Lao Farmers Still Use Dangerous Herbicide Despite Ban

2016-05-06
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A Lao farm worker mixes up a batch of the herbicide paraquat, May 1 2016.
A Lao farm worker mixes up a batch of the herbicide paraquat, May 1 2016.
RFA

Farmers in the northern Lao province of Xiangkhouang are using so much of the herbicide paraquat on their crops that questions have been raised about the impact of the chemical on the environment and the government’s ability to control its use, RFA’s Lao service has learned.

Despite a two-year-old ban on the chemical in Xiangkhouang, farmers can easily buy paraquat, and are using about 25 times the amount recommended by the manufacturer, according to an official with a civil society organization.

“The amount of herbicide use is high, 80 liters per hectare, which is overuse,” said the civil society official who spoke on condition of anonymity. “The standard use is only three liters per hectare,”

A Lao agriculture official told RFA that authorities are aware of the problem, but are struggling to bring it under control. The official told RFA that the abuse of paraquat is depleting nutrients in the soil, but that it is up to local authorities to curb its use.

“Provincial authorities have banned this substance for two years,” an agriculture official in Nong-het district told RFA. “The agriculture sectors are in charge of controlling it, but it is still smuggled in for sale in the province.”

When contacted by RFA, Khamphou Chanthavong, director general of Xiangkhouang province’s natural resources and environment department, refused to comment on the issue.

While the herbicide is banned in Xiangkhouang, farmers there have become so accustomed to using it that they cannot kick the paraquat habit, sources tell RFA.

“It is difficult for farmers to stop using paraquat for their maize plantations because they have gotten used to it,” the civil society official told RFA.

Farmers in Xiangkhouang’s Nong Het district have been using paraquat since 2008, when they were trained on intensive agricultural production, a Lao agriculture official told RFA.

Paraquat is one of the most widely used herbicides in the world, and while its toxicity is low when sprayed in recommended doses, it poses serious health issues to anyone who handles the chemical.

A small, undiluted dose can kill a human, and paraquat is blamed for a large number of pesticide-related deaths. It is a major suicide agent in many developing countries, and in 2011, the U.S. National Institutes of Health found a link between paraquat use and Parkinson's disease in farm workers.

While paraquat has dangerous side effects, it also has benefits. When used properly it kills weeds without the need to plow them under and it is less reactive in the environment than other herbicides.

Xiangkhouang officials decided the dangers outweighed the benefits and banned the chemical, but they admitted they were unable to control its use.

“Authorities banned the use, but farmers cannot stop using it because they have gotten used to it for many years,” said the Lao agriculture official.

Reported by RFA's Lao Service. Translated by Ounkeo Souksavanh. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.

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