Despite the bans, restrictions and withdrawals of highly hazardous pesticides over the past few decades in Asia, many workers are still continuously being exposed to highly hazardous pesticides. A recent report has highlighted the sad plight of Cambodian migrant workers in Thailand. Working in farms that extensively use chemical pesticides, they are not given health-screening guidelines, or language training to understand the Thai warnings on pesticide containers. Most (80%) of them do not wear proper protective clothing.
Backpack sprayers are doubly at risk since they get in contact with the easily absorbed fine vapors. A high 75% of the workers have abnormal blood cholinesterase levels. Indicative of organophosphate pesticide poisoning, their symptoms include dizziness, headaches, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.
In recent years, land conversions have further forced farmers to work as laborers and as pesticide sprayers in Cambodia. A 2015 study by the Coalition of Cambodian Farmer Community shows that at least 200,000 farmers are displaced and dispossessed due to massive conversions and deforestation brought about by rapid agro-industrial development and mining.
Agroecology-based agriculture which is free from pesticides has been documented to offer better option for labor, rural farming communities, and the consumers. Although laborious and may take time, conversion to chemical-free farming must be initiated for it brings about tremendous benefits.
Agroecology frees us from the many consequences of pesticide use such as cancer, endocrine disruption, mental retardation, and organ failures among others. It frees households from the burden of having illnesses that drain not only finances but also emotions as one is left to bear the suffering of having to endure watching loved ones slowly deteriorate. On a larger scale, it frees governments from the “cost of inaction” that may reach billions of dollars.
A recent study by Scholz (2016) on the impact of Centre d’Etude et de Développement Agricole Cambodgien’s (CEDAC) interventions found that organic farmers that are part of its network have on average 4.8 times more income compared to non-CEDAC farmers. CEDAC’s organic farming bundle primarily aimed to address rural poverty, includes awareness building on the hazards of pesticides; hands-on training on organic farming and Participatory Guarantee System; and linkage-building with local and international markets.
CEDAC is one of the Pesticide Action Network in the Asia-Pacific’s (PANAP) partner organizations. It’s innovative approach started with the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) in 1999, which facilitated farmer trainings on organic and good agricultural practices and helped build farmer knowledge. With its success, the SRI was mainstreamed in the Cambodian government’s strategic development plans. CEDAC’s target group consists of subsistence growers who are able to produce a minimum surplus of 500 kg jasmine rice per producer group. As of now, CEDAC is in 22 out of the 25 Cambodian provinces.
One of the farmers who benefited from CEDAC’s and PANAP’s activities is 38-year old Nhem Sovanry who has 1.5 hectares of rice fields and 800 square meters of home garden. Sovanry is very happy to see farmers practice what they have learned, and see how it contributes to their own livelihoods.
“If farmers in Cambodia practice organic farming, families will be self-sufficient just like us. Farmers should understand the basic principles of farming: one has to have a pond (or water source), paddy field, home garden, and animals such as chickens or cows. With these four elements, including hard work, one can be a successful and self-sufficient farmer,” she said.
CEDAC has made organic farming economical by using group certification. Group certification is where farmer groups implement an internal control system and are certified collectively by a third-party certification body. Certified organic rice fetches a premium price and is thus, more profitable to farmers.
“At first, it was difficult to take care of the crops and collect the fertilizers. But the value of the vegetables has grown and the selling price has increased,” said Sovanry happily.
Sovanry and other farmers are part of the independent national farmers’ association network known as the Farmer and Nature Net. This network is comprised of 1,249 village-based farmer associations across 12 provinces in Cambodia that supply products to local farmers’ markets. Stories of Sovanry and 25 women who are taking the lead in agroecology are featured in Stories from the Field.
CEDAC also organized the women vegetable farmers of Kampong Speu province. Through sustainable organic farming, members of the Women Organic Vegetable Producer Group now enjoy better living standards.
(Watch the video of Sovanry and other famers here.)
Ten CEDAC shops have been formed in Phnom Penh as a result of pioneering efforts to link small food producers to the wider market. These shops aim to ensure that safe food is supplied to Cambodian consumers and to improve locally produced food.
Overall, the Cambodian experience shows that organic farming must be coupled with interventions similar to what CEDAC has adopted. Through the CEDAC approach of replacing chemicals with agroecology and contract farming, we may finally achieve a pesticide-free world.
Kijewki L. 2017. Pesticides pose risk to workers, research finds. http://www.phnompenhpost.com/national/pesticides-pose-risk-workers-research-finds
Scholz B. 2016. The economics of organic farming: A comparative analysis in Takeo, Cambodia. A Master’s Thesis submitted to Philipps-Universität Marburg, Germany. 85pp
PANAP. 2017. Stories from the Field. Penang, Malaysia. http://files.panap.net/resources/Stories-from-the-field.pdf
PANAP 2017. Women Organic Vegetable Producer Group. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C6eQtd3ve10