PENANG, Oct 18 (IPS) - The Malaysian government has stunned activists by ‘‘temporarily lifting'' a ban on the toxic weed-killer paraquat so that ‘‘an extensive study'' can be carried out.
The move, this month, follows an intensive lobbying campaign by the Swiss agrochemical giant, Syngenta, which markets the herbicide under the brand name Gramoxone, and other industry groups.
It has been a classic lobbying battle with ups and downs for both the industry groups and anti-paraquat campaigners in recent years.
In 2002, anti-paraquat campaigners were jubilant when, after a 10-year campaign, they succeeded in persuading the Malaysian government to clamp down on the substance. The government issued a circular that year saying that pesticides containing paraquat and calcium cyanide would not be re-registered and all forms of advertising of the two substances would be banned.
The government justified its decision saying that more cost efficient and less dangerous alternatives were readily available in the market.
It was a major setback for Syngenta and other transnationals. The decision by Malaysia, the world's largest producer of oil palm with a long plantation tradition, sent shockwaves among giant agrochemical transnational corporations that have thrived on the sales of such herbicides, especially in developing countries. Paraquat sales in China especially have been soaring in recent years and the Asian market is considered hugely important.
Global sales of paraquat exceed one billion US dollars annually at end-user level and Malaysia's ban would have sparked fears among the agrochemical firms that a chain-reaction to introduce similar bans in other Asian countries would follow.
But victory for anti-paraquat campaigners lasted only four years. The government's decision now to ‘‘temporarily lift the ban'' swings the lobbying war in Syngenta's favour. ‘‘We want to do an extensive study on paraquat, its harmful effects and positive aspects, before the set date for its total ban in November next year,'' Pesticide Control Division director Nursiah Tajul Arus was quoted as saying.
The Pesticides Board is now allowing registration of paraquat for all crops ‘‘to facilitate the study''.
Syngenta's public relations offensive, complemented by lobbying campaigns by associations representing plantation owners and the agrochemical industry, began soon after the decision to phase out paraquat was made in 2002.
The following year, IPS witnessed how the firm's Malaysian arm, Syngenta Crop Protection Sdn Bhd, feted journalists to a five-star hotel dinner in Penang after holding a briefing on the benefits of using paraquat. Also present was the chairman of the Malaysian Crop Care and Public Health Association, which represents the agrochemical industry.
During the briefing, Syngenta Crop Protection's general manager, John McGillivray, famously described paraquat as a ‘‘dream product'' even as, unbeknown to him, a young man lay dying in hospital in Kuala Lumpur in another paraquat suicide case.
Syngenta has sought to counter the findings of anti-paraquat activist groups. It has come up with a summary rebuttal to a report entitled ‘Paraquat - Syngenta's controversial herbicide', produced by the Pesticide Action Network and the Berne Declaration. In its rebuttal, Syngenta said in its Gramoxone fact sheet that it is usually serious misuse or abuse situations that have been responsible for creating the wrong impression that occupational exposure to paraquat can lead to long-term health problems.
Syngenta said paraquat is ‘‘so remarkable'' and ‘‘so well known'' that it is a prime target for groups opposed to the use of pesticides. ‘‘One such group, PAN (Pesticide Action Network), has published a do*****ent that uses anecdotes and irrelevant references in an attempt to vilify paraquat,'' it said, adding that if PAN's proposals were taken seriously, food production could fall and local economies that depend on farm output would suffer.
The Swiss transnational firm also pooh-poohed a report launched in 2002 by workers' rights group Teneganita and PAN titled ‘Poisoned and Silenced: A study of Pesticide Poisoning in the Plantations'.
The two-year in-depth study conducted among 72 women sprayers in 17 plantations in three states on the peninsula revealed a host of symptoms. Among them were fatigue, vomiting, back pains, giddiness and nausea, breathing difficulties, skin disorders, eye irritation, headaches, tight sensations in the chest and burning sensations in the vagina.
But in an appraisal of the study's findings posted on the firm's website, Syngenta retorted that the design of the study did not meet even the basic requirements for a proper assessment of exposure and related effects. ‘‘Because of the inadequacies of the Pesticide Exposure Study and lack of other sufficient credible scientific evidence, several of the conclusions in the report are not justified.''
The PR offensive continued with the setting up of a website www.paraquat.com by the ‘Paraquat Information Centre' to provide ‘‘comprehensive information on Paraquat, its uses in agriculture, and its profile on human and environmental safety.'' The site is ‘‘powered by Syngenta and sponsored by the Global Paraquat Community'', whose members ‘‘represent leading agricultural and environmental organisations''.
Activists groups had also warned that industry lobby groups were trying to persuade the government to reverse its ban. In addition, plantation owners took out full-page advertisements in the English-language press extolling the benefits of paraquat while downplaying the health risks.
PAN is now fighting back. It is a well-known fact that paraquat is one of the most highly toxic herbicides to be marketed over the last 60 years, said PAN in a statement. ‘‘As little as 17 mg/kg has been known to kill a human, and there is no antidote.''
It pointed out that its latest joint report, ‘‘Paraquat - Unacceptable Health Risks for Users'', contains extensive reviews of the impact of paraquat, largely from peer-reviewed studies, which found that large numbers of farmers and workers suffer daily as a result of the herbicide.
The World Health Organisation classifies paraquat as ‘‘moderately hazardous''. But because of its serious long-term effects on plantation workers, Malaysia had classified it as Class 1 B (extremely hazardous). Moreover, paraquat has not been approved for use in Syngenta's home country, Switzerland, since 1989.
So why did the Malaysian government buckle under and lift the ban, albeit ‘‘temporarily''? The ban was put in place a year before Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi took over the reins in late 2003.
Since then, his administration has aggressively promoted agribusiness û rather than sustainable traditional farming to promote self-sufficiency û in its bid to rejuvenate the agriculture sector and reduce income disparities in the country. He even renamed the Agriculture Ministry the Agriculture and Agro-based Ministry as part of this endeavour.
Moreover, one of the nine thrusts in Malaysia's biotechnology policy unveiled last year is for the country to become a centre of excellence for agro-biotechnology. This ties in with the move to industralise the agricultural sector.
‘‘There was a lot of pressure from the plantation owners,'' Sarojeni Rengam, executive director of PAN's Asia Pacific office, told IPS. She also pointed out that bio-fuel derived from palm oil was also being pushed in a big way. (END/2006)