Alberto Barrion came here to poke around the paddy fields in search of insects so
he could draw up a list of who are the 'good guys' and who are the 'bad guys.' "
I am happy to say that there are so many good guys in Cambodia's rice paddy,"
Barrion told the Post.
Barrion, an entomologist, is assisting the International Rice Research Institute
(IRRI) and the International Development Research Center (IDRC) in introducing Integrated
Pest Management (IPM) to Cambodia .
The IPM project was established because of fears-heightened by a proposed Japanese
aid package including US$800,000 worth of pesticides-that Cambodia's farmers would
begin using pesticides on a large scale.
"Cambodia is in a good position for setting up IPM. At the moment there is not
too much pressure on farmers. But as the population grows, yields will have to increase
and there will be more pressure to use pesticides, especially if they are subsidized
and promoted by the Department of Agriculture," Cambodia-IRRI Rice Project Director,
Harry Nesbitt said. The problem is that most pesticides also eradicate the bad guys'
natural predators and this causes farmers to become increasingly dependent on their
use. This is the reason why IRRI was interested in organizing an IPM project, he
IRRI and IDRC held a seminar in Phnom Penh in January aimed at convincing Cambodian
agriculture officials that there were other options to heavy pesticide use, Nesbitt
said. A number of regional agricultural experts discussed the effects and repercussions
of pesticide use in their respective countries with the hope that Cambodia could
learn from their mistakes.
"Despite massive use of pesticide on crops, it did not have a significant impact
on reducing the pest population and in some cases increased it," an Indonesian
agricultural expert stated at the seminar. He warned the audience about the effects
of intensive use. "Pest resistance and resurgence, environmental pollution,
destruction of non-target organisms and health hazards to people resulted from inappropriate
pesticide use." Faced with this outcome, he said, the Indonesian government
gradually changed its pest control policy from the use of pesticides alone and switched
Another expert working with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in the Philippines
noted that the prolonged use of pesticides had resulted in greater threats from brown
plant hopper (BPH) outbreaks. This major scourge of rice farmers developed a resistance
to the pesticides which virtually eradicated all its natural enemies.
Speaking on the same subject a Japanese official stated that the BPH resurgence threatens
sustainable rice production in developing countries in Asia and to avoid such a crisis
he recommended the maximum conservation of Barrion's "good guys" and minimal
reliance on insecticides.
As a result of the seminar and at the request of the Ministry of Agriculture, an
IPM program was established in Cambodia. And this is what brought Barrion to Cambodia.
The ability to identify friends from foes in the rice fields is one of the basic
tenets of IPM.
Barrion was at pains to point out that contrary to the perceptions of many people,
IPM does not preclude the use of pesticides. Pesticides can and should be used "but,
a big but, only as a last resort," he said. What is most important, he said,
was the first two steps: the right plant selection to ensure a healthy crop and then
biological control, which means letting the pests' natural enemies do their work.
If the good bugs lose the biological battle and the pests start swarming victoriously
throughout the paddy, then chemical warfare could be considered. "If cross plant
resistance plus biological control do not work and there's an uncontrollable outbreak
of pests then insecticides are needed. But always in that order," the entomologist
Barrion does not adhere to the view, held by many IPM proponents, that all chemical
companies are rapacious and inherently evil. "Some companies thought IPM has
been so biased against them. I agree because some people would only consider an IPM
system with the first two steps. But by definition IPM is integrated: plant resistance,
biological control and chemical control," he said.
In response to growing environmental awareness and to ensure future profitability,
some chemical companies have been trying to improve their products, he said.
"Things are getting better now because some of the insecticides are selective,
some spare the killing of the bad guys' natural enemies. Dow and Ciba Geigy are really
looking into this area of selective pesticides so farmers will have a way of controlling
their pests while at the same time preserving the pests' natural enemies," he
The problem at the moment is one of bug awareness, Barrion said. Farmers are attracted
to pesticides because they are prejudiced against all bugs. "When the farmer
looks at the fields and sees so many bugs, he just scratches his head and says 'I
have so many problems'". Barrion said he understood their anti-bug sentiments.
"You cannot blame them. If a worm comes and eats the crop and then another worm
like creature comes along, they think that it is the same, another bad guy,"
the bug man said, adding "but this is not true; take the spider, the truth is
he is a friend. He eats the moths that lay eggs on the rice plants. When those moth
eggs hatch, they become pests and eat the rice plant."
Barrion reiterated that the purpose of his visit was to teach the farmers that not
all bugs were evil and to let them know that they have undercover allies in their
war against pests. What's more, he said, the allies constitute a sizeable force.
"There's an abundance of good guys already at work. There are spiders, ant-like
beetles and some of the many wasps. In other words there's a huge amount of pests'
natural enemies in existence secretly operating as pest controllers," he said.
The task now was to penetrate the secret agents cover and ensure they get due recognition
for their major role in the war against the insects who destroy crops.
Ann Hickey of IDRC explained that this was the role of her organization. "Starting
in August, we will be training ministerial technicians in IPM. Next year, we will
support those technicians to go out and train farmers," she said. Reaching down
to the grass roots level was seen as crucial. "It's the farmer who makes the
decision (to use or not to use pesticides) so it is the farmer we need to target.
He won't buy pesticides at the market if he thinks he doesn't need it."
Apart from the dangers of pesticides, Hickey went on to say that Cambodian farmers
didn't have the right equipment to launch a safe, efficient strike on the bad bugs.
"The equipment is so primitive. Ninety percent of farmers use a bamboo plunger
and the pesticide just spurts out so there is no spraying whatsoever. It's very much
a hit and miss situation. It's a waste of money and activity because you are not
hitting the right target."
While the equipment may be ineffectual, it still had the capacity to backfire on
the user. "They haven't got the technology to hit the target but they have the
technology to poison themselves," Hickey said.
Barrion felt that once farmers were aware of IPM, they wouldn't be disappointed with
the results. "We have a big trial district in the Philippines at the moment.
Farmers were very impressed with the outcome. Without insecticides, as long as you
can properly manage your field, you can really prop up the yield," he said.
Another pressing reason to promote the use of IPM now was the fear that Cambodia
would suffer the same fate as some African countries and become a dumping ground
for chemicals that have been banned in the West.
That is why, in addition to their efforts to encourage IPM use throughout Cambodia,
IRRI is also engaged in moves to try and erect legal barriers to protect Cambodia
from the most lethal chemical products.
"There's no legislation here at the moment. So, at the request of the Ministry
of Agriculture, we are hiring specialists to draw up a law. If they can be convinced
to eliminate the extremely dangerous 'category one' pesticides, it would be a great
start for this country," Nesbitt said.