When Sweden’s Environmental Secretariat for Asia made an assessment of the region’s environmental problems, pesticide usage came up as one significant problem. The chemicals are found in such great abundance in countries such as Laos and Cambodia, that the latter is often referred to as “the pesticide industry haven”. The legislation on the use of chemicals is particularly weak in Cambodia, which makes the country a profitable market for pesticide producers in China and Vietnam, including products that are illegal in their own home countries.
The Swedish Chemicals Agency (KEMI) has been working for many years to reduce the use of hazardous chemicals in the region, with support from Sida. One of the programmes, run by FAO, called Integrated Pest Management helps farmers learn to reduce their use of pesticides through the so-called Farmer Field Schools. Alexandra Wachtmeister, environmental advisor at Sida, visited the Battambang province in north-western Cambodia and talked to various farmers who participated in the training:
"I was glad to hear how positive people were about seeing the results on their crop. When the Farmer Field Schools first started, many farmers were sceptical to join; they thought it was just another salesperson wanting to impose a new product, says Alexandra Wachtmeister. One farmer I talked to said that ‘before, we wanted to have the strongest and most dangerous pesticides, now we prefer the least dangerous’."
During the 16-week training programme, that covers the cycle from sowing to harvest, the farmers get to test different methods together and see what factors affect the crop. They are assisted by a trainer who joins them once a week.
Not all insects are pests
Different amounts of pesticides are sprayed on different areas of the fields, and more biological methods are being tested, like covering roots with grass to preserve humidity and nutrients. One important experiment is to find out whether an insect is harmful to a crop or not by catching it and studying it in an “insect zoo”. The outcome of such test showed that not all insects are harmful for the crop – on the contrary: some of them eat pests and can be valuable. Learning how to make one’s own fruit-based liquid fertilizers has been another appreciated part of the training.
"Making more money is an important incentive for farmers to take part in the project, and I met many people who told me about their vegetables growing bigger and tasting better, says Alexandra Wachtmeister. ‘Now I can sell to restaurants and get better paid’, a woman told me."
The salespersons offering pesticides to farmers regularly visit remote villages in Battambang and other provinces. They often lack knowledge about what those pesticides contain and how they are used. The fact that the labels are often written in Chinese or Vietnamese makes it even more difficult.
Better knowledge of the contents
Eczema, allergic reactions and headache are some of the health problems that the farmers suffer from after repeated use of pesticides in their fields. Acute poisoning is another problem, since pesticide containers are most often kept at home.
By explaining the meaning of different colours found on labels, the farmers learn how to determine the degree of toxicity in the products they have purchased. Traditionally, they might have been persuaded by the salespersons to buy three different kinds of pesticides. Now, they learn that the three of them can sometimes contain the same active ingredient, and that a lower dosage is enough.
"In the villages that I visited, many of the farmers’ pesticide expenses had gone down from up to 75 USD per year to 12 USD per year and crops were better, Alexandra says. A woman I met told me that ‘I feel healthier and stronger now. Our pesticide seller did not believe me at first when I told her, but after buying some of my “healthy vegetables”, she wanted to do the training program as well’!"
The current Integrated Pest Management Programme runs until 2013. Even though the trained farmers can see clear benefits from the new ways of farming, a total reduction of pesticides usage in the region is our long-term goal, according Ule Johansson at KEMI, who is involved in the programme:
"Training the future trainers, that’s a very long process, he says. We have to reach some kind of a turning point, where we have enough number of trainers in the countries for the process to continue on its own. We estimate a period of ten years before we get there."
The work towards a toxin-free environment in Southeast Asia is indeed a long-term process. But there are positive milestones to highlight according to Ule Johansson, such as the ban on the most toxic products in Laos, the establishment of a regional network of authorities working with chemical issues and the spread of new cultivation techniques – techniques that can help farmers in Battambang get better crops and have less health problems.