Interview with Sarojeni Rengam, Executive Director of Pesticide Action Network Asia Pacific (PANAP)

What does PANAP do?

PAN Asia-Pacific is an Asia-wide network that also covers parts of the Pacific region. We are working on the elimination of pesticides because of their impact on human health and the environment. Their effects are both immediate and chronic. Scientific research shows that the chronic effects are very worrying: they not only cause cancers but they also affect the health and intelligence of the children who are exposed to them.

Today, pesticides are affecting our environment throughout the world, even in areas where they are not actually used. The example of the polar bear is a case in point: although pesticides are never used in the Arctic, traces are found in the blood of polar bears, transported from the industrialized areas by ocean currents.

One of the major areas we are engaged in in our fight for a progressive ban on pesticides is the promotion of agroecology as an alternative to chemical-based agriculture. We are building on the local knowledge of farmers, women and indigenous people in order to develop a system of food production that is sustainable, environmentally viable and that at the same time provides a livelihood for small-scale food producers. We work with a large number of grassroots organizations, peasant movements, rural women’s movements, and indigenous people and of course with agricultural workers and fisherfolk communities.

We have also taken on the issue of land. Land grabbing is a major area of concern for many farmers, farming communities and indigenous people. One of the campaigns that we have launched is “No land, no life”.

We also organize leadership training for women and are running a campaign entitled “Protect our Children from Toxic Pesticides”, in which we are trying to build “buffer-zones” around schools where there are a lot of farms that use pesticides that affect children’s health. We are trying to work with the farmers to help them convert to agroecology or to see how we can help them to reduce the use and impacts of highly hazardous pesticides (HHP).

The report « Of Rights and Poisons: Accountability of the Agrochemical Industry » was published in November 2018. What are its main conclusions ?

One of the main conclusions of this report is that some very clear human rights violations have been committed by corporations that are selling pesticides, despite the fact that they are well aware of the negative health impacts they have. For example, the pesticide “Paraquat” produced by Syngenta is used very frequently, so that we have a lot of documentation on the health impacts it has: loss of eyes, nose bleeding, fingers turning brown and falling off, and so on. The workers using them do not know what they are spraying. Nobody talks to them about the health impacts, and they are spraying not only Paraquat, but also Glyphosate (produced by Monsanto) or Lambda-cyhalothrin (another Syngenta product). Workers and farmers are regularly exposed to pesticides without any protective clothing. Corporations that produce these highly hazardous products should be made accountable for violating the right to health and the right to work, as well as for the environmental impacts caused. That is one of the key demands of the report.

There are several human rights instruments with which companies have committed to comply, such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the ILO conventions on workers’ rights, but in reality these instruments are regularly violated. It is not only the corporations that are at fault, but also governments, so we are also demanding that states and governments be made accountable for failing to stop these pesticides from being used in countries of the South without the provision of protective equipment, without information and without awareness raising. Both governments and corporations carry a lot of responsibility, because they are making huge profits out of these pesticides despite the increasing and overwhelming evidence that they are highly toxic and are being used in an unsafe manner in countries of the South.

This study on Highly Hazardous Pesticides (HHPs) goes beyond the direct impacts on farmers and takes a look at women and children. What impacts do these pesticides have on women’s and children’s rights?

The plantation workers who spray pesticides in the oil palm plantations are mainly women. They are not informed about the risks involved with the pesticides they are using, and have little or no information or training on how to use themsafely; if they fall sick, nobody is responsible. They are usually contract workers rather than full-time employees of the plantations and have no health benefits. They try to get treatment at the local clinics, but they are only given medication for their symptoms. There is very little documentation on the impacts of pesticides on these women. Some of the doctors have certified that their health problems are caused by pesticides, but the companies, the oil-palm plantations and industries have failed to react. They have no obligation to provide any kind of medical support for the contract workers, which is a major issue for women. In Pakistan, for example, women mix pesticides with their bare hands. Sometimes they even decant the liquids into the spraying equipment with no protection; here the exposure is even greater as the pesticides are concentrated. The exposure continues when they wash their cloths and clean the spray cans.

The health of the unborn children of female plantation workers is also endangered when their mothers are exposed to pesticides. Women do not know for sure that they are pregnant until around the third month, at which point it might be too late to protect the foetus. Sometimes, even thought they know that they are pregnant, they have no choice but to continue their work because they have no other means of earning a livelihood. We see that women in particular are very keen to get away from pesticides and to change to agroecology or organic farming. They become very committed because they have experienced the impact of pesticides on themselves, their children and their community at first hand.

