The Efforts to Ban Paraquat

The Efforts to Ban Paraquat

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By Sudan Loone

Paraquat has been blamed for numerous health problems in the countries where it is used. Instead, the EU has approved it.

Paraquat has been blamed for numerous health problems in the countries where it is used. Instead, the EU has approved it.

Muniamah, works in an oil palm plantation in Malaysia. She wakes up at 4 a.m. each day to cook for her husband, in-laws, and children before reporting to work.

The mother of seven school-age children, she is also the sole breadwinner in the family, as her husband is ill.

She earns between RM200 and RM300 per month, but cannot earn more because she is chronically in pain herself, with headaches, back pain, and rashes on her hands and legs.

"I have no choice (but to move on). The children have to eat. I have no other skills and I am no longer young," says Muniamah, 46.

In Indonesia, Ratini, 44, says she was seven months pregnant when she informed her employer of her condition - she was scolded for having "cheated" by taking a day of leave each month for menstruating women.

Management deducted those days from her salary and forced her to spray pesticide even during her pregnancy, she said.

"I couldn't ask for another job. I continued spraying until the month I gave birth and my baby was small compared to my previous children," said the mother of six.

"He only weighed 2 kilos and my oldest boy had weighed 5. After three months, my son had rashes on his legs and on his body and I had to buy him medicine."

In the Philippines, 42-year-old Joy had persistent itching on her hips and legs for more than a month. She tried all kinds of creams from the local grocery store to treat her condition, but they were useless.

You cannot ask for time off from work on a farm for treatment at the nearest clinic, a two-hour bus ride from your home.

They may be countries far away from each other, but these women have several things in common - poverty, work problems, poor health, and that they spray the herbicide Paraquat.

Tenaganita, a lobby group for migrant workers in Malaysia, says most of the women who spray are in their 30s and have no skills for other types of work within a rural economy or plantation setting.

"In the factory, they stopped working at 45 but on the plantation they can work until 55. The farms provide accommodation, which is one of their main concerns," explains its director Irene Fernandez.

"With a roof over their heads, the kids can be with them and they get a little extra money when they work overtime. It's a family environment for them."

Paraquat ban

Paraquat has been banned by 13 governments to date, after a long history of connection to poisonings and deaths. It is highly toxic, there are no antidotes, and has been classified as one of the "dirty dozen" by the Penang Asia-Pacific Pesticide Action Network (PAN-AP).

However, it is still widely used in 120 countries for the production of corn, fruits and vegetables, rice, sugar cane, bananas, cereals and other crops.

Last year, the Standing Committee of the European Commission for the Food Chain and Animal Health approved Paraquat for use in member states under its Pesticide Authorization Directive.

"But the decision was not unanimous," said PAN-AP executive director Sarojeni V Rengam.

"The Swedish government is now suing the commission for misjudging the risks associated with the use of Paraquat, and for neglecting its duty to protect," he said.

Sweden stated that the commission has "exceeded the limit of its discretionary powers by infringing the precautionary principle in connection with risk assessment and risk control of Paraquat."

The case is pending before the Court of Justice of the European Community. Six public interest organizations have also launched legal action against the EU in the European Court of First Instance, asking for the decision to be annulled.

In Malaysia, the herbicide is used mostly in African palm plantations, but it is also commonly available in grocery stores, as randomized research in the northern region recently showed.

A long fight for its ban paid off in 2002 when the government announced that all new applications for registration or re-registration of the herbicide will be rejected. The ban will go into effect next year.

Therefore, Malaysia became the first Asian country to say "No" to its use, on the grounds that it presents unacceptable risks to major users - and that less risky alternatives are readily available on the market.

At the beginning of last month, lawmakers considered amendments to the 1974 Pesticides Act when they were discussed in the Dewan Rakyat.

Deputy Minister of Agriculture and Agro-industries, Mohd Shariff Omar, who introduced the amendments, said he wanted greater control over research of, and experimentation with, non-registered pesticides, as well as higher penalties and stricter control of labeling. .

However, concerns are mounting whether the ban will actually be implemented by Syngenta, Paraquat's largest producer, and the local oil palm industry has continued to push vigorously for the decision to be reversed.

Sarojeni said he is confident the ban will not be lifted.

