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The greening of Cambodian farming begins

The greening of Cambodian farming begins

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The use of dangerous pesticides, many of which have been dumped in Cambodia from

stocks in countries which banned their use, is creating a poisonous cocktail on

the country's farm land. But

Bou Saroeun has found a group of farmers

who have rejected artificial chemicals in favour of natural

solutions.

Hem Savoeun says farmer, plants and animals live in symbiosis

Hem Savoeun carefully stirs a mixture of plants in a jar,

explaining as he works away that he is making a "botanical

pesticide".

Next to where he works, rows of healthy vegetables stand as

testimony to Savoeun's philosophy of organic farming on his land on the

outskirts of Takmau near Phnom Penh.

Savoeun is a veteran organic farmer.

He learned to grow vege-tables naturally from his father, who relied on compost

and plant mixtures for fertilizer and pest control.

"My father never used

chemical fertilizers or pesticides, and he never lost a crop," said

Savoeun.

As he walked across his farm frogs and toads jumped out but he

avoids disturbing them, explaining that they preyed on insects which attacked

his vegetables.

He said that organic farming was not just the use of

compost and a few home remedies for plant disease but was an entire system in

which the farmer, the plants and animals all live together in a symbiotic

relationship.

While Savoeun's commitment to organic farming came from his

father, other farmers have made the change after disturbing experiences with

chemical fertilizers and pest control.

Sao Vuth, 40, from Kandal turned

to organic farming after he developed chronic health problems while using

chemicals - dizziness, headaches, skin problems and eye injuries made him look

for alternatives.

"I used a lot of pesticides for 12 years," he said.

"Most of chemical pesticides that I used were very strong.

"Now I avoid

using pesticides and I try to use the compost with botanical

pesticides."

It is not only farmers who are changing their attitudes;

consumers are becoming concerned about the health implications of heavy

pesticide ingestion and consequent health problems.

Lang Seng Hourng,

pesticide project officer at the environmental NGO Centre d'Etude et de

Development Agricole Cambodgien (CEDAC) said their research showed consumers

were becoming more sophisticated about what they ate and how it was

grown.

He said even in rural areas people said they were becoming fearful

of the dangers of eating pesticides.

Luy Rasmey, an environment training

coordinator at the Culture and Environment Preservation Association (CEPA) said

that after her entire family became ill with symptoms that accorded with

pesticide ingestion her mother changed her shopping habits.

Instead of

looking for perfect specimens on the fruit and vegetable stalls she now opted

for plants that had insects on them or insect damage, as this indicated they had

not been sprayed with dangerous chemicals.

Sao Vuth said that one of the

major problems with pesticide use was that farmers sprayed crops a day or two

before sending them to market, which meant there were still high concentrations

of chemicals on the fruits and vegetables when they were consumed.

But

there are indications that farmers' attitudes are changing.

A CEDAC

survey of nearly a thousand farmers found that they were using high levels of

chemical pesticides but many were receptive to the idea of organic farming.

Nearly 70 percent said they liked the idea because it was cheaper than buying

chemicals and nearly 20 percent cited health reasons for considering adopting

natural farming methods.

Dr Young Sang Koma, Executive Director of CEDAC,

said 95 percent of farmers in the survey learned to handle agricultural

chemicals from their neighbors or pesticide traders.

However only eight

out of 77 pesticide traders surveyed said they could read the labels on the

pesticide containers. None of the instructions were in Khmer. Only one trader

had received any training on pesticide use.

All the pesticides were

imported mainly from Thailand and Vietnam and many of the pesticides on sale

were of a type banned in the country of origin, prompting speculation that

Cambodia had become a dumping ground for otherwise valueless stock.

It

also showed that it was the most dangerous pesticides that were the most

popular. The most common pesticides being sold were Mevinphos, Methylparathion,

Monocrotophos and Diclophos - all classified as extremely dangerous. Other

pesticides available included DDT and Chlordane, which accumulate in the food

chain and have hence been banned in most countries.

But even if accurate

handling instructions were given, farmers liked to increase the concentrations

in the belief that the stronger the brew the better.

Koma said farmers

perceived pesticides would not only control the pests but would also stimulate

vegetative growth.

He said most of the farmers thought pesticides were

only a danger if they entered the body orally. He said they did not realize they

could be breathed in or absorbed through the skin.

This ignorance has led

to tragedies. Som Soeu, head of Trapang Kok village in Kandal province, said a

melon grower painted pesticide onto his body as a mosquito repellent. The first

time it appeared to work but when he reapplied it he died.

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