The announcement of the true extent of pesticide poisoning globally, where nearly all the victims are in developing countries, especially nations with widespread unsafe useage, such as Cambodia, was made by Russ Dilts, Regional Integrated Pesticide Management (IPM) Coordinator for the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). Despite efforts by major manufacturers to encourage responsible use of the chemicals, an estimated 25 million cases of pesticide poisoning are occurring each year, he says.

“Chemical producers and government regulators believe pesticides can still be used safely, that they can be used appropriately on the correct crops at the correct times, however I think we will see something different going on in the actual fields and the villages,” Dilts said.

Methyl Parathion, Monocrotophos, and Mevinphos, all classified as “extremely hazardous” by the World Health Organisation, and banned or restricted in many developed countries, are sold freely in Cambodia, and widely used by poor farmers with no safeguards whatsoever. In a forthcoming BBC documentary programme on the Cambodian situation, Toxic Trail, the UN staff say that multinational companies disclaim responsibility for what happens to their products in Cambodia since they have no formal operations there, leaving the responsibility to the Government. However, after decades of civil war, the impoverished Cambodian ministries are struggling to build regulatory capacity in an attempt to control illicit trade and use of pesticides, which FAO staff say “are no match for the massive commercial pressure coming from both east and west”.

The FAO’s Community IPM programme has helped farmers to understand more about pesticides and their acute health effects such as vomiting, trouble walking, dizziness, burning eyes and skin, muscle cramps and shortness of breath in Cambodia, where 85% of the population relies on agriculture for their livelihood. After spraying, it says, farmers often report four or more symptoms of pesticide poisoning.

However, across the region, Community IPM farmers are learning about rice ecology and how pesticides disturb the natural ecological balance. In Indonesia, IPM farmers have reduced the amount of pesticides they use and created farmer associations that sell pesticide-free rice and organic fertiliser at their own IPM kiosk. In one such group in West Java, farmers have started their own newspaper to spread news of alternative methods of pest control and are meeting with local governments, doing their own research and experiments, and encouraging ecologically sustainable farming in their community.

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie