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Malaysia: Gov't Pulled in Opposite Directions on Pesticide Use

by Baradan KuppusamyInterPress Service
July 23rd, 2003

KUALA LUMPUR - To know paraquat is to like it, says a promotional video by the Swiss-based Syngenta, the world's biggest agro-chemical company. But for weed sprayer Anggamah, to know paraquat -- with which she is intimate -- is to hate it. Daily, the 47-year-old lugs an eight-kilogramme tank on her back to spray paraquat, a highly toxic herbicide, on broadleaf weeds in an oil palm plantation about 60 kilometres south of the capital here. For this, she gets 14 Malaysian ringgit (3.7 U.S. dollars) a day.

She has been mixing and spraying paraquat for 16 years. Anggamah, a divorced mother of two, looks forever fatigued and aged. She suffers from back pain, giddiness, nausea and swellings. Her nails are also gradually falling off. A blood test in 1999 shows low plasma enzyme levels. All these are classic symptoms of prolonged exposure to paraquat, a widely used but highly toxic contact herbicide popularly referred here as 'kopi-o' or black coffee.

"Environmentalists told me last year that the long battle to ban paraquat has been won, Anggamah said, referring to a government announcement in August 2002 that paraquat will be banned in 2005. We were all overjoyed.But little does Anggamah realise that the battle to ban paraquat is far from over.

Since the government decision was made, plantation companies and agro-chemical giants like Syngenta have launched a campaign to get the ban reversed. They have roped in the media, plantation workers, their trade union, fruit growers and rice farmers to join forces with big business to revoke the ban. Anggamah said: I think it (the ban) is a lost cause.

Earlier this month, about 30 rice farmers in Kepala Batas in Penang state staged a demonstration against the paraquat ban. They claimed, in a memorandum to the government, to represent 17,000 rice farmers and argued that paraquat is cheap, effective and proven. They quoted a now-famous Syngenta phrase attributed to John McGillivray, general manager of the giant's local unit Syngenta Prop Protection, Paraquat is a dream product.

(But) the farmers fail to mention that paraquat is a dangerous poison, not only to users but also to the environment and to everyone in the food chain, Irene Fernandez, director of the non-government Tenaganita group, told IPS. Nevertheless, the farmers represent a powerful political force -- influential enough to revoke the ban especially in an election year like now.

The government had banned paraquat, classified here as Class 1(B) because it is a highly toxic poison, responsible for 70 percent of all cases of poisoning at workplace, and because there are less toxic alternatives available. Ingesting paraquat is also a common method of suicide. Manufacturers and users must complete their stocks by 2005. No new licenses are to be issued after August 2002.

There are over 20 paraquat manufacturers in Malaysia. One brand stands out for its popularity and large share of the herbicide market - Gramoxone, manufactured by Syngenta. Paraquat makes up about half of the total herbicide market in Malaysia, worth 300 million ringgit (79 million dollars). Thus far, campaigners who want the paraquat ban revoked are mobilising Malaysia's 500,000 oil palm smallholders and 300,000 rice farmers, who together form an extremely important rural vote bank for the ruling National Front government.

These smallholders and farmers say they prefer paraquat because it is cheap and effective compared to other herbicides, which also take longer to kill weeds. For their part, activists have also stepped up efforts to counter this campaign. Since June, they have launched a postcard campaign urging workers to write to Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, urging him not to lift the ban, and have formed a coalition of 14 non-government organisations to spread the anti-paraquat message.

Tenaganita has formed a network of sprayers opposed to using paraquat because of its side effects, which activists say include vaginal burns, stillborn births and respiratory problems. These ailments affect 30,000 women sprayers in rubber and oil palm plantations, Fernandez said, referring to a study completed in 2002 on the effects of paraquat.

Syngenta however has rejected the study, called 'Poisoned and Unsilenced', as unscientific and says it does not show evidence that women were at more risk. ''Despite paraquat being used by virtually all sprayers, symptoms which have sometimes been associated with exposure to paraquat have a very low prevalence (less than 1 percent),'' a Syngenta Malaysia spokesman told IPS. The Malaysian Trade Union Congress, the biggest trade union federation, is backing the campaign to keep the paraquat ban, but not all workers' groups do.

The National Union of Plantation Workers (NUPW), the largest union of plantation workers, wants the ban on paraquat revoked. The union says it is not against paraquat, but wants employers to give more protective clothing and training for sprayers like Anggamah.

Its stand has drawn criticism. A key source of their income is the advertisements that Syngenta places every week in Sangamani, the NUPW magazine, said V A Maneyvannan, programme coordinator at Tenaganita, a multi-role advocacy group. The union is putting profits over welfare of its members.

But while a senior NUPW official, who asked not to be identified, told IPS that while Syngenta is indeed an advertier in the magazine, its announcements are general and that "merely tell workers to take adequate safety measures when spraying. . . it does not promote paraquat use. . . we don't think there is any conflict of interest".

Meantime, other herbicide manufacturers fear a reversal of the paraquat ban and are looking ahead to fill the vacuum that such a ban would create, by promoting less toxic i.e Class 2 glyphosphates-based herbicides.

For example, Bayer CropScience is pushing its Basta 15 and Monsanto its Round Up as safer alternatives. Bayer has allocated 2.8 million ringgit (736,800 dollars) to work with the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) to teach farmers safety precautions when handling less toxic herbicides.

"The paraquat ban should be enforced as soon as possible because of its harmful side effects, NIOSH president Lee Lam They said in an interview. Less harmful herbicides should be used.

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