Monoculture Papers

The Work of PAN-AP

a paper for the
Monocultures: Environmental and Social Effects and Sustainable Alternatives Conference

June 2-6 1996, Songkhla, Thailand

prepared by
Ronald MacFarlane
PAN Asia and the Pacific, Penang, Malaysia


When I was asked to speak here I was asked to speak about two things, our work in Malaysia as it concerns Sustainable Agriculture and role of women today in agriculture. I'll try to accomplish both objectives.

Many of you here know PAN-AP (Pesticide Action Network, Asia and the Pacific), but others of you may not be familiar with our organisation and our work, so I'll start by giving a little bit of an overview of what PAN-AP does as an organisation. Then I'll go into a little more detail about some of our projects, and I'll focus specifically on our Women and Pesticides project and the results we have had from this work.

Pesticide Action Network

PAN-AP is one of the resource centers for PAN International. There are regional centres in Europe, Africa, North America and Latin America. We are a coalition of groups and individuals who support the development and application of sustainable pest control methods, and oppose the misuse of pesticides. We achieve this by empowering local groups, with better emphasis on women farmers, and advocacy at the national and international level.

People often ask, what do you do? Most of the time we work with groups in different countries. We are not involved so much at the grassroots level, but we work with other NGOs who are working at the grassroots level in different counties.

To give you a bit of a history of where we started, one of the first campaigns of PAN when we were formed in 1982 was what we called our 'Dirty Dozen Campaign.' It was a call to ban some pesticides we considered as being the worst pesticides in the world. This 'dirty dozen' actually has 198 pesticides.

Right now, in terms of banning pesticides, PAN is involved in international discussions to ban POP, or Persistent Organic Pollution. Many of the agents of POP are pesticides, so we are now working on trying to get world wide bans on these pesticides.

PAN's work originally focused a lot at the international level, and we worked with the FAO and developed the International Code of Conduct on the Distribution and Use of Pesticides, now known as the FAO Code of Conduct. And this document actually sets out minimum standards which industry and government should follow, and so in fact acts as a benchmark which we can use in terms of looking at local situations in terms of different roles of pesticides.

We did further lobbying to include the Prior Informed Consent (PIC) procedure into the code, and PIC essentially is a mechanism by which a country which exports a pesticide which is banned has to tell the importing country that this pesticide has been banned and why it has been banned, to give a chance for importing countries to decide whether or not they still wish to use the pesticide.

Right now, in terms of supporting our work of advocacy on pesticides, we are developing what is called a Community Pesticide Action Kit, or CPAC. This kit is made up of little modules, which groups or individuals can use at a community level to raise the consciousness of the people about pesticides and the impact of pesticides on their lives and the community, and then also to encourage the documentation and the monitoring of pesticides at the community level, so that we can use that information in our lobbying at the national and international level.

One thing that has happened over the years is that we have noticed as we talk about banning pesticides, we have to talk about the alternatives, so that now, in fact we are actually looking at two important areas of the work of PAN - one is Sustainable Agriculture (SA), and the other aspect is on Women in Agriculture.

PAN and Sustainable Agriculture

The SA Program started in 1994 as a 3 year project, so right now we're in the second year. In this program we are working in 7 countries, where we look at the situation of SA in these countries. The original seven countries are India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Nepal, Philippines, Sri Lanka and Thailand, and this is going to be supplemented this year with an additional 7 countries, Cambodia, China, Korea, Laos, Pakistan, Vanuatu, and Vietnam .

As part of these country profiles we have also done case studies on alternative farming, and some of you here are also involved in that exercise with PAN. We also have a program on alternative pest management, where we will have some farmer exchange; we also collaborate with IFOAM, the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements.

We are also working on the creation of a database on SA; but I guess the most important thing that has happened in terms of PAN and SA was the conference we held last July in Korea, which was the conference on 'Food, Culture, Trade and the Environment'. At that conference we brought in people from the environmental movement, farmers and consumer organizations to try and work together in a coalition to support SA, food safety and food security. in a broad coalition for social change. (The Proceedings from the conference are available; see note at end)

Women in Agriculture

Then I will go to Women in Agriculture, which is the third program that PAN-AP is involved in right now.

This started as a series of workshops on the safe use of pesticides among women farmers in seven countries. There were case studies on the impact of pesticide use on women, and then we had a regional workshop to define major issues of concern and areas of priority for women in the rural areas.

Some of these major issues that have come up and we will be working on are: the impact of GATT and free trade on small farms and women, the whole issue of land rights, especially land rights to women, the issue of biodiversity, and genetic resources, and the control of those genetic resources at the farm level, and the impact of biotechnology. We are also involved in the publication and translation into local languages of material on these topics.

Women and Pesticides

This gives you an overview of what PAN-AP has done in the past and is now doing, and I will now talk a bit about our Women and Pesticides project. I will focus actually on our activities in two countries - the first is from Malaysia, called Victims without Voice, and looks at women pesticide workers in plantations in Malaysia; the second which I will discuss briefly is called Invisible Farmers, and involves our work in Pakistan.

