In early January 2003, Sarilam, a farmer from the Pontianak region in West Kalimantan, was devastated to find illegal pesticide freely on sale in the local market. Although the packaging was labelled in a foreign language, he assumed it contained the chemical Paraquat. It had probably been smuggled into West Kalimantan from neighbouring Malaysia. Sarilam and a small group of other farmers had just finished running an educational campaign in the local community about the dangers of pesticide use.
In 2002, hundreds of kilometres to the south, in Sragen in Central Java, a brand of pesticide called Hui Kwang was discovered on sale. This pesticide contained Chloropyrifos. According to its English-language packaging, the pesticide was produced in Taiwan. There was no information on the label about the safe use and distribution of this potentially dangerous poison.
In 2000, when Duta Awam conducted a pesticide monitoring program in Karanganyar, it found pesticides that contained DDT, the use of which has long been banned in Indonesia. The pesticide was packaged in standard plastic and had no instructions — not even a label. It was being sold by petty traders who had no knowledge of pesticides or poisonous chemicals.
Most worrying is the plantation sector. There is no control over the use of chemicals on plantations, which are generally run by private companies. Farmers who subcontract for a palm oil plantation in South Sumatra have reported that they are repeatedly forced to overuse pesticides. Elsewhere, communities living near plantations are experiencing health problems as a result of exposure to pesticides. In 2000, a plague of insects descended on the coconut trees of farmers living on the edge of a plantation in Inderagiri Hilir in the province of Riau. The farmers believe the use of pesticides on the neighbouring plantation was responsible for the plague.
None of these cases are surprising. Duta Awam’s research shows that there is widespread collaboration between the pesticide industry and the government bodies and officials that deal with farmers. Pesticide use has long been promoted by the government as a problem-free solution to weeds and insects. The Integrated Swamps Development Project of 1994/1995– 1999/2000 is a case in point. A component of the program, which was funded by the World Bank, was the provision of pesticide for farmers.
Pesticide companies sponsor a range of programs run by the Department of Agriculture. Samples and brochures promoting pesticides are distributed at Department of Agriculture seminars. Field officers not only promote the use of pesticide — they sell it to farmers. The industry also helps fund research programs at the Agricultural Development and Research Centre (Balitbangtan) and in the Agricultural Science faculties of a number of universities.
The government’s failure to regulate pesticide use in a comprehensive manner has serious implications, as does its encouragement of collaboration between government departments and pesticide companies.
Lack of information
Another important factor in the increasingly widespread use of pesticides is the lack of information about the dangers of pesticide use. Pesticides are advertised without health warnings and sold in unsuitable packaging by small retailers and supermarkets. They are often unlabelled, or are labelled in a foreign language. Journalists and columnists seem to have little interest in the widespread misuse of pesticides and cases of pesticide pollution and poisoning are seldom reported. As a result, the community is poorly informed about the effects of these dangerous chemicals on the environment and on their health.
In theory all pesticides are tested by the Department of Agriculture’s Pesticide Commission. These tests identify and classify the poisons used. This information is then published in two books: Pesticides and Environmental Health and Pesticides for Agriculture and Forestry. However, local government officials and law enforcement officers have little knowledge of these publications or of regulations relating to pesticide use. Local officials in Central Java and West Kalimantan, for example, did not have access to the relevant legislation (Laws No. 8/1999 and No. 23/1997) before farmers associated with Duta Awam presented them with a copy of it.
Just a joke
The government’s sincerity in dealing with the pesticide problem is clearly questionable. Pesticide use will remain a serious problem in Indonesia until dramatic changes are made in the regulation of the pesticide industry and the sale of dangerous chemicals. Legislation exists, but while a conflict of interest remains, there is little hope that it can be effectively implemented. Government ties with the pesticide industry must be severed before any progress can be made.
Muhammad Riza (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the Executive Director of Yayasan Duta Awam.