THE government's decision to ban a lethal pesticide in March marks an unprecedented
move by health and agriculture officials to curb certain dangerous pesticides whose
use is reaching record levels.
"It's the first time that's happened," said Dr Yang Saing Koma, executive
director of CEDAC, an local agricultural research body. "Because a lot of people
in Cambodia use pesticides, [regulators] take it seriously."
Although a number of pesticides are already banned, endosulfan is the first chemical
singled out by government for its effect on human health and the environment. The
previous legislation, a sub-decree issued in 1998, prohibited 64 pesticides listed
as "extremely or highly hazardous to human health" by the World Health
Organisation (WHO), but only imposed restrictions on products like endosulfan.
The chemical, which is classified as 'moderately hazardous' by the WHO, has recently
been shown to be among the more lethal and damaging chemicals on the market. It falls
under the second-most hazardous classification of the US Environmental Protection
The UK-based Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) reported that a wave of birth
defects, massive wildlife kills, neurological disorders and hundreds of deaths in
developing countries had been linked to the pesticide.
Some people here are aware of its dangers: A vendor at a city market noted that it
kills nearly every living animal, "even frogs, snakes and fish".
For those reasons, EJF launched a global campaign to ensure endosulfan was phased
out in developing nations. It has already been restricted or outlawed in more than
33 mostly industrialized countries.
A Ministry of Health (MoH) letter dated December 2002 asked government agencies to
ban endosulfan after the ministry received alarming reports from EJF. Following negotiations
with the Council of Ministers, the Minister of Agriculture issued a prakas on March
21 prohibiting its use.
But more than a month on, not everyone knows the pesticide is banned. British American
Tobacco (BAT), the world's second largest tobacco company, was only a year ago recommending
endosulfan for its 833 contracted farmers growing tobacco. It told the Post on May
6 it was unaware of the ban.
The company's literature still lists the chemical as 'restricted', but leaf director,
Dr Vuthy Chuon, said that would change.
"Although the chemical is available here, we have looked at the market and there
are some alternatives," he said.
BAT claims it stopped recommending endosulfan in September 2002. The company, which
was criticized for failing to supply protective gear and ensure adequate training
for its farmers, said it was promoting more benign pest control methods, selling
subsidized safety equipment, and requiring farmers to maintain a 'passport' to ensure
they adhere to the company's recommended mix of chemical and natural pest control
But the problem of pesticide poisoning remains. Banned pesticides like endosulfan
continue to flood the market from countries like Vietnam and Thailand. A recent UN
Food and Agriculture Organisation study found that nearly 90 percent of farmers using
pesticides here had experienced symptoms of poisoning during or after spraying.
An informal Post survey of pesticide vendors in the capital found at least four banned
products on the shelves, including Thiodal, a common trade name for endosulfan. Most
sellers were unaware of the ban and, for two dollars, would sell a bottle of the
chemical without instructions written in Khmer.
CEDAC's Dr Koma estimated that about 2,500 tons of pesticides and fertilizer chemicals
were applied to crops last year, an increase of 25 percent over 2000 and the highest
recorded. At least $50 million was spent on agricultural chemicals.
"And we wonder why we are poor?" he pointed out. "It will cost [even]
more in the end."
But government officials said it was difficult to stop banned pesticides before they
were sold to farmers.
"The local market is an illegal market [and] endosulfan is still available,"
said Chean Van Han, head of the Crop Protection Office at the Ministry of Agriculture.
"I don't think farmers will change. [Stopping it] will depend on how strong
Dr Koma said the chemicals flooding the market were the result of a well-coordinated
effort by chemical companies to expand their markets in the country. Many are now
trying to offload stocks of toxic chemicals banned elsewhere.
Chemicals in the same class as endosulfan, an organochlorine, remain in the environment
for long periods, often in the liver, kidneys and fatty tissues of those who use
them. That is of grave concern here, where they are sometimes used to kill fish,
as well as being sprayed on vegetables shortly before harvesting.
"My impression is that the primary threat to the population comes from those
people who use pesticides," said Steven Iddings, an environmental health specialist
with the WHO. "Next to them is the consumer."
Farmers, who are often pressured by foreign companies to be competitive with industrialized,
petro-chemical based agribusinesses elsewhere, are applying ever more potent and
expensive chemicals to improve their quality and yields.
BAT said it has tried to wean farmers off chemicals and use more beneficial Integrated
Pest Management techniques such as neam leaf or natural pest predators. But a spokesman
felt that despite BAT's commitment to adopt "best international practice standards",
Cambodia could not be held to the same standard as most developed nations.
"What might be deemed as a very dangerous chemical in one place might be a lesser
poison somewhere else," said Thierry de Roland Peel, BAT's corporate affairs
manager. "This country doesn't even have half its legislation in place. It's
only companies like us that come to try and help and speed up regulations."