One of the reports contained in the study has shown that children, particularly teenagers between the ages of 14 to 17, are also involved in spraying pesticides. We have seen it in Pakistan and have also been able to document cases in the Philippines. In India, we have found child labourers from the age of 5 upwards engaged in flower picking for the floriculture industry. Pesticide spraying takes place even while the children are picking flowers. They complain of nosebleeds, coughs, sore throats and other health problems. Also, in Pakistan, the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia it is common practice for workers to bring their whole family to help meet the harvesting quota in the oil palm plantations. The family members are therefore directly exposed to the herbicides and pesticides used as well.

Children’s exposure to pesticides can affect their hormonal balance, their growth and their capacity to develop their full potential as a person. There are many studies, in Asia and elsewhere, that indicate a lowering of IQ in cases where children or their parents are exposed to pesticides. We are witnessing an intergenerational violation of rights.

What impacts do multinational companies have on farmers’ rights in the Asia-Pacfic region and in other regions of the world?

Many agrochemical or multinational companies are actually in collusion either with the oil palm plantations, the big landlords or the big companies that are pushing for land consolidation. They are in collusion, I would say, because they are earning profits from these large-scale monocrops. Whether it is soya production in Latin America (e.g. in Argentina) or palm oil in Malaysia and Indonesia, this collusion is leading to peoples’ lands, in particular indigenous peoples’ lands, being grabbed as the logging and oil palm plantations expand. This can be seen clearly if you look at the struggles for forest territories and ancestral domains. If you try to identify those responsible for these violations and acts of landgrabbing, you will find oil palm plantations, the landlords or the big companies engaged in soya production. In fact, some of these multinational companies, such as agrochemical TNCs, are working together to promote their products. But since they are making profits from these products, they are also responsible for the violations that are taking place on the ground. Sometimes, protests against these violations are met with violence. In Brazil for example, farmers protesting against Syngenta’s GMO field-testing were shot. One person died and one person lost an eye. This was back in 2007, but Syngenta has never apologized. In fact the Swiss ambassador to Brazil went to the site and said “We are sorry that this has happened”. So you can see that there is all this collusion going on and that the people who are responsible don’t want to admit liability, they don’t want to do anything about the violations.

Mining companies also commit wide scale violations They move in and grab indigenous peoples’ lands and evict the population as well as causing a lot of environmental damage in the course of their fracking and mining activities, Here too, governments are not doing anything. The politicians, the elites in our countries, are also involved as they want to take a share of the profits. This is why there is no recourse for the victims and it is why I believe that an international legally binding instrument to regulate the activities of transnational companies (TNCs) and other business enterprises would be very important in order to make TNCs accountable and responsible for their activities and oblige them to provide redress for the human and environmental devastation caused.

What solutions could stop the excesses of these multinatinational corporations, for example in the agrochemical and agrobusiness industry?

A lot of pesticides are being used in the production of cash crops and for export, in other words not really for local people’s food production. A shift to a more sustainable process of food production is needed. Solutions for moving away from this kind of large-scale industrial production already exist. Agroecology, organic farming, permaculture and sustainable agriculture are some examples. These methods of food production are more beneficial for the farmers, the consumers, and the environment. They also help in the fight against climate change, because a more sustainable food production system focusing on soil health can contribute both to climate change mitigation and adaptation. Healthy soil has the potential to help in carbon sequestration, functioning as a vault for storing carbon dioxide. I think it is very clear that these methods could be very beneficial, but they are not being promoted because nobody is making profits from them. They are knowledge-based/skills-based, not product-based; they are not about selling a product but about sharing knowledge and skills and experience in terms of food production.

What role can civil society in Luxembourg and in Europe play? What power do Luxembourgish and European citizens have?

I think that the role of civil society in Europe and in Luxembourg is very important, because the pesticides often come from Europe and the US. If the use of certain pesticides is banned in Europe, their export should not be allowed either. Paraquat, for example, was banned in Switzerland in the 1980’s but it is still being produced for export. Furthermore, many companies are moving their production to the South, but the shareholders are in Europe.

I believe that everyone in Europe has a responsibility to ensure that there is accountability with regard to what is being produced in the North and sent to countries in the South. European and Luxembourgish citizens must not close their eyes to how production systems, the financial sector and the economy as a whole are working, and how they affect the people in the South. I think that it is very important to understand these links and to show solidarity with those affected by pesticides in the South. We need to put an end to the impunity of the multinational companies and make them accountable for their activities.