gerald McKibben is a retired research entomologist who used to work at the USDA Boll Weevil Laboratory in Starkville, Miss.

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