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Unknowing Farmers Poisoning Cambodia's Farmlands, Ecosystems
(From January 22, 2003)

Activists say multinational corporations and smaller operators have made Cambodia a dumping ground for dangerous pest killers, a charge denied by at least one leading manufacturer, the German firm Bayer.

The World Health Organization (WHO)says developing countries spend US$3 billion a year on pesticides, about one third of which don't meet internationally accepted standards. It also reports 3 million acute pesticide poisonings each year and 220,000 deaths, 99 percent of them in developing countries.

Long-term effects of exposure to pesticides, by handlers and consumers, are believed to include damage to brain nerves, infertility, genetic mutations and cancer.

"Cambodia is one of the worst cases. They're quite vulnerable to the pesticide option without knowing what the hell they are doing," says Michael Shanahan of the London-based non-governmental organization Environmental Justice Foundation.

At the main market of Siem Reap, a major northwestern hub 225 kilometers (140 miles) from the capital, Phnom Penh, pesticide dealer Vo Leak points to her five best-selling products. All are on the WHO's most dangerous list, four are banned in Cambodia and all have been smuggled from either Thailand or Vietnam. Almost none of her products have instructions in Cambodian.

"I don't know whether they're illegal or not, but they must be legal because they're imported," she says, adding that no government inspector has ever been around to her stall.

In a local village, some 80 percent of the more than 200 families apply pest killers, mostly on vegetables, and it is the women who do the spraying while men work in the rice fields or in the towns. The women learn about pesticides by trial and error and from the sellers. CEDAC (The Cambodian Center for Study and Development in Agriculture) interviews with 77 traders in the Khnachas region showed that only eight could read the product labels in foreign languages and just one had received training in pesticide use.

Thus, farmers concoct their own chemical brews, sometimes mixing a dozen or more pesticides with hopes of maximizing potency and eradicating pests that have become resistant to repeated spraying of one formula.
Few farmers use boots, gloves and masks because of the cost and heat, and most don't change their clothes after spraying, says the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. Pesticide containers are strewn around fields and houses, often near cooking areas and within reach of children.

Researchers say that besides harming farmers and consumers, the pesticide deluge is beginning to degrade such ecosystems as the Tonle Sap, Southeast Asia's largest lake and a crucial source of protein for Cambodians. The lake harbors some 500 fish species and a rich bird life.

In addition, Bayer and the Peruvian government face a class action suit arising from the 1999 deaths of 24 school children in a remote Andean village who inadvertently drank milk mixed with Folidol. Folidol, a brand name for methyl-parathion, is classified as 1A - extremely hazardous - and has been banned in Cambodia since 1998. It remains one of the most popular pesticides - and a major target of consumer activists. The product was labeled in Spanish, a language the illiterate or Quechua-speaking peasants couldn't read.

In Cambodia, a combination of ignorance among farmers and poor law enforcement spells grave trouble, said Ngin Chhay, an Agriculture Ministry official.

"It is not fair to just blame everything on the small traders for importing the chemicals because they, too, seem to know little about them," he said. "Major producers must understand the danger they are causing."

Source: Yahoo News. Click here to read the full article.