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