"If the government repeals the ban, it will be in bad faith because it would clearly indicate that it is not concerned about the effects of such pesticides on workers and farmers," he said.

Concerted campaign

PAN-AP has been campaigning for a global Paraquat ban through signature drives, awareness programs and training for farmers.

Next month, it will work with more than 100 grassroots organizations in Asia to organize the 2004 People's Caravan for Food Sovereignty, aimed at imposing rights to land and productive resources.

The caravan will travel to 13 Asian countries and carry out various programs such as seminars, public meetings, dialogues with local officials, demonstrations, film festivals, seed exchanges, cultural presentations and food festivals as it moves from one country to another.

Until its culmination in Nepal, the Caravan will advocate for land reform that gives poor peasants access and control over land, seeds and water, crops that are free of pesticides and genetically modified organisms; guarantees of organic production methods; support for the rights of women farmers; and methods to strengthen communities in rural areas.

The impact of pesticides such as Paraquat on the lives of peasants, farmers and agricultural workers will be very prominent during the event, which is expected to mobilize some 50,000 participants from various sectors.

Who is responsible?

Meanwhile, Fernandez attributes the blame for the ongoing poisoning attacks on workers and farmers to various sectors:

"There are two types of industries that must be held accountable: chemical companies for not being transparent and honest; the plantation industry for not reporting, not controlling exploitation; and also the Ministries of Health and Human Resources for not worrying about the issue, for not holding health personnel responsible, "he said.

"The medical profession is also to blame for not investigating, monitoring, or even knowing about problems; and certainly men, starting with husbands, male family members, and the community, especially in political parties and their own unions such as the National Union of Plantation Workers for not presenting the issues, "he added.

"Doctors do not link the issue of reproductive problems with work and the resulting dangers such as prolapse of the uterus, stillbirths and abortions, which commonly occur among women who spray," he stressed.

In response to all the allegations, Syngenta insists that Paraquat has played a crucial role in the development of reduced-tillage methods, thereby decreasing soil erosion and freeing considerable numbers of people from "the tough manual removal of weeds, allowing families, especially women and children, take advantage of opportunities outside of manual farm work. "

Syngenta's "side of the story"

On its website:, the multinational company added that Paraquat offers unique benefits not only for plantations but also for smallholders.

"One of these is the rain resistance of the product, which is particularly important under tropical conditions with frequent and heavy rains," the company said.

"Other benefits include rapid activity, rapid deactivation once Paraquat reaches the ground - giving Paraquat an excellent ecological profile - crop safety, and control of weed resistance problems," he added.

"These properties make Paraquat the only effective herbicide option in certain growing conditions"

It is obvious that the battle to free our plantations of pesticides is far from over.

While the Swiss company has accumulated millions of dollars in profits from the sale of Paraquat, coming from large markets like Malaysia, farmers, workers and peasants only decline amid ill health and poverty.

Global sales per year of Paraquat are estimated at more than $ 1 billion, the equivalent of about 25,000 tons. Syngenta sold about $ 300 million in 2003. The company also has a factory in China.

No to Paraquat, no to Syngenta.

But activists say Syngenta must stop paraquat production, if it has any corporate social responsibility.

"The plantation and chemical industries are more interested in profits, in reducing the cost of production and in wages, than in the welfare, safety and survival of workers," Sarojeni said.

"Malaysia is Syngenta's main market for Paraquat and it is ensuring that other countries do not follow Malaysia's lead in banning the chemical," he added.

He was referring to the company's ad campaign for Gramoxone in Thailand, which violates the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Code, in particular Article 11 which regulates various aspects of advertising.

This ad is part of an aggressive sales campaign by the company and could be a way to offload the product in Thailand, in reaction to the government-imposed ban and phase-out of Paraquat in neighboring Malaysia.

As long as Paraquat remains on the market, it will continue to be sold and used under conditions that contribute to health problems and misery.

To avoid these problems, Syngenta must be prevented from continuing to produce Paraquat to supply the global market, and the only way to achieve this is to hold it accountable for its action against millions of farmers and workers affected by its product.

Original title: Silent Killer -Efforts to Ban Paraquat, a deadly pesticide -August 11, 2004 -.zmag
Translated by Germán Leyens - Rebelion

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