Lifting the paraquat ban – in whose interest?

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plantationsThe government’s move to review the ban on this toxic pesticide seems to imply that industries’ profits matter more than the health of plantation workers, says Jennifer Mourin.

Rajam worked as a pesticide sprayer on an estate earning a daily wage of RM18.  The main pesticide she sprayed was paraquat.  She was not provided any protective clothing such as boots, masks, gloves, goggles or apron.

At about 10:30 am on 1 April 1998, Rajam was spraying Gramoxone (paraquat) when she slipped and fell.  Due to rain the previous night, the ground was wet and slippery.  The impact of the fall caused the nozzle of the pump to spray the pesticide directly into her eyes.  She immediately felt an intense burning sensation on her face, lips and eyes.  Unfortunately, there was no water supply for her to wash her face.  She then started to walk back from her work area to the estate clinic, where she arrived more then two hours later.  By the time she reached the clinic, her eyes had reddened and swelled drastically.  The hospital attendant washed her eyes and asked her to go to the government hospital.  They admitted her in the hospital for one week.  One year after the incident, she is blind in her left eye.  As for the other eye, she stills feels pain and a burning sensation and experiences excessive tearing all the time.

For workers such as Rajam, the government’s recent decision to temporarily lift the ban on the herbicide paraquat from 1 Nov 2006 to allow “a comprehensive study on its many uses” must seem bitterly ironic.  It certainly shocked many people and organisations that had been campaigning to rid the country of this dangerous pesticide.


A ground-breaking ban

The original decision to ban and phase out the use of paraquat in the country was taken on 27 August 2002.  Malaysia was the first Asian country to make the ground-breaking decision to phase out the use of this harmful herbicide.  At that time, the government justified its decision by pointing out that more cost efficient and less dangerous alternatives are readily available on the market.

Soon after the decision was made public, PAN AP learnt that Syngenta Malaysia Ltd. representatives had made visits to government officials about the ban.  Syngenta is the world’s largest producer of paraquat, sold in over a hundred countries under the trade name ‘Gramoxone’.  Articles then appeared in major papers supporting paraquat as “Safe to Use in Agriculture” and calling for a lifting of the ban and phaseout.
 
PAN AP learnt that the industry subsequently approached the political leadership within the government, especially since the Pesticides Board had held firm to the decision at the time. As noted by Inter Press Service (IPS) on 18 October 2006:  “Syngenta’s public relations offensive, complemented by lobbying campaigns by associations representing plantation owners and the agrochemical industry, began soon after the decision to phase out paraquat was made in 2002.  The following year, IPS witnessed how the firm’s Malaysian arm, Syngenta Crop Protection Sdn Bhd, feted journalists to a five-star hotel dinner in Penang after holding a briefing on the benefits of using paraquat.  Also present was the chairman of the Malaysian Crop Care and Public Health Association, which represents the agrochemical industry”.
 
It is not surprising that since that time, there seemed to be mixed messages being sent out on the government’s stand on paraquat.  The ban should have come into full force in 2005, but a phase-out period was put in place and extended till 2007, ostensibly after appeals by the industry.  

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During the parliamentary session in April 2006, Agriculture and Agro-based Industries Parliamentary Secretary Rohani Abdul Karim told the House that some countries such as the United States still used paraquat but with stringent safety measures to protect users and that farmers are required to apply for a licence to spray paraquat. “The farmers there are trained on how to use and spray paraquat. There are a lot of differences between the situation here and in developed countries, and that is why Malaysia will not allow paraquat to be used here,” she was quoted as saying. She effectively stated that the ban on paraquat would stay.
 
Malaysia is party to the Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent Procedure for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade, and PAN AP has been monitoring this to ensure that the authorities stay committed to the ban by notifying the UN body of the ban.  

But then, as stated in the 23rd Rotterdam Convention PIC circular of June 2006, “The (PIC) Secretariat would also like to inform you of the withdrawal of the notification for paraquat made by Malaysia under Article 5 to the Rotterdam Convention. The Pesticides Board of Malaysia has, in fact, ‘reinstated the registration of paraquat’” informing the Secretariat that “currently 5 registrants have been granted for registration; however, it is only registered for weed control in young oil palm less than 2 years old”.  The granting of registration to five registrants (companies), with registered use limited to weed control in young oil palm less than two years old was an exemption made during the phase out process—again mostly due to industry pressure.
 

Why the changed stance?

A representative of the Pesticides Control Division explained the government’s latest ‘about turn’ in The Star on 3 October 2006:  “If it is proven that paraquat’s usefulness outweighs its negative impact, we may have to review its usage.  The Agriculture Department wants to review paraquat’s effectiveness on various plants and cash crops,” she added.

Paraquat is a ‘mainstay’ within the plantation sector, especially in palm oil production.  It is considered by many in the palm oil sector as the ‘cheapest’ form of control for weeds.  For Malaysia, palm oil means Big Business.  Under the Ninth Malaysia Plan (2006-2010), the agricultural sector will be the third engine of growth for the economy — with  expected growth of 6 per cent via significant contribution from oil palm, rubber, cocoa, timber and pepper.  Malaysia is currently not only the largest producer and exporter of palm oil, but also the biggest exporter of oils and fats in the world.  The country’s economic development has boomed due to the oil palm industry.  It is an important foreign exchange earner, with export earnings amounting to RM30.4 billion in 2004.  The industry looks to continue remaining the largest export revenue earner among the primary commodities.  In 2005, the total acreage for oil palm increased by three percent to 3.9 million hectares.

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Herbicide sales form 38 per cent of the Syngenta business.  Its most important product is Gramoxone (paraquat), which the company describes as the world’s second largest selling agrochemical.

 

Who pays the price? 

With all the focus on generating growth, wealth and enhancing the development of the country through palm oil production and trade, it seems a whole sector will continue to be marginalised, ignored and, worse still, made to bear the brunt of ill-health, exposure, poisonings and even death from this dangerous chemical.  And it is the very sector on whose backs Malaysia has become rich.  Were the workers ever consulted about the decision to lift the ban?  Were they ever in the equation?

In Malaysia, paraquat has been a major cause of concern due to continued poisonings suffered by plantation workers—especially pesticides sprayers who are mostly women.

Workers on estates are frequently employed as sprayers for six days a week, ten months a year or more, and therefore have a high degree of exposure to the chemical.  The greatest risks to workers of fatal and serious incidents are during mixing and loading of spray equipment, where contact with the chemical concentrate occurs.  Fatal accidents have also been described due to prolonged contact with the diluted paraquat spray during application.  Conditions of use in many developing countries, including rapidly growing ones like Malaysia, make it difficult to follow label instructions and recommendations.

 

Highly toxic pesticide 

It is a well-known, established fact that paraquat is one of the most highly toxic herbicides to be marketed over the last 60 years. As little as 17 mg/kg has been known to kill a human.  There is no antidote!  The Malaysian authorities themselves had previously given it a higher classification than the World Health Organisation (WHO) due to its impacts on health, scheduling it under Class 1(B) of the Pesticides Act 1974.

 The 2002 decision to ban this poison was in fact a vital move by the government to protect agricultural workers, farmers and consumers, as well as the environment as a whole.  In addition, the easy and ready availability of paraquat has also made it one of the main modes of self harm via suicide in the country, particularly since there is no antidote.

PAN AP has consistently contended that there is already more than enough information on the health effects of paraquat, especially on plantation workers under conditions of use in the South!  Furthermore, our latest joint report, “Paraquat – Unacceptable Health Risks for Users”, contains extensive reviews of the impact of paraquat, largely from peer-reviewed studies, which concludes that the pesticide causes daily suffering to an extremely large number of farmers and workers.  Problems resulting from paraquat exposure are found around the world: from the United States to Japan and from Costa Rica to Malaysia.

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We have therefore strongly questioned the safety and integrity of  lifting the ban and allowing the use of  paraquat on all crops to facilitate the  study.  We also question the nature of the study that is to be undertaken by the Pesticides Control Division and are concerned as to whether the results of this study will be made public.  We strongly believe that the study results must be made public.  We also believe that public interest NGOs need to participate in the study’s formulation and implementation.

 

Putting people first 

Even more of concern to us is the way that economic considerations on the part of the Ministry of Agriculture (in terms of the ‘cost effectiveness’ of paraquat) can so easily supersede concerns over its well known adverse impact on human health.

Ironically, the Malaysian government’s shocking decision was made after the French government decided as of 28 June 2006 to cut the amount of sales of paraquat in the country by 50 per cent.   France is the second largest user of paraquat in Europe (18 per cent of sales).  Meanwhile, in early October, the Swedish government went to the European Court of Justice to challenge the European Commissions’ decision to allow paraquat to be used in the EU (when it added paraquat in Annex 1 of the Pesticides Authorisation Directive 91/414).   Sweden , along with six other member states, currently bans the use of paraquat saying that the pesticide is highly toxic and extremely dangerous to health.

The recent reconsideration of the ban on one of the most dangerous poisons in the world has serious implications on the protection of workers’ and farmers’ health and their right to a safe working environment.  The ban, which should have taken effect in July 2005, would have been an exemplary act of caring leadership on the part of the Malaysian government that would have placed the health and well being of thousands of agricultural workers (mostly women) and farmers, and the ‘rakyat’ above other considerations.  

The government’s current action, however, would seem to imply that in Malaysia the industries’ profits override the health considerations of the people.

This is indeed deeply ironic for a government that promotes the concept of a “caring society” for it ignores paraquat’s proven adverse impacts on health, especially among women plantation workers, such as Rajam, and their children.

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Jennifer Mourin is the deputy executive director of Pesticide Action Network’s regional office for Asia and the Pacific (PAN AP)
 

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