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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Japan's Pesticide Package May Kill More Than Bugs

Japan's Pesticide Package May Kill More Than Bugs

Unlike Thailand, many of Cambodia's paddy fields are lush with wild flowers because

pesticides are not widely used here.

But if Japan comes through with an agricultural aid package that includes 30 tonnes

of agro-chemicals, those wildflowers-as well as Cambodia's rivers and fish-could

wither and die.

In Thailand, critics have blamed the lavish use of pesticides for damaging the health

of farmers and consumers, killing fish in the rice paddies and rivers, polluting

the country's waterways, and pushing Thai farmers into debt.

With a little prodding from Japanese chemical companies and the Japan International

Cooperation Agency (JICA), Cambodia may soon face a similar dilemma.

Alarm bells are starting to go off with the news that JICA is planning to provide

the State of Cambodia's Ministry of Agriculture with a U.S. $3.78 million assistance

package. The aid will consist of fertilizer, agricultural tools, and 30 tonnes (or

30,000 liters) of insecticides, worth about 100 million yen (U.S. $800,000).

According to the Japan Tropical Forest Action Network (JATAN), the agricultural chemicals

will be provided by Sumitomo Chemical Co. with Nippon Kayaku Co.-a trading company-handling

the transactions.

Agricultural experts in Cambodia are concerned that the country cannot afford to

sanction the wanton use of pesticides without first studying their potential long-term

impact. Many of these experts, however, are afraid to speak out publicly lest they

be accused of interference.

Double Bind

State of Cambodia (SOC) officials say they are caught between a rock and a hard place

in trying to meet their agricultural needs. According to Chan Tong Yves, an agronomist

with SOC's Ministry of Agriculture, Cambodia requested that Japan send the pesticides.

"We know the use of pesticides may affect the ecological or biological balance

of the environment," he said. "Theoretically, we know there's some impact,

but there's been no research or monitoring of the impact-there's no institution here

to test the pesticides.

"We have to worry [about environmental consequences] but if we do not have pest

control, we cannot deal with shortages of rice and crops," Yves added. "According

to the government policy we have to meet self-sufficiency in agriculture."

Cambodia's agricultural output and the cash-strapped Phnom Penh regime have suffered

from years of warfare, economic isolation, and dwindling foreign aid-coupled with

devastating floods and droughts that periodically hit the countryside.

"The government wants to achieve self-sufficiency in rice and then move to export

because they don't have many sources of revenue," explained one source in Cambodia,

who asked not to be named.

"There's an unfortunate misperception that you need pesticides to increase production

here," said the source, who works for one of the largest agricultural NGOs in

Cambodia. "A large number of people, including farmers, think they need pesticides

for dry season rice production.

"But once you start using pesticides, you kill off the pests' natural predators.

Then you need more. The Japanese should know that."

Some Japanese do know it. "This [aid package] may trigger massive future imports

of agro-chemicals from Japan, which will lead to a repetition of the tragedies of

other Asian nations heavily burdened by debts stemming from agricultural chemicals,"

said a bulletin put out by three Japanese NGOs: the Consumers Union of Japan, JATAN,

and Friends of the Earth Japan.

It's not just NGOs who are anxious. Organizations like the Food and Agriculture Organization

(FAO) and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI)-often considered more

"mainstream"-are also quietly urging SOC officials to consider more modern

and environmentally-friendly techniques such as Integrated Pest Management (IPM)

and Biological Control, which employ natural predators to kill insects, rather than

chemicals.

But funding for such programs and trained personnel to implement them are hard to

find, especially in Cambodia, which has suffered a brain drain over the last several

decades.

No one at the FAO wanted to speak out publicly on the issue. But in specific reference

to the JICA aid package, a memo dated Sept. 30, 1992 written by N.A. Van der Graff-chief

of FAO's Plant Protection Unit stated: "It was concluded that presently an emergency

supply of pesticides for Cambodia would do more harm than good."

IRRI, meanwhile, is testing out different strains of rice that are naturally resistant

to pests found in Cambodia. The organization has come up with several effective new

strains, including one-labelled IR72-shown to be 100 percent resistant to the brown

plant hopper, the scourge of both Thai and Cambodian paddy.

Although 30 tonnes of pesticide is not a lot by global standards, the amount of pesticides

Japan is sending Cambodia is a cause for worry, according to the NGO source. "It's

a large amount for a country that doesn't have much knowledge," he said.

Yves contended that, "we've had much more pesticide than this before-double

or triple in one year." But the FAO claims otherwise, saying that current pesticide

use is very little. The agency says Cambodia has received from five to nine tonnes

of pesticides per year since 1980-aid which was contributed primarily by the former

Soviet Union.

