C AMBODIA'S largely-illiterate farmers are using some of the most dangerous pesticides in the world, prompting calls from agronomists and environmentalists for an immediate ban on the import and sale of these highly-toxic compounds.
Top of the hit list is methyl-parathion - usually traded as Folidol and widely used by Cambodian rice and vegetable farmers - which is classed by the World Health Organization as a category 1A pesticide, or extremely hazardous.
King Norodom Sihanouk called on the government in mid-October "to ban the production, importation and distribution of methyl parathion and any other insecticides which are classified .. as 1A pesticides."
He was responding to an Oct12 memorandum from David Loring of the Church World Service aid agency, that outlined the dangers and called for a Royal Decree to ban these killer compounds, which are not governed by any laws.
But a row between the ministeries of environment and agriculture is holding up adoption of a sub-decree on the use and control of pesticides, with both claiming the right to prepare the document. The cabinet last month sent back a decree drafted by the environment ministry and told them to work out a compromise with the agriculture ministry, which is accused of encouraging farmers to use pesticides. "There has been a great deal of misuse of pesticides in Cambodia and it is a great concern," Undersecretary of State for the Environment, Savath Pou, said at a public forum here recently.
He added that the ministry had recorded "several cases of disease, even cancer, caused by the lack of safety and protection gear, by the lack of public awareness on the use of pesticides."
The official also noted that high-level toxicity pesticides penetrate deeply into top soil and stay there a long time, while the compounds also affect aquatic life in the rice paddies and kill many of the natural predators of the bad bugs.
"The main problems of the pesticide issue on Cambodia is that most of the pesticides that are used here by the farmers are the worst of the lot," said Ardhandu Chatterjee, a member of a working group of non-governmental organizations set up to address the pesticides problem.
" We have been requesting repeatedly that, number one, just ban clearly all category one pesticides," the Indian agronomist said, adding that all calls for prohibition to date appeared to have fallen on deaf ears.
Most of the pesticides used by farmers fall into categories 1A(extremely hazardous) and 1B (highly hazardous), while some of the pesticides with lower categories, while not dangerous for mammals, are extremely dangerous for edible aquatic life such as fish, crabs, weeds, shrimps and frogs.
"In our quest to increase rice production we may decrease food production," Chatterjee warned, while Savath Pou said he had "heard a lot of cases of devastation of fish and aquatic animals by the misuse of pesticides ... some people are complaining of no fish at all."
He said Cambodia could not yet avoid using pesticides, but the ministry was looking at alternatives, including training people how to use pesticides properly, maximizing the efficiency and effectiveness of low-level toxicity compounds, using traditional pesticides like leaves and bark, and employing "manual pesticides" such as nets.
But Chatterjee, noting that most of the pesticides sold in Cambodia were not labeled in Khmer, said the government should begin by making it a finable offense to sell insecticides without Khmer labels.
He also called for packaging of less toxic pesticides in smaller sizes, pointing out that one of the main selling points of folidol was that it could be bought in affordable 100 milliliter containers.
The aid worker said the government should set up a designated national authority to receive information which the US, European and Japanese makers of category one pesticides are obliged to provide to countries importing the compounds, which are banned in most western nations.
There have also been proposals that the justice and agriculture ministries create a committee to set policy and operating guidelines for pesticides until a law is in place and Health Ministry monitoring of sales amounts and types and cases of human illness or death has begun.
Ultimately the government should ban the highly-toxic pesticides, but part of the problem will be in convincing the farmers through a programme of education that they should not use these proscribed products.