MOVE THESE poisonous mountains

 Cheikh Hamallah Sylah and Mark Davis describe the menace of tens of thousands of tonnes of obsolete pesticides building up in developing countries

Rotting mountains of old and unuseable pesticides have been building up in developing countries for decades. They expose whole communities to insidious and persistent poisons in their air, water and food.

In Ethiopia 1,500 tonnes of pesticides lie scattered in over 400 locations around the country. Some are close to wells, others on river flood plains; there are even mounds of burst sacks and leaking drums in residential areas of the capital, Addis Ababa. In Nepal, the watershed for much of Asia, 150 tonnes of obsolete pesticides have accumulated since the 1950s. In Nicaragua, there are more than 1,100 tonnes of them, including over 81 tonnes of DDT stored in a cancer treatment hospital.

Many of the chemicals in these stockpiles have long since been banned in many countries because of their disastrous impact on the health of people and the environment. Aldrin, chlordane, dieldrin, endrin, heptachlor, mirex and toxaphene are commonly found in the neglected stores of Africa, Asia and Latin America – but these are the very kind of chemicals that the world is now preparing to ban through a convention on persistent organic pollutants. Almost no corner of the developing world is free of such legacies of past malpractice.

It is easy, in the stocks of some of the world’s poorest countries, to find pesticides labelled in strange languages, products designed for use on crops that have never been grown there, and containers marked with expiry dates which turn out to have been long before the chemicals were delivered. They have been donated by unscrupulous agencies in the developed world and dumped in developing countries in the guise of aid.

Donor nations have also been somewhat overeager to send pesticides to the developing world as part of aid designed to improve agricultural productivity. Often they would arrive in packages too large for local farmers to use, in formulations which did not match available application equipment, or in the wrong place and at the wrong time. Some agencies still supply large amounts with little regard for actual need.

Elsewhere the legacies of centralized supply systems are piled high. Officials far from farms and rural areas would place an order for pesticides with no knowledge of how much was actually used in a season. Year after year the orders were repeated and dispatched, but never used. The stores filled up, but the oversupply was never reported. Now they cannot be used and may already have leaked into the ground or nearby watercourses.

Best intentions
In other places pesticides were sent, with the best of intentions, to be held at the ready for potentially devastating outbreaks of pests such as desert locust and army worm, but the outbreaks never came, and the poisons burned their way through their steel drums and seeped into the environment.

In all, it is conservatively estimated, there are 20,000 tonnes of obsolete pesticides in Africa, accumulated over 30 years. Asia and Latin America are thought to contain at least another 80,000 tonnes and Central and Eastern Europe may hold another 200,000 tonnes. Nobody knows the figures for certain, because almost no detailed surveys of stockpiles have been made.
The current problems and the legacy of the past still need to be solved

The challenges for both the international community and authorities in developing countries are to remove these mountains of poisons safely and to prevent any new accumulation of unwanted ones. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has been helping developing countries dispose of obsolete pesticides, and put effective prevention measures in place, for five years. Several international development agencies have also supported clean-up operations. But so far less than 3,500 tonnes of pesticides have been removed from African and Near Eastern countries, at a total cost of $24 million. At this rate it will take 50 years to clear Africa of existing stocks and the cost could well exceed $100 million.

There are, at present, few options for destroying these toxic chemicals. They are mostly repacked and sent to dedicated high-temperature incinerators in Europe. This is expensive, and it does little to help developing countries deal with their own hazardous waste – and many European communities object to the resulting contamination of their environments. But cleaner destruction technologies are not yet available.

Donor agencies do not like to spend aid money on destroying old chemicals, particularly if they helped to contribute pesticides in the past; it is much more appealing to spend money on health care, education and infrastructure. But there is little value in providing drinking water for remote communities if the water source is contaminated by toxic pesticides, or in helping villagers grow healthy food crops if their soil and air is similarly poisoned. Healthy and sustainable development must include removing both existing environmental pollutants and the soil and other materials that they have contaminated.

The global pesticides industry sold well over $32 billion worth of pesticides worldwide in 1997 alone. At a 9 per cent profit, a fairly typical figure, it could clear Africa and the rest of the developing world of all obsolete pesticide stocks in one year – and still make over $2 billion. Yet so far it has only contributed a few tens of thousands of dollars towards the removal of little over 200 tonnes of them. And the industry sees Africa, Latin America and Asia as growing markets for their products, while sales in Europe and North America are slowly declining.

Seeking solutions
There are hopeful signs of change. Some donor agencies, learning from bitter experience, no longer send pesticides; instead they support agricultural programmes based on low input regimes, like integrated pest management and organic production – and micro-credit schemes which help farmers to buy seed inputs in the amounts they need. Many developing country governments have stopped subsidizing pesticides, reducing oversupply and overuse. Most are also instituting regulatory systems to control the import and sale of such substances. Measures such as these will make it easier to prevent stockpiles building up in the future. But the current problems – and the legacy of the past – still need to be solved urgently

Cheikh Hamallah Sylah is Programme Officer at the Pesticides Action Network – Africa and Mark Davis is Project Coordinator at the Pesticides Trust.

PHOTOGRAPH: Ron Giling/Still Pictures

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Celebration and challenge | Informal diplomacy | Being in earnest | International Declaration on Cleaner Production | Clean = competitive | Not on Planet Earth! | The Basel Convention | At a glance | Competition | It’s a waste | Move these poisonous mountains | Broad, global and dynamic | A monumental challenge | UNEP Chemicals | Latin lessons | Sasakawa Environment Prize | Of potholes and ozone holes | Will we learn?

Complementary articles in other issues:
Ruben Mnatsakanian: A poisoned legacy (Chemicals) 1997
Alemayehu Wodageneh: Trouble in store (Chemicals) 1997
Barbara Dinham: Getting off the pesticide treadmill (Food and Sustainable Development) 1996