In his keynote speech to the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, October 2004, the then Indonesian agriculture minister, Bungaran Saragih, admitted the dangers of herbicides use in oil palm plantations(1). Around 25 different pesticides are used in oil palm plantations, but monitoring is difficult due to lack of control and documentation(2).
The main concern about paraquat is its risks to plantation workers. Although incidents also occur in the North, lack of proper conditions of use in many developing countries, where label instructions and recommendations for use may not be well observed, is a particular concern. Plantation workers are often employed for long periods, working up to 10 months in a year, six days a week and therefore subjected to regular exposure to toxins.
In March 2002, Pesticide Action Network Asia Pacific and Tenaganita, a Malaysia-based workers' rights organisation, launched their study on pesticides poisoning in Malaysia's plantations(3). This highlighted the suffering of women plantation workers, who work daily as pesticide sprayers. The acute paraquat poisoning symptoms include nosebleeds, eye irritation, contact dermatitis, skin irritation and sores, nail discoloration, nail loss and abdominal ulceration.
Paraquat is banned or restricted in Austria, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Hungary and Slovenia. Among developing countries, Indonesia, in addition to North Korea and Togo, has applied severe restrictions upon its use(4). Malaysia, the biggest producer of palm oil, is reconsidering its ban on paraquat as it approaches the end of a 2-year phase-out period. This represents a clear case of backtracking on a decision - for which it was applauded - taken in August 2002. It is thought to have been the result of strong opposition to the ban by the Malaysian Palm Oil Association and the agro-chemical industry. Under Indonesia's regulation, only people who have been trained and certified are allowed to use paraquat. However, in reality, training is often minimal and protective clothing - where provided - is impractical. It is also difficult to prove that untrained and uncertified workers are not using the chemical.
In addition to concerns about the health and safety of plantation workers, there are issues about water pollution associated with paraquat and glyphosate. Manufacturers claim that both chemicals are harmless to people and wildlife after spraying as they are rapidly absorbed by plants and inactivated by contact with the soil. However, in parts of Indonesia where the rainfall is often very high, herbicides can be washed into streams and rivers which provide the only source of water for all household needs - including drinking - for villages around the plantations. Furthermore, the herbicides do not bind to sandy soils.
2) Friends of the Earth. 2005. Greasy palms. www.foe.co.uk/resource/reports/greasy_palms_impacts.pdf
3) Poisoned and Silenced - the Study of Pesticides Poisoning in the Plantations, quoted in Pesticide Monitor, Vol 2, No 3/6, July 2002. ISSN: 1394-7400
4) PAN AP Letter to Malaysian Prime Minister to stay firm on paraquat ban, 18th April 2005
6) Glyphosate has been a name of three related products. Glyphosate-isopropylammonium and glyphosate-sesquisodium have been patented by Monsanto and glyphosate-trimesium patented by ICI (now Zeneca). Source: Glyphosate fact sheet. Pesticides News. www.pan-uk.org/pestnews/actives/glyphosa.htm
7) PAN UK in www.pan-uk.org/pestnews/actives/glyphosa.htm
8) Richard S, Moslemi S, Sipahutar H, Benachour N, Seralini GE. 2005. Differential effects of glyphosate and Roundup on human placental cells and aromatase Environ Health Perspect: doi:10.1289/ehp.7728. [Online 25/Feb/05]
9) ISIS Press Release 7th March 2005. Glyphosate Toxic & Roundup Worse in www.i-sis.org.uk/GTARW.php
10) PAN AP Press Release www.panap.net/highlightsA.cfm?id=21&hiliteid=HILITE21