The economic growth in South East Asia entails a greater use of chemicals, both in agriculture and industry. A lack of control, marking and knowledge affect the local population’s health and the environment. For the past ten years, Sida has financed a successful regional collaboration in the area. It has contributed to strengthened institutions, improved legislation and reduced risks.
“The more I sprayed, the more the crops were attacked. I also had health problems all the time. My throat was dry no matter how much I drank, I had headaches and felt dizzy. I became so tired when I sprayed that I had to lie down for six to eight hours.”
This is what 46-year-old Kham Kheng in Laos says. She was a farmer for 34 years and began to use pesticides at the age of 18. But after having attended a number of courses she learned about ecological cultivation, which led to her no longer using chemical pesticides at all.
“Now, I feel much better and have energy to do more even though I’m older.”
Kham Kheng has joined an organisation for ecological farmers and her income from the vegetable sales has almost tripled since she changed the way she farms. Now, she trains other farmers in how to farm and market ecological vegetables.
Regional challenges demand cooperation
Kham Kheng is one of the tens of thousands of farmers trained within the Sida-financed regional programme “Towards a Non-toxic South East Asia”. The programme builds on a collaboration between the Swedish Chemicals Agency, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), two networks of civil society organisations and the governments of Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. The project also includes local efforts, similar to the courses Kham Kheng participated in, as well as work on strengthening institutions and legislation linked to the use of chemicals.
Sida supports the programme through the regional strategy for development cooperation in Asia and Oceania.
“Many of the challenges in Asia are regional and require cooperation between countries and organisations. We support many different regional cooperative arrangements with a focus on the environment and human rights and this programme on the use and handling of chemicals is an important contribution in such work,” says Anne-Charlotte Malm, head of the regional development cooperation at the embassy in Bangkok.
This work is especially important in a part of the world that in ten years has become the dominant producer of chemicals and where many of the countries are in a phase of economic growth. This means that the use of chemicals is rapidly growing, in industry, agriculture and consumption.
“This is a global problem, but this particular region is under a great deal of pressure from strong industrialisation. In many ways, they make similar mistakes as us: production goes ahead of everything else while the handling of health and environmental problems must wait,” says Ule Johansson, who works with the programme at the Swedish Chemicals Agency.
He sees a number of fundamental shortcomings in the handling of chemicals, regardless of whether they are pesticides or chemicals in textile production, for example.
“The chemicals are not marked and lack information in the local languages. The workers do not have knowledge about what they are handling daily. So how can you protect yourself?”
Important to work long term for greater knowledge
The use of hazardous chemicals is often moved to countries with weak legislation and a great need for jobs and economic growth. Ule Johansson therefore sees a great value in working regionally.
“It is important to find cooperation and work across borders to agree on how to protect health and the environment. In the programme, we try to work on several levels for greater knowledge in the region and to develop long-term cooperation between the countries to build up similar requirements. This means that actors are not tempted to go to the country that has the weakest structure - or none at all.”
The efforts are about building up core knowledge among authorities and institutional capacity as well as giving advice about how to set up laws and rules. The Swedish Chemicals Agency works for the countries to adopt a global system for classification of chemicals, which has already happened in Vietnam and Thailand. In addition, the agency has contributed to the development of legislation on pesticides in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. An important success is that Laos recently adopted the “Laws on Chemical Management” and is in the process of doing the same regarding an ordinance on pesticides.
“There, we have worked with writing comments on the legal text proposal, but we have also invited neighbouring countries and had joint activities with legislators to support Laos. Of course, it is incredibly positive that there is now a fundamental law in the area, even if we must also continue to work on incorporation and implementation,” says Ule Johansson.
From field to legislation
The current Sida-financed programme has been running since 2007. Ule Johansson believes that it is important to work long term, both because it contributes to a higher level of knowledge and because it enables building confidence with countries and authorities. Another of the strengths in the programme is that the work takes place from the field to the legislators on a national level.
“It is easier to influence decision makers when you have facts from the field. Without a foothold in reality, legislation is at risk of becoming too theoretical. It is also important to build up models for how local communities can establish cooperation and work for change.”
One of the actors in the programme that is active at a local level is PANAP. Together with partner organisations, they work with training programmes, similar to the one Kham Kheng participated in. They also try to create markets for selling ecological products and making consumers more aware through opinion formation work.
“We have many cooperative arrangements for building capacity locally. In Laos for example, there is the agricultural and forestry authority in the district (DAFO) which has educated the farmers in cooperation with our local partner SAEDA. After the effort, they independently continued to work in the same way,” says Deeppa Ravindran from PANAP.
Towards a Non-Toxic South-East Asia
The programme “Towards a Non-Toxic South-East Asia” contributes to reduced risks to health and the environment through better handling of chemicals and pesticides. Since 2007, it has been run with an annual budget of around SEK 20 million. Under current agreements (2013-2018), the budget is SEK 100 million.
The Swedish Chemicals Agency is Sida’s contracting party, but they in turn have agreements with the UN organisation FAO and with PANAP (Pesticide Action Network Asia and Pacific) and the Field Alliance, which is a network of local civil society organisation. FAO works both with bringing about legislation and institutions and with new agricultural methods. The Field Alliance works with education on a local level and getting information on pesticides and other chemicals into the schools’ educational plans. PANAP works on educating local farmers and on opinion formation. In total, 12,900 farmers received training in ecological farming between 2013 and 2017.