Cotton farmers at risk from pesticides

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Cotton farming has been a vital cog in Zimbabwean agriculture. It has dominated the local agricultural industry for almost a century.

Report by Peter Makwanya

Any talk of farming at any level, by any one, evokes images of cotton and the successes it brought about. There has been quite a number of players who came into the Zimbabwean cotton industry, trashed the environment and disappeared.

Cotton-growing companies in Zimbabwe and the world over have serious shortcomings on issues of environmental and business ethics.

Concerns such as land use, exploitation of workers and the use of pesticides, environmental and health implications cannot continue to be mystified. Conventional cotton farming is adversely destroying the environment and affecting the health and well-being of thousands of farmers in Zimbabwe.

Ethics in general refer to personal code of conduct based on respect for oneself, others and the surroundings. From the environmental point of view, ethics can be defined as a discipline that analyses issues regarding people’s moral obligations to future generations with respect to the environment.

A deeper analysis on the conduct of cotton companies in Zimbabwe reveals that they pay lip service or have a palliative approach to the fundamentals of ethical considerations. By failing to adhere to environmental ethical obligations, they have also failed not only themselves but their ethical business practices.

Cotton companies cannot claim to be ethical if they violate the basic rights of farmers, ignore health, safety and environmental standards.

These are the issues that have a heavy bearing on the sustainable livelihoods of the farmers they claim to have at heart.

For centuries, cotton companies have been quietly pocketing enormous profits from exploiting the unsuspecting rural farmers. The question is: For how long are they going to play tomfoolery with farmers? For how long are they going to continue deceiving farmers with their glib?

Research by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and World Health Programme (WHO), provides a shocking account that between 1% and 3% of agricultural workers around the world suffer from acute pesticide poisoning, with at least one million requiring hospitalisation each year. These figures equate to between 25 million and 77 million cotton farmers around the world.

Why cotton? The reason is that cotton amounts to 16% of global pesticide release; more than any other crop in the world. Cotton farming is also considered the “dirtiest” due to the heavy use of insecticides, the most hazardous type of pesticides to human and animal health.

To cotton companies (this is not assumed knowledge) already have comprehensive information regarding this. As such, what are they doing about it? Do they have insurance cover for their beloved farmers or is there any cotton company-owned hospital that treats people suffering from suspected poisoning from cotton cultivation related diseases?

Zimbabwe is one of the 16 African countries that use not “extremely hazardous” but “highly hazardous” cotton chemicals. It is therefore clear that in Zimbabwe there are people suffering from chronic effects of long-term pesticide exposure, which include impaired memory and concentration, severe depression and confusion. This is long-term in the sense that, toxic agro-chemicals first applied 50 years ago now pollute the country’s land, air, food and drinking water.

This means that cotton chemicals that were applied in 1962 are beginning to have their effects felt now. These chemicals are causing substantial damage to humans and the environment.

Women and children, who mostly participate in cotton cultivation, are prone to dangers of pesticides because of their vulnerability. Hazardous cotton pesticides are known to contaminate rivers and are a threat to fresh water resources. About 99% of the world’s cotton farmers live and work in developing countries, where there are low levels of safety awareness, no access to protective apparatus, illiteracy and chronic poverty.

Zimbabwe, because of its status as a country “that is failing to develop” can be classified as part of the 99%. It is common knowledge that Zimbabwean rural cotton farmers often store pesticides in their bedrooms or near foodstuffs. As a result, reports of suicide cases have appeared in numerous editions of the print media.

Due to poverty, carelessness or ignorance, some rural communities end up using these pesticide containers for water storage. The situation becomes more dangerous when drinking water is not treated, as is the case with the majority of Zimbabwean  rural communities.

Research shows that hazardous pesticides applied to cotton can potentially contaminate both cottonseed oil and cottonseed derivatives in animal feeds. In simple terms, it means the hazardous chemicals can affect the whole food chain; therefore, human beings, animals and the environment are not spared.

It is also clear from the environmentalists’ point of view that ethical practices are normally resisted by some sectors of the society, including cotton companies.

Events of the 2012 cotton marketing season, where farmers got a shocking raw deal from cotton companies, which announced buying prices when cotton was overdue for sale, is not sustainable. Buying prices should be announced in advance so that farmers who intend growing cotton may do so out of choice and economic considerations.

Cotton farming is a high-risk job which is very exploitative. This past farming season we have in Zimbabwe witnessed thousands of the rural poor working for little, or no reward at all.

In fact, they have been relegated to the dustbin of the farming discourse. Sometimes we witness cases of misplaced priorities by these cotton companies, where a company sponsors rugby, which is considered an elitist sport in Zimbabwe, while ignoring construction of roads in the rural areas where the cotton is grown.

The rural constituencies have served  these cotton companies in good faith, but they have to destroy the environment in order to construct make-shift roads so that cotton companies can have easy access to their loot.

Some communities do not have basic educational facilities such as decent classrooms. Children learn under freezing conditions in winter and in sweltering and suffocating heat come summer while their major and only important stakeholder is watching.

There are also capable and scholarship-deserving students from these impoverished communities who fail to go to universities, not because they are dull, but due to lack of funding. They have been dumped and loathed by the exploitative cotton companies.

Indeed, it is not cotton companies’ sole responsibility to undertake these social obligations, but these same rural constituencies have nurtured cotton companies to what they are today.

To reduce environmental damage and compromising the health of their major stakeholders, cotton companies must engage in research to find out which organic cotton species are suitable for sustainable farming, depending on available variables. The advantage of growing organic cotton is that it does not require the use of pesticides and fertilisers.

Organic cotton farming does not poison the environment or the people involved in the production. If cotton companies in Zimbabwe have proved through research that organic farming is not suitable in our situations, then they must ensure that agro-chemical companies sell recommended pesticides only. They should allow the selling of pesticides bearing the labels of manufacturing countries and companies. The chemical products should have genuine eco-friendly certifications.

Farmers need to have constant training, awareness and education programmes in chemical handling and better pest management techniques. Protective equipment should be readily available and affordable too. The brush and bucket spraying technique is highly contagious, so in that regard sprays should be cheap as well.
Lastly, ethical business practices are eco-friendly and sustainable as they regulate the behaviour of all businesses that operate in the supply-chain such as contractors, suppliers, distributors and sales agents.

Makwanya is a climate change communicator who writes in his own capacity and can be contacted on: kwanyas67@yahoo.com or petrovmoyt@gmail.com

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