21 August 2014

Danish knowledge could help the fight against dangerous pesticides in Bolivia

By Christian K. Nielsen, volunteer at IUG and a member of the Bolivia projectgroup. Original article in Danish from Globalnyt.

The lack of knowledge about toxic pesticides is endangering small-scale farmers and the local population in the Bolivian region of La Paz. The Danish branch of Engineers Without Borders (IUG) will help the area to initiate an environmental plan.

The sale of toxins for the agricultural sector is increasing dramatically all over the world. From 2000 to 2010 sales went up almost 300%, and the revenue in 2010 was over 200 billion kroner.

This development has also impacted Bolivia. The agricultural authorities report that the import of pesticides has more than tripled over the same time period, and is now 31.000 tons.

This is a concerning development if you ask the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO). Not only because the consumption is inappropriately large, but especially since the farmers operating the sprayers lack the necessary knowledge of the dangers they are exposing themselves to.

The type of imported pesticides is adding to the critical situation. The agricultural authorities in Bolivia lack the capacity to keep sufficient control of the imported pesticides, leading to a large number of dangerous and illegal pesticides ending up at the markets of Bolivia.

Pesticides are in practice sold by anyone, even though the trade officially requires a license, and all types of pesticides can be purchased at the markets. This means that the pesticides end up in the hands of small-scale farmers without knowledge of the proper use of the chemicals or the dangers they pose.

Toxic chemicals

The region of La Paz is severely impacted by this. In this area, the use of unknown pesticides is part of everyday life for the small-scale farmers.

The farmers are living in extreme poverty and are deeply dependent on each season’s harvest. In order to secure their crops, the farmers buy pesticides which they hardly know anything about, at the local market.  

A research conducted by among others the University of Copenhagen and Odense University Hospital has revealed that the most frequently used pesticides in the area contain the substance “organophosphate”.

This is a chemical that according to the WHO is “highly toxic” and which among informed farmers is treated with the outmost respect, since it can penetrate skin, airways and the digestive system.

The research determines that the chemicals have grave consequences to many of the poor farmers. Due to lack of  knowledge on correct practices, many are spraying their fields without the use of masks, gloves or boots, and some are cleaning the spray nozzle by using their mouth.

The farmers are lacking knowledge

According to Rikke Oestergaard, project manager for IUGs development of the environmental plan in collaboration with the organisations Caritas – Coroico, bad pesticide practice is an extensive problem in the area. She can observe farmers in T-shirt and shorts walking with the sprayer on their back on a daily basis, because they are lacking a fundamental understanding of the danger which they are exposing themselves to.

Research shows that acute pesticide poisoning is widespread among the farmers, who are experiencing headaches, dizziness, blurred vision and nausea after spraying their fields. FAO estimates that these poisonings can lead to serious permanent damages.

The lack of knowledge among the farmers is not only harming themselves. When the pesticides are used in a wrong manner they tend to end up in the drinking water and crops, endangering both the surrounding nature and local populations.

Rikke Oestergaard tells that tests of food and drinking water have shown levels far above the allowed amounts of chemicals.  

Ready to start the fight

The collaboration between the organisations takes its starting point in the municipality of Coroico in the La Paz region, and according to Rikke Oestergaard there are still reasons to remain hopeful despite the problems:

“Luckily this is a problem which to a large extent can be solved through technical knowledge and information. There are better practices that the farmers can use with very modest means. It is only a question of getting the information to them”

The plan is to make Coroico a knowledge centre in order for La Paz and other areas in Bolivia to draw upon knowledge from the municipality about dealing with problems regarding pesticides.

The local university, companies and civil society are already mobilised and ready to support the fight against the pesticide problems.

By sending engineers to Bolivia we can start a sustainable development in an area that really needs it, says Rikke Oestergaard.

The project will hopefully commence during 2015 once financing is secured.