Breaking the cycle of poison

Sarojeni V. Rengam reports how excessive pesticide use traps farmers in poverty, and outlines some solutions.

More than 300 farmers committed suicide in 1997 and 1998 in Andhra Pradesh, India, and more cases have been reported in recent years. Farmers in the area had shifted from food crops to commercial ones such as cotton and chillies, and had to borrow heavily to buy high-yielding varieties of seeds, chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Unfortunately, the massive spraying of the fields with pesticides created an ecological crisis, killing off the pests’ natural enemies and causing them to become resistant to the chemicals.

The resulting resurgence of pests forced farmers to use cocktails of pesticides, but this only exacerbated the problem and led to repeated crop failures. These, together with the increasing costs of pesticides and other inputs, forced farmers into a cycle of debt. So once these small farmers bought into this Green Revolution technology, they were trapped.

Unable to bear the consequences, the men committed suicide, leaving the burden of the debts to their wives and families who face increasingly unbearable workloads and depressing poverty as they struggle to settle them. And most surviving small and marginal farmers – not just in Andhra Pradesh, but in Asia as a whole – face such an accumulation of debt as a result of switching to Green Revolution technology. The Asian NGO Coalition has established that 4.3 million farming families in Thailand were buried in debt just a few years after adopting high-yielding varieties.

Some 25 million farmers and agricultural workers are poisoned by pesticides each year. A Pesticide Action Network (PAN) Asia and the Pacific study of pesticide use and exposure patterns in seven countries revealed a litany of problems including poorly educated and impoverished farmers applying pesticides without any training or protective clothing.

Absence of safeguards
The use of highly dangerous pesticides – including World Health Organization Class I pesticides categorized as ‘extremely hazardous', such as methyl parathion, monocrotophos and methamidophos – is common. There is very little knowledge of their dangers. Measures to restrict re-entry into a sprayed field for a number of hours are difficult to enforce. There is a shortage of facilities for washing after use, or for coping with accidents. In Cambodia, one methyl parathion product carries labels in Thai, rather than the Khmer language, so farmers are unable to read the instructions for use or any warnings they carry. Farmers frequently store pesticides in their kitchens, under beds and within easy reach of children. Pesticide containers are reused for water collection or storage. Farmers and agricultural labourers complain of headaches, dizziness, vomiting, nausea, difficulty in breathing, chronic itching, nails turning black and dropping off, sensitivity to light and even unconsciousness. A study in Indonesia observed that farmers averaged three or more neurological, intestinal or respiratory symptoms of poisoning in 21 per cent of the studied spraying operations.

Community action
PAN International campaigns against pesticide use and for more ecological pest management. In many regions, including Asia and the Pacific, it has initiated community health monitoring, participatory action research and local surveys to document the impact of pesticides on farmers and agricultural workers. As a result groups are working towards empowering women, farmers and workers to address and campaign against hazardous pesticides, to reduce their exposure to them and to promote non-chemical alternatives.

A quiet revolution is now taking place in Asia. The Ecological Agriculture Movement looks at agriculture as a holistic system, where other key concerns besides yield increases are considered in making decisions about development. Most emphasis is placed on food security in a framework encompassing production, environment, women’s participation and democracy. Such ecological agriculture systems tend to learn from, and build on, traditional farming using local farmers’tools and technology.

Today 55,000 farmers in Bangladesh are practising ecological agriculture within the Nayakrishi Andolan (New Agricultural) movement. More than 10,000 farmers in India are practising low external input agriculture without the use of pesticides, while in one NGO programme in Indonesia, more than 7,000 farmers have been reducing pesticide use by 60-80 per cent through integrated pest management

Sarojeni V. Rengam is the Executive Director of Pesticide Action Network (PAN) Asia and the Pacific based in Penang, Malaysia.

PHOTOGRAPH: T. Balamhadren/UNEP/Topham

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Answering poor health | Tackling water poverty | Everything connects | Up the gross natural product | Stopping AIDS | Whose city is it anyway? | Nutrition | At a glance: Poverty | Competition | World Bank Special: ‘Double burden’ | It’s not just, pollution | Smoke and fires | Breaking the cycle of poison | Pharmacies for life | Viewpoint: Change – or decay | The environment: why we must not give up | World Atlas of Coral Reefs | GTOS: An eyeglass on our planet

Complementary articles in other issues:
Cheikh Hamallah Sylah and Mark Davis: Move these poisonous mountains (Hazardous waste) 1999
Alemayehu Wodageneh: Trouble in store (Chemicals) 1997
Barbara Dinham: Getting off the pesticide treadmill (Food) 1996
Jules N. Pretty: Sustainability works (Food) 1996
Don de Silva: Chemical-free farming (Chemicals) 1997

AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment:
Population waste and chemicals,