Presently in Malaysia, about 40% of the women who are involved in work outside the home or in paid employment are women in agriculture. There are about 30,000 women who spray pesticide in the plantations, and there are also about 50,000 women who are involved in general work in the plantations. Women are the lowest paid workers in the agricultural sector, and always end up doing the work nobody else wants to do.

In 1991, an organisation called Tenaganita, which is a women's organisation in Kuala Lumpur, and PAN undertook a study to look at the extent of problems in the plantations. In this study we did interviews with 50 farm workers in 6 estates in Kuala Lumpur, which is in the southern part of the peninsula, and we looked at the role and status of women, the effect of pesticide on their lives, and we also looked at the laws of pesticides in Malaysia and how well they were implemented.

To describe the situation, I thought I would let you hear a bit of the voices of the women who don't have a voice. For instance, Veena has been spraying pesticides for the past 20 years: "I spray Gramazone (paraquat) all the time. It is so strong that the odour makes me sick most of the time. In the beginning, I used to cry (tearing in my eyes from the strong fumes). Now my only problem is nose bleeds and chest pains. I also have bad stomach pains. Most days when we come back from work we are soaked with the chemical top to bottom - we are used to it." (Arumugam 1992).

And these women actually go in every day and spray pesticides, 5 or 6 days a week, 52 weeks a year.

One of Veena's co-workers is Meena, 48. She lives in an oil palm plantation, and she started work 25 years ago. Every day she sprays paraquat. She feels run down, and has never had a regular menstrual cycle. "Sometime back, I developed a rash on my legs. I went to the hospital and the Hospital Assistant told me it was a heat rash. He gave me some cream and assured me it would go away in a few days. The rash persisted and I went back. This time he shouted at me, gave me more cream and that was the end. The rash did not go away. I still have the rash. But now I have learned to live with it." (Arumugam 1992).

Therefore even if there are symptoms of pesticide poisoning, often they are not treated as such.

The chemical these women were using was paraquat. To put their stories in context, I would refer to Table 1, which is a list of the most popular pesticides in Malaysia that are being used on different crops - oil palm, rubber, cocoa, tobacco. If we go through them, it will be seen that many of them are very highly toxic, and many of them are part of the dirty dozen.

In terms of pesticides which have caused poisoning, paraquat is the number one pesticide poisoning agent, and actually it tops the list by a lot. This is followed by malathion and endosulphan. These are the official statistics of poisoning - however, we know that the real numbers are much higher than these, mostly because a lot of the long term health problems are never recorded as poisonings and only the acute ones are recorded.

What did we find out when we went through and talked to the plantations workers?

First of all, most of them, some 90%, knew that pesticides were dangerous. And most of the ones that used it knew that you could get poisoned if you actually ate or drank it, but few of them realized you could become poisoned just by contact through the skin; more of them knew that you could get poisoned by breathing the pesticide.

Next we wanted to find out, if the workers did become affected by pesticides, would they know it?

Fully 90% had no idea how to tell if they were being poisoned - they had no idea of the early symptoms of pesticide poisoning. If they were aware that they were poisoned, most of them would go to the local hospital to try to get treated - however, as we heard previously, if you do go to the hospital you may not be recognized as having suffered poisoning from pesticide.

So we looked at the conditions on the plantations, and examined to what extent they actually operated within the laws of Malaysia regarding pesticide usage, and if fact of you look at the availability of sanitation, of water to wash with, most of the plantations do not meet the requirements of having piped, clean water; most depend on the monsoon rain for water, and many of them actually have no water available for washing. So that is a clear breach of the Malaysian law, in terms of access to clean water.

We also examined labeling. Although the labels are in Baha Malayu, the Malay language, most of the estate workers did not know how to read or write in Baha Malayu - most of them are Camal, they speak Camal, some of them can read Camal. And we now have workers from Bangladesh on the plantations, and of course they cannot read Baha Malayu. Most of those interviewed knew that the name of the pesticide would be on the label, but very few were aware that the label should contain other information relating to the toxicity of the pesticide and even fewer could understand what the label was saying.

After they spray the pesticide, most people do not really do anything in terms of cleaning themselves properly until well after they reach home in the evening, therefore all this time they are exposed to the pesticide through their clothing and so forth. Therefore the whole point of the sanitation and safe use regulations - that you're supposed to wash immediately after use - are not followed; also many people did not follow necessary sanitation procedures; as you see, very few people even just washed their hands with soap and water before eating, and all of them eat with their hands.

Then we looked at the availability of protective clothing, and in fact the only thing that is available in 50% of the plantations is protective boots, whereas all people should have access to protective clothing; however even though you may have access to protective clothing you may not use it because it is not suitable. So in general most of the pesticide sprayers do not wear protective clothing, and very few of them are trained to even mix pesticides properly - of 50 people who were interviewed only 2 were trained for mixing pesticides and only 5 were trained in spraying pesticides.

All of these facts indicate that in general the people who are out there spraying pesticides are not the people who are trained in how to use the pesticides. All of these examples clearly show that the laws are not being implemented in Malaysia in terms of the health and safety of pesticides.

