When Worlds Collide #49: Living with Our Toxic Heritage…

Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today Sunday newspaper on 13 January 2013

DDT spraying on a public beach in the US, circa 1950s

DDT spraying on a public beach in the US, circa 1950s

My column on 30 December 2012, which assessed the lasting influence of Silent Spring and its author Rachel Carson, was focused on the United States where she first raised the issue in 1962 amidst adversity and controversy.

Her advocacy, sustained by many other activists after her untimely death, eventually led to greater scrutiny and regulation of agro-chemicals in the industrialised world. Yet the global agrochemicals industry – which rode the wave with the Green Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s — thrives in the developing world.

According to the Pesticide Action Network Asia Pacific (PANAP), an advocacy group, pesticides prevail because a multi billion dollar industry is behind them, exerting great influence on international standard setting bodies, national governments and local communities.

Their website says: “The enormous influence that these chemical corporations wield, because of their economic power, is a major factor in why pesticides use persists in our agriculture in spite of the growing evidences of human poisonings and even deaths, devastating environmental contamination, and the evidences of greater yields which can be achieved when the chemicals are replaced by agro-ecological practices.”

Farmers’ Friend or Foe?

Adapted from a Poster by PANAP

Adapted from a Poster by PANAP

For decades, pesticide companies have argued that their products are merely helping farmers to protect their crops and, in turn, safeguard farmer incomes and livelihoods. If pesticides use were to be stopped, the industry cautions, it could pose serious threats to food security and social stability.

But the reality is more complex and nuanced. Carson herself acknowledged the need for pest control when she said: “I do not favour turning nature over to insects. I favour the sparing, selective and intelligent use of chemicals. It is the indiscriminate, blanket spraying that I oppose.”

For half a century, her seminal book has assumed a momentum of its own and inspired two generations of activists working on health, environment and chemicals safety issues.

Those working in the developing world focus more on how these toxic chemicals are impacting human health.

PANAP says hundreds of millions of people — especially farmers and agricultural workers — are directly exposed to pesticides and suffer acute and chronic effects every year. Many others are exposed indirectly through contamination of food, water and dust, etc.

A 2010 study (Communities in Peril: Global report on health impacts of pesticide use in agriculture), compiled by PAN partners worldwide, found how toxic chemicals, in particular pesticides, “continue to have severe negative and unacceptable effects on the health of communities and the environment, especially in developing countries.”

PAN quoted the World Health Organisation (WHO) as saying that acute pesticide poisoning will affect three million people and account for 20,000 unintentional deaths each year. However, estimates range from one million to 41 million people affected every year.

The pesticide industry’s “global safe use campaign” has long argued that, if used “properly” and “responsibly”, chemical pesticides would have no severe side-effects on users’ health or the natural environment.

How realistic are these claims? What happens to the industry’s lofty safety standards when highly toxic chemicals are used by farmers in the developing world – many with little or no education, and lacking awareness on safe handling?

Some insights can be drawn from the work of investigative journalists and filmmakers in Asia. It shows how the gross neglect of health and environmental safeguards, along with the lack of lack law enforcement, corruption and intimidation, creates a deadly mix.

Orange Alert

Teena Gill, an Indian journalist and independent filmmaker, lived for a decade in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand. In 1999, she started documenting and filming how pesticides are used in the real world conditions of rural Thailand.

Her journalistic research took her to orange orchards along the Thai-Burma border in Chiang Mai province. Huge amounts of toxic chemicals were being routinely sprayed in the orchards, and reports of poisoning were coming up in the Thai media.

Handle with Care!

Handle with Care!

As she recalls: “The overwhelming sense in the orange growing areas was that of fear. Though at that time a number of villagers and local government officials were willing to speak to me on camera, this bravado was not to last.

“There were constant threats – to the Thai NGO which helped with my field visits, concerned district level officials, to local activists and villagers — basically to anyone who was willing to take a stand and expose the nexus of corrupt government officials, orchard owners and the state – with its avid promotion of some the most toxic chemicals in the world.”

Filming in Mae Ai, Fang and Chai Prakhan districts was a challenge. She could only shoot under cover in the orchards, playing a dangerous game of hide and seek. It took her many sneaky visits to capture shots of spraying.

Teena was well aware of the dangers. “Like other parts of Thailand, any challenge to the status quo can lead to ‘disappearances’ or death. Those responsible are almost never caught, and soon an overwhelming silence descends. To investigate, or protest, is dangerous, and mostly impossible.”

She met nursery teachers who had seen children falling increasingly sick over the years, villagers with serious skin diseases amongst other severe heath problems. She also saw blood reports from the local primary healthcare center indicating that most villagers were, in fact, suffering from pesticide poisoning. These incriminating reports soon disappeared.

Exposure, Not Suicide

“It is not true that the majority of pesticide poisoning cases are a result of suicide attempts. That’s certainly not the case in Thailand,” says Andrew Bartlett of the Field Alliance, a group of independent organisations dedicated to empowering Asian farmers.

Interviewed on the film, he adds: “It’s difficult to get exact figures but the discussions I’ve had with experts (and) with the Ministry of Public Health make it very clear that hundreds of thousands are suffering from pesticide poisoning in Thailand and that probably hundreds of people here are dying as a result of farming practices involving the use of pesticides.”

Worryingly, these figures only deal with what are called the acute effects of pesticides. The chronic effects of pesticides — that slowly build up in human bodies and take years to show up – are often not counted. A similar situation is found across developing Asia.

Teena Gill

Teena Gill

Amidst these signs of slow and sustained mass poisoning of whole communities, Teena also came across signs of resistance and change.

“Meeting small farmers who had chosen to leave chemical pesticides behind and pursue sustainable organic farming practices was the most inspiring part of my journey,” she says.

As in Sri Lanka, the official agricultural policies in Thailand still favour the heavy use of agrochemicals. However, more and more individual farmers are breaking away from this to pursue alternative farming practices.

Despite the state’s chemical intensive, export-oriented agriculture drive, thousands of farmers across Thailand have shifted to organic farming practices. They now produce for local — rather than global — markets.

Overview of organic agriculture in Thailand

Teena’s documentary, released in 2005 and titled ‘Orange Alert’, follows the life of one such farmer and the organic farmers’ movement he is a part of.

These farmers have set up a collective distribution center in Chiang Mai city, where they sell their produce. This enables them to break free from the trap of debts caused by poor harvests, costly chemical inputs and low prices.

Will such local ‘declarations of independence’ from the toxic trade build up into a force to reckon with? That depends on political and economic factors as well as consumer awareness.

The answer is not yet blowing in the air.

Watch Orange Alert online: http://tiny.cc/OrangeA

Follow me on my blog: http://nalakagunawardene.com, and on Twitter: NalakaG

Filipino rice farmer spraying pesticides - MindaNews Photo by Ruby Thursday

Filipino rice farmer spraying pesticides – MindaNews Photo by Ruby Thursday

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About Nalaka Gunawardene

A science writer by training, I've worked as a journalist and communication specialist across Asia for 25+ years. During this time, I have variously been a news reporter, feature writer, radio presenter, TV quizmaster, documentary film producer, foreign correspondent and journalist trainer. I continue to juggle some of these roles, while also blogging and tweeting and column writing. There's NOTHING OFFICIAL about this blog. In fact, there's NOTHING OFFICIAL about me! I've always stayed well clear of ALL centres of power and authority.
This entry was posted in Agriculture, Air Pollution, Biodiversity, Communicating Development, Documentary Film, Documentary films, Environment, Environmental management, Environmental policy, Film making, Poverty, Public health, Sustainable Development and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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