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Pesticides out of control in Kalimantan

DIGEST No. 45 (Indonesian news with comment) - November 25, 1997

One rarely considered element of the environmental drama playing on Kalimantan is the widespread use of often dangerous pesticides. When big companies got an international flogging for using fire to clear the forest for plantations and new transmigration areas, someone floated the idea that chemical defoliants might be a good alternative to burning off. Forestry expert Prof Gunawan Satari warned recently of the dangers of such massive application of herbicides.

The 'million hectare' irrigated rice development area in South Kalimantan already consumes pesticides on a massive scale. The area has special permission to use dangerous weed-killers not licensed for use elsewhere in Indonesia. Most important among them is paraquat, marketed under a variety of brand names and made by the British chemical giant Zeneca (formerly ICI).

The environmental consortium Walhi has expressed concerns about the effect on the ecological balance in the peat lands of South Kalimantan due to the widespread use of pesticides. Down to Earth says the project uses 2.4 million litres a month.

Paraquat causes many kinds of injuries under unprotected use. Protective gear is too hot and expensive in Indonesia. It is fatal if swallowed and there is no known antidote, making it a significant method used in rural suicides in recent years. It also remains in the soil for a long time. The World Health Organisation ranks it 'moderately hazardous' (Table 3) in its latest classification of pesticides.

Agriculture Minister Sjarifudin Baharsjah in 1992 made paraquat illegal everywhere except in South Kalimantan, and even there it could only be used by trained personnel. However, a survey last July found that paraquat from South Kalimantan was being sold freely all over Kalimantan, and was often found stored in farmers' kitchens. The next month the Agriculture Minister ordered the distribution of paraquat suspended also in South Kalimantan, citing health concerns. It was being distributed there by Surya Agronusa (possibly affiliated with the Sinar Mar Group).

What the latest ban will actually do remains to be seen. Another survey by the NGO Yayasan Duta Awam found last August it was being sold freely in rural kiosks all over Java and Sumatra as well.

If effective, paraquat's main competitor stands to gain from the ban. Glyphosat is a safer organophosphate produced by Monagro, associated with the US giant Monsanto through a Dutch subsidiary. Insecticides are also big business in Indonesia. Du Pont expects to expand its US$235 million a year operation to US$312 million over the next five years. It says it is providing 'public baths' so farmers can wash themselves after use.

The Semarang based Lembaga Pembinaan & Perlindungan Konsumen says fifteen types of pesticides banned by the Agriculture Minister since mid-1996 remain in circulation in Central Java. A Food and Agriculture (FAO) survey of Central Java farmers a few years ago established that over a third of them had dangerous insecticides in their blood, including triazophos, which the WHO labels 'highly hazardous' (Table 2).

Control over pesticides used to be easy. In the 1970s and 1980s the government subsidised them to the tune of US$150 million a year and channeled them exclusively through state-controlled cooperatives and their extension programs.

But between 1987 and 1989 the subsidy was withdrawn, and the pesticides were entrusted to private business. Government Pesticide Commissions that operate at every level of government down to the regency have no teeth to enforce regulations. In Jakarta the Central Pesticide Commission has only 24 staff, not all full-time. Compare that with Malaysia, with a tenth of the population, which has three times that many expert staff controlling pesticides.

Yayasan Duta Awam found that 97% of farmers had no idea certain pesticides were banned, and those who did know said they would still use them because they were effective. Pesticide companies advertise their wares aggressively and sometimes misleadingly.

Farmers around the large fresh water lakes Semayang, Jempang and Melintang in East Kalimantan were shocked to be told last August that insecticides they had applied to their cash crops had killed many of the fish upon which they were also dependent.

With the assistance of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, Indonesia in the early '90s implemented a widely praised integrated pest management program involving biological predators. Insecticide use, upon which Indonesia's Green Revolution had been built, dropped markedly, yet rice yields went up. However, judging by the latest reports, more resources need to be put into controlling not only insecticides but also herbicides - especially amid the strong commercial pressures on Kalimantan.

[Gerry van Klinken, editor, Inside Indonesia magazine]