Pesticides poisoning Cambodia’s earth

1570 words
18 March 1996
Asia Times
(c) 1996 Chamber World Network International Ltd

Recognizing that it has become a dumping ground for pesticide products that no one else wants, Cambodia is drawing up a law to clear out the worst of the poison.

In the meantime, the government is trying to teach its farmers to stay away from the unmarked bags of DDT and other even more noxious chemicals displayed on its market stalls.

"Cabbages. Definitely don’t eat cabbages," warns Robert Nugent, a pest control specialist with the Food and Agriculture Organization, after witnessing farmers relentlessly dousing their crops with vicious pesticides right up to harvest time.

While eating vegetables loaded with pesticide may not be great for the diner, the farmers are at much greater risk. With no cash to spare for protective clothing and no way of reading safety instructions written in Thai or Vietnamese, most blithely mix with their hands chemicals as dangerous as any in the agricultural world.

The biggest selling pesticide in Cambodia, methyl parathion, is listed by the World Health Organization as a Class Ia chemical – "extremely hazardous".

"That means it can go through your skin and into your blood," said Gary Jahn, crop protection specialist at the Cambodia-IRRI-Australia Project (CIAP).

On market stalls, cannisters of methyl parathion marketed under the brand name Folidol and manufactured by German chemical multinational Bayer jostle for space with aged bottles of Vietnamese poison.

Folidol is labeled in Thai. Bayer’s Thai office washes its hands of responsibility for providing safe usage information in the Khmer language. The product is smuggled across the border and sales in Cambodia are unofficial and unwanted. "Bayer is not planning to sell or promote any product in Cambodia, so the question of local language labels or leaflets is not relevant," the company said.

Folidol is by no means the only heavyweight poison on the market. One study showed that some 83 percent of all pesticides used in Cambodia are Class Ia or Class Ib, the latter classified as "highly hazardous".

Agronomists do not find it easy to promote pesticide safety in a country where four out of five people depend on their rice crop to feed them every day. "If someone is willing to plow a field that might have landmines in it to get their crop planted, the health risks of pesticides are pretty laughable," Jahn said.

Pest specialists tend to focus on the costs and benefits of spraying pesticides: will the extra rice you save from bugs bring in more than the cost of the pesticide? "Here you have people eating every grain they grow. The question becomes simply, if I don’t spray, will my family have enough to eat?" Jahn said.

The economic equation is in any case thrown out of whack by the absurdly low cost of pesticides dumped in Cambodia. Farmers can spray a hectare of rice with methyl parathion for less than US$1.

Pesticides wipe out not just pests but also the good bugs that eat the bad bugs, so that their use could actually increase the pest problem. Most countries have moved to regulate indiscriminate use of pesticides. Chemical companies have shifted research to more intelligent poisons, poisons which kill only the bugs that attack plants.

But huge stocks of lethal old-style poisons remain. What to do with them? "It is cheaper to sell old stocks here than to destroy them. In fact the companies even get some benefit from it," said Iv Phirun, a crop protection specialist at the agriculture ministry. "We try to ask other Asian countries not to use Cambodia as a garbage can, but it is no use."

It is impossible to measure the flood of pesticides that come across the borders of Vietnam and Thailand, where many of the products finding their way into Cambodia are manufactured. The flood is about to rise; methyl parathion will this year be banned in Vietnam. "We’re getting it from both sides, but we can’t call it illegal imports, because we don’t have a law," said Pen Vuth, head of plant protection at Cambodia’s Department of Agronomy.

The draft law now before the Council of Ministers would ban most Class Ia and Class Ib pesticides and would require imports to be registered and tested in Cambodia before widespread sale.

For the vocal lobby that thinks all pesticides are bad, this is not necessarily unmitigated good news. Once the law is laid down and cross-border imports diminished, giant chemical companies which have so far stayed out of this chaotic market may well grind their slick marketing machines into gear in Cambodia.

"Once the new registration law is passed, Bayer will reconsider today’s position of zero involvement in Cambodia," according to the company.

The multinationals agree that pesticides need to be used properly to be effective. In other countries in the region they hold high-profile demonstrations for farmers on safe pesticide use, demonstrations which leave the countryside splattered with protective clothing and gimmicks bearing the companies’ logos.

"The whole idea of safe pesticide use is a contradiction in terms," said Nugent. He was sitting on the edge of a paddy field, surrounded by farmers drawing pictures of bugs with colored crayons. They were being taught to tell good insects from bad in the hope that they would think twice before dousing their crops in pesticides at the first sign of a grasshopper. "The job of the chemical companies is to push their product. They say their product is less toxic than salt, and I’m always dying to mix up a glass and say okay, you drink it then."

The danger of pesticides is veiled by the enormously varied quality of products on the Cambodian market, which laps up chemicals that are well past their sell-by date, unlabeled or just straight fakes. A CIAP study found that nearly four out of five batches of bug-killer were less potent than advertised, and some had barely a trace of active ingredient.

Dead chemicals encourage farmers to use more and more. "So when you do get a good one you are applying huge amounts, and that can be fatal," said one agronomist. Worse still, farmers have a tendency to mix cocktails. Two pesticides commonly used in Cambodia, when mixed together, give off a nerve gas which can paralyze for life. Specialists are reluctant to name them: "We wouldn’t want to give the Khmer Rouge (guerrillas) any ideas they haven’t already thought of," said one.

Farmers growing vegetables a short boat ride away from the capital seemed unaware of the danger. "This one is good against one insect, this one against another," said Ros Chap, slopping two Class I pesticides into a bucket with his bare hands. He has not seen any bugs on his 10-day-old crop of cucumbers yet, but has sprayed twice "just in case".

Down the river, Chea Von tends to his cabbages. He says he eats a big breakfast to give him strength on the days he sprays, and that is every other day. "Sometimes I feel sick and have to go for an injection," he said, plodding through the poison-soaked vegetables on bare feet. "Some people just fall down in the fields."

Many agronomists believe that agricultural field schools such as that at Tonle Bati, some 30 km from Phnom Penh, would minimize the need for chemicals by teaching farmers to hold off spraying unless yields are threatened.

Others said the natural pest control crowd needed to be more realistic. "The reality is that farmers do use pesticides," said Oya Shigeyuki, a rice culture expert from the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) working in Cambodia’s Department of Agronomy. "They ask us what pesticide is good for this or that problem and it is hard to answer because in Cambodia, there are no good pesticides."

JICA, the overseas aid wing of the Japanese government, raised a storm in 1993 when it donated 35,000 tonnes of Class II pesticides to Cambodia, believing that the country would benefit from having lower toxicity pesticides on the market. Such pesticides are more expensive than the more lethal alternatives, and Cambodia, strangled for cash, could ill afford to buy them unless they were donated.

Many in the international community bristled at this controversial use of aid and some researchers think the "safe alternative" argument was spurious in Cambodia, where pesticide use, although dangerous, is far from universal.

"Saying we should promote less toxic pesticides is a bit like the drug problem," said Jahn. "If you have a cocaine problem and you can wean people off on to methadone, fine. But do you want to hand methadone out to kids who are not using cocaine so that they get addicted?"

The market among rice farmers is believed to be fairly small now, partly because yields are so low that they are unlikely to benefit much from pesticide use. But as high-yielding rice varieties – which are bred for disease resistance and therefore more attractive to bugs and more vulnerable – become more common and farmers bump up their income by growing vegetables and other crops, pesticide use is likely to grow.

Until a law is passed and can be en-forced, Cambodia is likely to remain one of the most poisonous nations on the planet.

Copyright 1996 Asia Times.

(c) 1996 Chamber World Network International Ltd.

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