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Down to Earth No. 66, August 2005

Pesticide use in oil palm plantations

Pesticides, including herbicides, are commonly used in oil palm plantations, despite their adverse impacts on human beings and the environment.

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).


Used for more than 40 years in both small and large plantations, paraquat dichloride, known simply as ‘paraquat’, has become one of the most widely used herbicides the world over. In Indonesia, it is often sold as Gramoxone. This highly toxic weed-killer is commonly used in oil palm plantations in South East Asia. It may be fatal if inhaled, ingested or absorbed through the skin. No antidote for paraquat poisoning exists yet.

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.


As paraquat is becoming more restricted or banned, glyphosate is reported to be taking its place as the ‘queen of herbicides’(5). Monsanto, one manufacturer of glyphosate(6), claims it is a highly effective weed-killer, safe to users and harmless to the environment. However, anti-pesticide campaigners reveal that there is evidence of toxic effects on humans as well as on the environment, indirect environmental damage and resistance in some target weed species(7). Furthermore, although glyphosate is much less toxic than paraquat, some of the surfactants included in preparations for spraying it are highly toxic. Roundup, produced by Monsanto, is a glyphosate-based herbicide used worldwide, including on genetically modified plants in which it can be tolerated. Some agricultural workers using glyphosate have had pregnancy problems. Recent research shows that glyphosate is toxic to human placental cells in concentrations lower than those in agricultural use(8). This is of particular concern since farmers may become more dependent on Roundup. In March 2005, Dr. Mae-Wan Ho and Prof. Joe Cummins, leading scientists at the London-based Institute of Science in Society, called for an urgent regulatory review on glyphosate. They pointed to effects of exposure to glyphosate including an increased risk of late spontaneous abortions(9). Monsanto has rejected the findings.

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.

Ratification of PIC treaty

On 24th February 2004, the Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent Procedure for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade (known as the PIC treaty) became legally binding. The Convention provides a warning procedure in the international trade of hazardous pesticides and other chemicals. At present, it has 73 signatories and 59 parties. Indonesia is among the signatories. PAN Indonesia is urging the government and parliament to ratify the PIC Convention so that it becomes national law(10). Malaysia has ratified the convention and is being urged to include paraquat in the PIC list.

2) Friends of the Earth. 2005. Greasy palms.
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.
7) PAN UK in
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
10) PAN AP Press Release

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