Environment, Global, Global Geopolitics, Headlines

ENVIRONMENT-KENYA: Pesticides Pose Risk To African Farmers

Judith Achieng'

NAIROBI, Feb 21 1998 (IPS) - For many farmers in Africa, buying pesticides at the official price is like throwing away a large chunk of hard-earned income, so they opt for cheaper chemicals despite the health risks.

“Pesticides are too expensive these days,” says Isaack Maingi, a farmer in Kibwezi, some 200 kms east of Nairobi, the Kenyan capital. Maingi and some farmers have settled for a cheaper altenative – small doses of chemicals scooped out of sacks and meted out in tins. They are unaware of the dangers of storing unlabelled, harmful chemicals at home.

The cheap chemicals sold to them are harmful pesticides banned in the industrialised nations, but dumped on the developing countries by manufacturers.

DDT, which has been banned globall for years, is still in high demand in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda, where it is bought mostly by small-scale farmers. In Zimbabwe, it is sold openly.

DDT (or dichloro diphenyl trichloroethane), is a colourless, odourless substance used as an insecticide. Other banned chemicals include diazinon, malathion, and parathion which are still used to control pests in some African countries, in violation of the International Code of Conduct on Distribution and Use of Pesticides outlined by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). The code promotes the safe use of farm chemicals.

“The use of internationally restricted pesticides in Africa has become a major health risk to farmers,” says a researcher with the Nairobi-based East African Pesticide Network Group, a non- governmental organisation (NGO).

The organisation, which acts as a watchdog for pesticide poisoning in East Africa – Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzani — claims the rising trend of poisoning cases in the region is a result of manufacturers cashing in on farmers’ ignorance of the health eff ects of exposure to dangerous pesticides.

Leonard Munyoki, another farmer from Kibwezi, says the chemicals he buys in the market are just fine as long as they are not inhaled when being applied. “All I am told is that I must never face the opposite direction of the wind,” he says.

Yet people like Munyoki who buy farm inputs from hawkers instead of licensed shops where they are taught how to safely use them, run the risk of poisoning.

The latest World Health Organisation (WHO) figures show that about 25 million people suffer symptomatic pesticide poisoning in the developing world each year, with more than 220,000 deaths.

In Kenya alone, a study conducted by the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI) last year reported 1,000 deaths and 35,000 cases of occupational poisoning on farms. “These cases are just a small tip of what happens on those farms,” says the report, which explains that most cases end up not being reported.

In neighbouring Tanzania, severe poisoning of families with fatalities have been reporte in the Tabora region which produces some 21 million kilogrammes of tobacco each year. Similar cases have also been reported in the cash crop – tea, coffee and cot ton- growing areas of Uganda.

Most of the deaths have been attributed to the lack of knowledge on the part of farmers who end up mixing up pesticide containers with those used to store foodstuffs. “In many homesteads, harmful chemicals are stored side by side with foodstuffs such as grains,” says Virginia Kimani who works for Kenya’s Pest Control Products Board (PCPB).

In a recent study, Kimani and colleagues, found that 65 percent of poison-related deaths in Kenya occurred from pesticide poisoning.

“Farmers who constantly use pesticides were more likely to get wounds and general morbidity than others not so close to the chemicals,” according to the study. Also, “deaths of women, men, and children attributed to natural causes many times are act ually cases of poisoning.”

Previous studies conducted in Kenya have indicated that women naturally are more affected by pesticide poisoning, because they constitute a larger percentage of those employed in the agricultural sector. Of those employed in the horticultural industry where Kenya leads the African export, women constitute 80 percent.

“Women agricultural workers are being exposed to unacceptably high levels of pollutants,” says Dan Odallo, Kenya’s John Hopkins University country representative.

Information sourced from the university, whose mandate in Kenya is to support female reproductive rights, indicates that in addition to causing frequent nausea, vomitting, diarrhoea, and cancers, DDT derivatives and aldrin cause serious reproductive pr oblems in men and women.

In both men and women, low doses of the chemicals can cause infertility. John Hopkins University studies in Turkey have also shown that pesticide contamination can also be passed through breast milk, causing serious digestive problems in infants.

Odallo and other healthcare providers in the region are calling for alternatives, which protect crops and have little impact on human health.

But scientists at the Nairobi-based International Center for Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE) claim that they have already developed a natural way of controlling pests without the use of pesticides.

Hans Herren, who heads the research institution, says Integrated Pest Management (IPM) which involves setting up pests against their natural predators is the best alternative to pesticides.

“We offer a cheaper and safer alternative which is the proven non-chemical way to grow healthy crops,” he says.

But despite the assurances, farmers still prefer relatively harmful pesticides. A recent study published in the African Journal of Health Sciences shows that 204 types of chemical pesticides and 289 trade names are being used in East Africa alone. The most used product is the DDT.

The Tanzanian government has banned all importation of restricted pesticides since 1993, but they are still found in large quantities, because “the farmers need them badly to avert crop losses which can sometimes be as high as 50 percent,” according to one official.

In Kenya, the PCPB vets all pesticide imports, but this measure does not stop smugglers from bringing restricted products into the country. “This implies that pesticide legislation and regulations at entry points in this country are still ineffective, ” says the official.

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