The FAO has no data from the private sector, and pesticides are available on the

open market as a result of cross-border trade with Thailand and Vietnam. Most Cambodian

farmers, however, are too poor to purchase them.

Yves said pesticide use is concentrated in the lower Mekong basin, close to Vietnam.

Both pests and pesticides there come from Vietnam, and he says the farmers in the

area are familiar with Vietnamese agro-chemical practices.

But, he added, very few farmers in the provinces around the Tonle Sap or other, more

remote regions of the country use pesticides.

Some aid organizations have brought in pesticides, the NGO source said, "but

this is a result of a misunderstanding by non-agriculturalists about agricultural

inputs."

The FAO source confirmed that some NGOs use pesticides, but added: "They do

so on a small scale and they provide training courses."

In many developing countries, products given in aid packages are sold to merchants

on the black market, and then resold by the merchants to farmers at market prices.

This allows government officials and businessmen to reap profits, despite the fact

that farmers might then apply the chemicals without knowing how to use them properly.

Once farmers have destroyed natural predators by using chemicals, they can get hooked

on using pesticides, often ending up in debt because of the high cost.

Besides the potential for damaging farmers' health, decreasing agricultural yields,

and inducing farmers into debt, pesticide run-off can also poison freshwater fish

populations. As in Thailand's Northeast, fish is the main source of protein for most

Cambodians.

FAO studies show that fish provide about 70 percent of the protein in the Cambodian

diet. Most of this is freshwater fish, half of which comes from the Tonle Sap. "As

yields from the Tonle Sap decrease," said Imre Csavas of the FAO, "paddy

fish will become more important."

Another U.N. source expressed great concern about the impact of pesticides on fish:

"Drop 30 tonnes of pesticides and then what?" he said. "Have they

made a study? I've seen what can happen with the wrong use of pesticides-it's very

dangerous."

There's also the broader question of damaging Cambodia's precious freshwater resources,

most notably the Tonle Sap. In Thailand, even the environmental reformers of the

Anand administrations admitted to being stumped as to how to halt continuing pollution

of waterways by pesticides.

Wolf in Sheep's Clothing?

Experts say that the benefits of Japan's aid package will depend on which types of

pesticides are sent, how they are distributed, and whether farmers are trained in

their use.

Japanese NGOs such as JATAN, the Consumers Union of Japan, and Friends of the Earth

Japan have been trying to obtain information about the JICA aid package from Japan's

Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but to no avail. They have learned, however, that the

ministry has not conducted any feasibility studies on the project.

"To determine whether to grant aid to a country, feasibility studies and local

surveys are essential to understand local conditions and backgrounds in the aid-recipient

country," the Japanese NGOs say in their bulletin. "The fact that no studies

were conducted indicates that this aid project ignores the realities in Cambodia

and exists only to meet Japan's own interests,"-i.e. boost future sales of Japanese

chemical companies.

According to Yves, the shipment of pesticides from Japan should arrive in March.

Three types of insecticides are to be sent: their generic names are diazinon, fenvalerate,

and fenithrothion. The trade names of the latter two products are Sumicidin and Sumithion.

Yves describes all three as "moderately hazardous," with LD50 readings

of 300. LD50 is the medium dose of a toxic compound that will cause death in humans

or animals.

However, JATAN claims diazinon and Sumicidin are "categorized as toxic substances

with fairly high levels of acute toxicity."

According to the National Wildlife Federation, Diazinon was placed under special

review in the United States in 1987 for its effects on wildlife-based on evidence

that its use had killed 23 species of birds.

The Federation's handbook cautions against breathing the insecticide's spray, getting

it on the skin or clothing, or applying it near water used by humans or livestock.

"Diazinon may be fatal if swallowed and is readily absorbed through the skin,"

the handbook states. "Wash thoroughly after handling. Do not use on humans or

allow people to enter the treated area until the spray has completely dried. Keep

diazinon out of streams, lakes, ponds, tidal marshes, and estuaries. Do not use it

near or in water that will be used for any purposes by humans or livestock."

Rosana Tositrakul, a project manager at "Traditional Medicine for Self Reliance,"

a Thai NGO that promotes organic farming, claims that all three pesticides are regarded

as highly toxic by the World Health Organization.

In addition, she said that IRRI-often acknowledged as the leader of the "green

revolution" that has caused crop yields to increase dramatically over the last

few decades-refuses to use them in agriculture.

Tositrakul also said that fenvalerate is not recommended for import into Thailand

because applying the compound requires wearing special clothes that are too hot for

tropical climates.

