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Cambodia: Farmers' Use of Pesticides Increasing

by Eric UnmachtBBC East Asia Today
July 9th, 2003

Sa'ang is a popular fruit-growing area just south of the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh. Villagers tend their fields in traditional scarves and sarongs, with plough and ox.

But for farmers like 31-year-old Mak Mith, this traditional image is an illusion.

"For years all I did was spray pesticides for other farmers for money. I would spray about twelve containers in one day," he said.

The number of farmers using chemicals on their crops has rapidly increased in recent years.

But what environmentalists say is the most alarming aspect of the chemical trend is the kinds of pesticides being used.

Many of the most popular pesticides are extremely dangerous.

"After spraying I felt very weak and tired and had problems with my lungs. My feet would sweat and I would feel cold," said Mak Mith.

Mak Mith is typical of villagers in Sa'ang and across Cambodia in that he worked with no real protection and often mixed five or six different pesticides into one insect-killing cocktail.

"I stopped spraying two years ago because I became very pale and thin and sick all the time," he said.

"My wife became very worried that maybe I was infected with HIV. But after I stopped spraying for a while the symptoms went away." Most of the villagers say they have suffered, or still suffer, from the effects of pesticide poisoning.

Long-time pesticide users in Sa'ang complain about chronic dizziness and effects on the nervous system, even

Government restrictions

The government banned the most toxic pesticides a few years ago.

"If compared to other countries in the world, our list is stricter than others," said Agriculture Ministry official, Pen Vuth.

"For example, methyl parathion is used everywhere in Thailand, but in Cambodia, it is banned, " he said.

But environmentalists complain that the restrictions mean almost nothing when coupled with the country's weak law enforcement and porous borders.

At one market near Sa'ang, bottles of pesticides classified as extremely hazardous to human health can be readily found, including bottles of methyl parathion.

"It works on so many different vegetables that the farmers always buy it," said one market vendor.

"I do not know anything about these pesticides, but the farmers know from experience, even though they cannot read the labels," she said.

If farmers could read the labels, they might see that nearly all of the most popular pesticides on the vendor's shelf are classified as extremely or highly hazardous to human health by the WHO.

Many of these chemicals are not only illegal in Cambodia, but in countries around the world, some where the pesticide companies are headquartered.

In market stalls, it is easy to find bottles of hazardous pesticides labelled with company names like Shell and the German chemical giant Bayer.

Environmental groups say the companies' massive marketing budgets are dwarfing efforts in countries like Cambodia to change farmers' perceptions that using chemical pesticides is simply part of a new and modern way of living.





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