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Deadly effective: pesticides in Cambodia

Skin lesions, one of the many side-effects of pesticide use.

R

iding his motorbike from village to village, pesticides reduction trainer Lang Seng

Horng is visiting vegetable farmers and checking for symptoms of pesticides poisoning.

"The farmers have many concerns about their health," says Seng Horng. A

group of villagers in Prek Lavea, he explains, recently realized the scale of the

problem. "They recognized that some of their illnesses were caused by pesticides

they had used."

Seng Horng works for the Centre d'Etude et de Développement Agricole Cambodgien

(CEDAC). A study by CEDAC showed that 40 percent of farmers reduced the amount of

pesticides used on their crop after they were made aware of the dangers.

Slightly more than one in ten of those farmers have now turned to organic methods,

such as tobacco water and soap, to control pests. The study also reported that more

than half the farmers on the program shared their knowledge with other farmers.

Last year CEDAC provided pesticides training to more than 1,000 farmers from six

provinces around the Tonle Sap - Kandal, Battambang, Pursat, Kampong Chhnang, Siem

Reap and Kampong Thom.

"If we consolidate the number of beneficiaries of the project, we estimate more

than 5,000 people benefited from the project," says Seng Horng.

Cambodia's pesticides problems are numerous: many pesticides used here are banned

in their countries of origin, some have been outlawed in neighboring countries, and

the level of education among many farmers is low.

CEDAC reported that 42 of 241 products available in 2000 were banned in Vietnam,

and another 16 were banned in Thailand. Some industry experts are concerned that

Cambodia has become a dumping ground for unwanted and dangerous pesticides.

The lack of product information - particularly about the side-effects - has also

proved a major problem, says CEDAC's executive director Dr Yang Saing Koma.

"Many farmers consider pesticides are only toxic if people swallow them,"

he says. "[The problems associated with] inhalation and absorption through the

skin are not well known."

Many farmers mix four or five different pesticides to create a stronger brew against

bugs and worms, often in ignorance of the dangers to their health.

The Post visited Prek Lavea village, whose inhabitants acknowledged that poisoning

and chronic illnesses meant they had cut down on the amounts used.

In her field of mung beans, 27-year-old Voeun Thath, who is six months pregnant,

is mixing three types of Class 1a chemicals in a bucket. Class 1a pesticides are

classified by the World Health Organization as "extremely hazardous". Thath

has no protective clothing.

"There is no way we can stop using pesticides," she says, lifting the container

to take to her husband. "I have been poisoned many times. Now all I can do is

try to reduce that."

Thath has used pesticides for years, even while pregnant. She says her children were

very weak after they were born, and even now fall sick and suffer from itching.

"I know these problems were caused by the pesticides," she says, "but

if we do not use them, how can we get the money to support our family?"

In its 2002 report on pesticides use in Cambodia, Death in Small Doses: Cambodia's

Pesticide Problems and Solutions, the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) stated

that much pesticide use in Cambodia was "non-essential". It found that

70 percent of Cambodian farmers interviewed were interested in organic methods of

pest control.

Although a government sub-decree issued in 1998 prohibits the use and sale of pesticides

classified as "extremely or highly hazardous to human health" (Class 1a

and 1b respectively), many are still in use.

Iv Phirun, head of integrated pest management (IPM) section at the Ministry of Agriculture,

Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF), says weak law enforcement makes it possible for pesticides

banned in other countries to be imported and sold to Cambodian farmers.

IPM is working with NGOs to reduce pesticide use. IPM's numerous rice field schools

train farmers in alternative methods of pest control on wet season rice. Phirun says

the amount of pesticides used by farmers who have attended the schools has dropped

substantially.

IPM's pilot projects suggest that farmers who sprayed cabbages 20 times per crop

were now using one quarter that amount. As importantly, they no longer used the most

hazardous poisons.

"Mixing different types of pesticides does not create a stronger poison for

bugs and worms," he says. "It just makes it more dangerous for human health.

We advise farmers to use bio-pesticides as they do not kill useful insects and have

fewer side-effects."

Much of the growth in the use of pesticides, says Phirun, is down to the country's

'green revolution' of the late 1980s when the government tried to increase yields

to feed people. Cambodia received large amounts of fertilizers and pesticides from

the former USSR and Vietnam, and encouraged farmers to use them.

"But now after we have seen the impact on human health and the environment,

we are changing that," says Phirun.

Yech Polo, a representative from the Srer Khmer organization, says it is the farmers

who did not receive training about the impact of pesticides who are using increasing

amounts.

"The problem is that not only do they lose money when they buy these pesticides,

they also lose their health," he says. "All parties, from the government

to NGOs workers and farmers must understand the impact of pesticides."

Sok Is, a villager from Dei Itch village, Khien Svay district of Kandal province,

has trained with Srer Khmer. He is using 80 percent less pesticide than before, and

has completely abandoned the most dangerous varieties. Bio-pesticides, he says, do

no damage.

"I hate pesticides, because they used to poison me terribly," he says.

"Now I tell other farmers who are interested in changing about my experiences."

Seang, a farmer in Prek Lavea village, displays his collection of pesticides.

Another concern is that pesticides contaminate the vegetables that consumers buy.

One farmer in Chakangre commune told the Post he sprays his crop until only three

days before harvesting.

"We know it is dangerous for consumers," he says, "but if we leave

the crops unsprayed for two weeks, the bugs will completely destroy them."

Sok Is says it is impossible for consumers to tell which vegetables are safe from

pesticides, and feels the government should check the crops before allowing them

to be sold in the markets. He wants to form a cooperative of local farmers who use

organic or low-pesticide methods to treat their crops, but feels consumers will need

to be informed of the benefits.

"We will need support from consumers to deal with this plan," he says.

"But I do hope it will become a reality soon."

In the Tramkok district of Takeo province, farmer Prak Chres has switched completely

to organic pest control. He says his crop is more attractive even though the skins

of some vegetables look damaged.

"I know consumers are scared of pesticides," he says, as he brings a selection

of his organic tomatoes and other vegetables as a gift for a neighbor's ceremony.

"I hope our people and the farmers will return to the organic ways of old."

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