The island of Bali is a tourist mecca with its ornate temples, lush green rice fields and lively beach resorts, but this year some new visitors showed up: millions of caterpillars that cause skin irritation when they come into contact with people. They destroyed mango groves and drove housewives to distraction, invading human homes. In neighboring Java, people began carrying umbrellas to keep the white, black and orange inchworms out of their hair.
"They call it caterpillar rain," says Aunu Rauf, Virginia Tech's man in Java.
Rauf is a professor at Bogor Agricultural University. He says insect invasions are increasingly common, with growing global trade allowing pests to travel from one side of the world to the other.
Aunu travels to farms as part of the Integrated Pest Management program, an international effort coordinated by Virginia Tech. He and colleague Yayi Kusumah travel the steep, rutted roads, past orchards, vegetable patches and smiling school girls in their white headscarves, to Chuputri, where farmers have long relied on chemical sprays to keep bugs at bay. Aunu says the farmers spray pesticides every week and sometimes twice a week.
That was not good for the environment or the farmer, says insect virologist Yayi.
"Many farmers here, they do not know how to use pesticides safely. They use their hands to mix the pesticide and we know that's not very healthy," he says.
And local moms like Eriska worried about the health of children living on farms. She says skin irritation was a common problem, and she blamed pesticides for cases of cancer and birth defects.
But Yayi says farmers and government regulators saw no alternative.
"We have 240 million mouths to feed," he says.
So, with funding from the Integrated Pest Management Program, he and Aunu began telling them about another way to protect crops. For example, by mashing a combination of garlic, shallots, hot peppers and citrus skin into a paste, then adding water, these farmers could make a natural spray for their vegetables. That's good for the environment, and it means higher prices for organic produce.
What’s more, the farmers could cut costs by 20 to 30 percent when they eliminated chemical sprays from their budgets.
Pak Jayamudin, who began using the organic spray last year, is hooked. He proudly displays a large bunch of carrots. He says the carrots taste sweeter and crispier than they did before.
Down the road, at the community radio station, hosts make frequent announcements about training programs for farmers, instructions on the use of natural fertilizers, parasites and viruses that attack pests. Delegations have come from as far away as Thailand and Singapore to see how these approaches work.
Virginia Tech is overseeing the program in 20 countries around the world. Funded with a $15 million grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development, the effort to spread green pest control technologies is set to continue for least four more years.
Virginia Public Radio's Sandy Hausman went to Indonesia as part of the International Reporting Project.