Yves admitted that SOC had not been able to perform in-depth research or monitoring

of the impact of the pesticides, but said, "We have conducted a trial of those

pesticides in cooperation with WCC (the World Council of Churches). They've been

working with diazinon since 1987 or 88 for vegetable production in Kien Svay district

near Phnom Penh.

"Cambodia has gotten fenvalerate from the Soviet Union since the early 1980s

for rice and cotton," he said. "Fenithrothion has been used since the 1960s.

It was introduced by Japanese experts as part of an assistance program for the Rice

Research Center in Battambang province."

Yves acknowledged a lack of government control over distribution and admitted that

provincial departments sometimes sell the chemicals on the black market to farmers

who don't know how to use them properly.

"It's not 100 percent controlled," Yves said. "We cannot avoid this."

If pesticides are used improperly, Yves said, they can be very harmful-although he

said this is not a major problem in Cambodia. "We conduct training every year-farmer

classes," he said. "Farmers get elementary knowledge on how to handle pesticides

and how to spray properly. Now most farmers are aware of the effect of pesticides-on

health especially."

But none of the foreign experts questioned for this article felt there has been sufficient

training.

"Cambodia is a special country. There are no controls, and few technicians,"

said a U.N. source. "They must make training courses in provinces where the

pesticides will be sent. [Pesticides] may increase yields, but what about the effects

on fish and the microorganisms that fish live off?"

NGOs, FAO, and IRRI would all prefer that training be directed not towards pesticide

use but more sustainable pest management techniques, such as Integrated Pest Management

(IPM).

"These techniques maintain the balance between pests and predators," said

the NGO source. "Pesticides can be used as a last resort, but with proper training

there should be very little need."

While familiar and supportive of practices such as IPM, Yves said the problem in

implementing them in Cambodia is a lack of "manpower, facilities, and funding."

Nonetheless many NGOs are actively promoting IPM and are considering establishing

a program with the FAO and IRRI. These two organizations are also planning a conference

on pest control issues to set up proper policies. The response from SOC officials

has reportedly been positive.

The main problem seems to be that while multinational corporations and JICA may be

eager to promote the use of pesticides, they seem reluctant to fund alternatives

such as IPM.

Foreign agricultural experts in Cambodia are caught in a bind. Most believe that

pesticides are not appropriate for the country, at least at this time. Yet they find

it difficult to speak out because they are guests here.

"We don't want to seem paternalistic," explained the NGO source. "We

want to use a participatory approach. But when the farmers ask for pesticides, it's

difficult to explain all the problems associated with them."

Farmers in Kampot province, which borders Vietnam, estimate they've lost between

20 and 40 percent of their rice crop in recent years.

"This year I lost almost everything to brown plant hoppers," said Khieu

Im. "Almost the whole province was affected."

In 1992 half of Khieu's one-hectare field-which usually brings in 4 tonnes of rice-was

destroyed by bugs. "The government used to provide pesticides to the people

but this year they didn't provide anything," he said. "Now we have to buy

pesticide on the free market, which most people can't afford."

If he could obtain pesticides from the government he would use them, he said, although

during the last several years that's been difficult.

"Pesticides are good for one thing but they can also affect the fish, crabs,

earthworms and other edible creatures in the rice fields," he said.

Because of their concerns, the NGOS believe Japan should not be in the business of

providing pesticides for free. But again, they are reluctant to speak out because

it's a bilateral matter between Japan and Cambodia's Ministry of Agriculture.

"Perhaps the ministry really believes it's necessary," said one source.

"But it has been the case elsewhere that such aid packages are simply used as

a money-making scheme. In this manner, for instance, Africa has been used as a dust-bin

for products banned elsewhere."

SOC Ministry officials themselves are caught between Cambodia's agricultural demands

and their own misgivings about the use of agro-chemicals.

"In developing countries if you can't use pesticides for pest control you cannot

succeed in agricultural production," Yves said. "Cambodia is not yet advanced

so we have to use pesticides-it's the normal case for underdeveloped countries."

Yves says JICA's donation of 30,000 liters will only cover 50,000 hectares at most-a

small percentage of Cambodia's three million total hectares of crop land.

"I don't think the use of pesticides in Cambodia is alarming yet-we don't take

so much," he said. "It's one drop of water into the glass."

But even if Japan's donated pesticides are not sold on the black market and are distributed

cheaply to the poor farmers, the farmers will only become more and more dependant

on them because the chemicals will kill off natural predators.

One way or another, Cambodian farmers seem destined to end up hooked on increasing

use of chemicals, which neither they nor the country seem able to afford.

- James Fahn is science and technology editor at the Bangkok Nation.

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