Sarojeni Rengam feels very strongly about pesticides and their harmful effects on workers, particularly women and children.
“The impact of pesticides on workers’ health is serious. I have witnessed the nails of workers turning black, while some have lost their nails completely. Their skin is discoloured (turning white) and some complain of it being very itchy. I have also seen their skin turning black and being very itchy after using glyphosate,” said Sarojeni, over an email interview.
In her interviews with workers, they also complain about vomiting, bleeding through their noses, dizziness, body pain and loss of appetite.
“Workers are also suffering chronic ill health but this link to pesticides that they use have not been investigated and documented well. The studies that are being done are mainly in developed countries, although the link to chronic effects is now slowly being looked into by scientists and public health professionals in developing countries including Malaysia,” she added.
It was while conducting a study for a consumer organisation many years ago that she first found out about the poor working and living conditions of plantation workers.
“They were not only suffering due to the use of pesticides, but also from low wages, appalling housing conditions and their children unable to go to school due to the long distances involved. Some of this has not changed, particularly the use of pesticides where even now workers are being exposed to pesticides daily in the plantations and farms,” she said.
Knowing all that eventually led her to work for the Pesticide Action Network (PAN) Asia Pacific (Panap), of which she is currently executive director. PAN is a global network dedicated to the elimination of harm upon humans and the environment by pesticide use.
For her efforts in championing women’s issues in various campaigns against toxic pesticides over 25 years, Penang-based Sarojeni received the Gender Pioneers for a Future Detoxified Award given by the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm (BRS) Conventions in May earlier this year in Geneva, Switzerland.
Based in Switzerland, the BRS Conventions are multilateral agreements that aim to protect human health and the environment from hazardous chemicals and wastes. The Gender Pioneers award is part of its activities on gender equality.
Sarojeni is also known for her work on issues related to women, farmers, indigenous groups and other marginalised societies.
She has initiated a special programme called Women and Agriculture in Panap to study and look into aspects of women’s land rights and to expose the role of corporations in promoting highly hazardous pesticides.
When contacted, she talked about pesticide monitoring by the community, and the challenges she faces in her work at Panap.
Here are excerpts from the interview:
Can you share more about the Women and Agriculture programme?
Panap started working on documenting the impact of pesticides on women way back in the early 1990s and we published two reports, “Victims Without Voice: A study of women pesticide workers in Malaysia” in 1992 and 10 years later, “Poisoned and Silenced: A Study of Pesticide Poisoning in the Plantations”.
The reports documented the impact of pesticides on women plantation workers in Malaysia and spearheaded the work on women and pesticides.
It exposed women workers spraying pesticides without training, pesticide impacts on their health, the lack of personal protective equipment, and the use of highly hazardous pesticides such as monocrotophos, methamidophos and paraquat in the plantations.
These reports resulted in two important developments; an ongoing campaign to reduce and eliminate pesticide use, particularly paraquat, one of the most hazardous pesticides that has no antidote.
Panap also went on strongly to address the issue of women, their marginalisation and their assertions of their rights, and also organised our Women in Agriculture programme.
Later, we also worked together with regional and national networks and groups to form the Asian Rural Women’s Coalition or ARWC.
When did the community pesticide action monitoring (CPAM) initiative start and which communities does it involve and where?
We started to discuss the idea of CPAM in 1994 with three partners – Tenaganita Malaysia, PAN Philippines and Gita Pertiwi, Indonesia and developed modules for information and training.
CPAM was developed to document and create awareness of pesticide impacts on human health and the environment. It aims to empower communities to address their situation themselves, document the practices and impact of pesticide use at the local level and get actively involved in solving their problems.
This approach drives the changes required to reduce the use of pesticides, adopt more ecological and sustainable agricultural practices, and pressure governments for the implementation of better pesticide regulations and international conventions on pesticides.
Panap’s CPAM programme has evolved for over a decade now and training has taken place all over Asia and Africa.
What are some of Panap’s achievements and challenges so far?
Through Panap and its partners’ efforts, the biggest achievement was the inclusion of a toxic pesticide, endosulfan, and other highly hazardous pesticides in the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (which would initiate the reduction and ban of these pesticides globally) and the Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent Procedure for Certain Hazardous Chemicals And Pesticides in International Trade (which is information sharing).
In addition, at the national level, Panap and its partners have worked to ban key pesticides like paraquat in Sri Lanka and Vietnam and there is an ongoing campaign in Malaysia.
In addition, endosulfan is banned in China and India due to efforts of our local partners. Panap together with its partners have also organised trainings on women’s leadership and sustainable agriculture known as the Irene Fernandez Leadership Training of Rural Women, reaching 2,960 women in nine countries in Asia and three in Africa.
What other campaigns or efforts are you currently involved in in Malaysia?
We are currently documenting impacts of pesticides on communities in a few areas in Malaysia. Our campaigns include the ban of highly hazardous pesticides, particularly paraquat.
Our public awareness campaign is focused on the impact of pesticides on children called “Protect our Children from Toxic Pesticides”.
Children are more vulnerable to pesticides as their exposure to them is high (at a time when their bodies are still developing and therefore, less equipped to protect themselves) through the food they eat, water they drink and air they breathe, and it affects their health and their intelligence.
Is it true that even the air in Cameron Highlands is very unhealthy due to the high concentration of pesticides being sprayed over the crops?
There are studies done by researchers on the air quality in the Cameron Highlands but so far, I have not seen the studies’ results, so it is difficult to comment. However, a study done by Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) showed that both the drinking water and the river’s water is contaminated there.
Again, not much is being done, even though Panap has made recommendations to all the relevant government bodies about helping farmers to move away from pesticide use to more agroecological practices.
What is the most challenging part of your work at Panap? How do you tackle that?
A key challenge is the lack of urgency by government bodies and policy makers to deal with the impact of pesticides on human health and the environment.
Another challenge is the influence of the plantation and pesticide industry on government policies and regulations. For example, the government announced the ban of paraquat in 2002 after a study on the health impact on plantation workers and the existence of alternatives to paraquat.
But due to pressure from the plantation industry and the producers of paraquat, the ban was later lifted. This is the challenge of the work we are doing, when profits become more important than the health of Malaysians.
What motivates you in your work?
The women farmers and workers at the forefront of the campaigns who have dedicated their lives to addressing these issues against all odds (motivate me). When I meet them and discuss their efforts, campaigns and struggles, I am inspired and know that this is where I need to put my efforts.
In addition, after three decades of work, pesticides and gender issues are being recognised both internationally and nationally.
As a result, more work is being undertaken to address these problems and so I feel that I am contributing to ensuring a toxic-free future for children and communities around the world.