In conclusion, I will say that the women plantation workers are among the most disadvantaged workers in Malaysia. They are further disadvantaged by the male dominated culture. Rural illiteracy and lack of awareness make them even more vulnerable, and overall the conditions on the plantations do not allow for conditions of safety of pesticides.

Our conclusion from working with the women working with pesticides on the plantations is that the state of the women plantation workers can only change when all the factors that lead to their exploitation are addressed - we must look at literacy, gender relations, poverty and all of the other social factors that are involved with keeping the women t the lowest rung in society.

I will now go to another part of the world - not so far, Pakistan - and I will discuss briefly our project there so we can see how the situation is actually quite similar in other countries. This project is called Invisible Farmers, and it is a study of the role of women in farming and the impact of pesticides.

"We have been spraying for the last six to seven years. In the beginning the sprays were effective, but now it seems that they breed insects."

This quote is a summary of what the farmers have found in terms of the usage of pesticides in Pakistan. In Pakistan, compared to Malaysia, agriculture is a most important part of the economy and accounts for 75% of foreign exchange. Most of the export is agricultural export. The main crops are wheat, cotton and fodder, or feed for the animals. 38% of the land is smallholdings, less than 12.5 hectares.

National agricultural policy at this time is to improve the performance of the farming sector through industrialization and commercialization, so they are in fact trying to make the agricultural economy much more modern, much more integrated in world trade. Part of the agricultural policy recommends reduction in the cost of pesticides so that then they'll buy cheaper ones to use, and also encourage more local production of pesticides so that more of it is available, and hopefully to create more competition to lower the price of pesticide. At the same time it does say we'll try to use Integrated Pest Management (IPM) practices, and look at the identification of indigenous natural pesticides. However, the first two depend on companies, and companies will go out and sell pesticides; the last one depends on government which has no money, so the first two will win out.

What did we find in our Pakistan project?

The study was conducted in Pakistan in 1993-4. In each of 7 villages about 30 small farmers were interviewed for at total of 210 farmers, including both men and women farmers in this case, and we found out that most farmers were not aware that pesticides cause problems. One farmer said, pesticides don't kill insects - how can they kill humans?

In general, they will use whatever pesticide is given to them either by the landowner or a trader. They will not necessarily use a specific pesticide for specific pests. They also paid probably one third more than the market price for the pesticide, usually because they get the pesticide on loan, a loan in kind from the trader, so they generally use whatever pesticide is given by the seller, and of course the dealer of pesticides will choose to sell the pesticide for which he gets more money.

There is widespread advertising on radio and television promoting the use of pesticides. In general the only protective clothing people use is a piece of cloth around the face, and then any washing that is done is done is in the irrigation canal on the farm itself, so the pesticide gets washed into the irrigation water.

In Pakistan about 85% of the pesticide used is on cotton. The two most popular are endosulphan and midathol. There is a big problem of pest resistance due to overuse and also use of adulterated or impure pesticides. Also, in general there is a very low level of literacy in Pakistan so most farmers cannot read or understand the labels.

Now we'll look a bit at the situation of women farmers in Pakistan, and although the last census shows a decrease of women employed in ag between 1980 and 1990, the census does not take into account family members - wives and daughters - working on the farm.

Women raise animals, contribute to most farm activities, look after the household, and are also involved in non-farm activities in getting income for the farm and also are primary care givers in rearing the family. However, women are totally dependent on their main relatives for status and protection, and in general are illiterate, cannot read or write. Effectively, the woman in the private sphere of the home does not have any access to any training opportunities, any chance to learn how to use pesticides properly or to learn how to farm.

Although in Pakistan women are not involved in spraying pesticides, we found that women had exposure to pesticides. In the first study, 74% of the women had significant blood inhibition, which means that there was an impact on the nervous system due to exposure to pesticides; and there were many other symptoms also, many of them closely linked to pesticides.

So, in spite of not being in the field, the woman actually are exposed to pesticides. This exposure occurs through a numer of vectors: in the mixing of pesticides, washing of tanks, disposal of empty containers, washing clothes, storage of pesticides, cleaning out the plant, weeding and picking of cotton, cotton residues, and so forth. So these other various activities are all significant exposures to pesticides, although many people question how can the women be affected by pesticides because they are not spraying them.

So we came to similar conclusions in Pakistan as we did in Malaysia. Pesticide use in Pakistan is highly unregulated, and literacy and training are essential components of safe pesticide use. Pesticide use is probably not the appropriate form of pest control, especially among smallholders. Even when women are not directly involved in spraying they can still be overexposed. Women must be fully recognized as making an important contribution to the agricultural economy - as it stands now they are completely ignored. Finally, problems related to pesticide use need to be addressed within the social contexts of poverty, illiteracy and the marginalisation of women in society.

I will end here and I hope I have been able to present to you some of the impacts of plantation crops and monocultures on women in particular who are often forgotten as important contributors to our economy.


Arumugam, V. (1992). Victims Without Voice: A Study of Women Pesticide Workers in Malaysia. PAN Asia and the Pacific and Tenaganita, Penang.

For more information on PAN-AP, contact:
PAN Asia and the Pacific P.O. Box 1170 10850 Penang, Malaysia FAX 094-657-7445

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