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Pesticide Lobby Pressures Malaysia to Reconsider Paraquat Ban

Posted to the IUF website 19-Apr-2005

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The government of Malaysia has ceded to a concerted lobbying campaign by the Swiss-based agrochemical transnational Syngenta and announced its willingness to reconsider its 2002 decision to ban the acutely toxic herbicide paraquat. On April 15, the Minister for Agriculture and Agro-Based Industries announced through the press that the minister had been moved to reconsider the ban as a result of "presentations" by "key" industry players. Among those "key" players it is not difficult to discern the hand of Syngenta.

Malaysia's planned phase-out, leading to a total ban this year, has been successfully implemented through a series of ongoing consultations with the support of workers, farmers and the health ministry. As recently as mid-2004, the agricultural ministry reaffirmed the irreversible nature of the phase-out process. However Syngenta - which manufactures and sells paraquat under the brand name Gramoxone - has never resigned itself to the loss of a lucrative market.

The Malaysian government's new willingness to surrender the health of its rural population is the end product of a global lobbying campaign which began in Europe. In October 2003, the European Union capitulated to Syngenta by paving the way for greater global use of paraquat when the Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health voted to add it to the positive list of the 91/414 Pesticides Market Authorisation Directive. In our letter to the EU authorities prior to the vote, the IUF wrote that "Adding paraquat to the positive list would encourage greater use of this toxic substance and force it onto the market in EU and other countries where it is currently banned. It would also encourage its further use in developing countries, despite the known dangers it poses to humans and the environment and the efforts underway in Malaysia and elsewhere to restrict and eliminate its use." This is exactly what has happened.

Shortly after the EU decision, Syngenta held a press conference in Malaysia urging the government to lift its ban. To pressure the Malaysian regulatory authorities, the company took out full-page advertisements in the Malaysian press promoting the alleged safety of the product, citing the EU approval as evidence.

Paraquat not only kills weeds, it kills workers, which is why agricultural workers' unions around the world are committed to its elimination. There are proven, less toxic alternatives. Palm oil plantations in Malaysia have successfully accommodated their production to the ban.

Paraquat accounts for a substantial number of the tens of thousands of pesticide-related deaths recorded annually by the WHO. Paraquat is highly toxic to humans and animals. Once absorbed through the skin or lungs or orally ingested, its effects are irreversible. There is no known antidote to paraquat poisoning. Agricultural workers are regularly exposed to this toxic substance during handling and mixing, spraying and working in freshly-sprayed fields.

The IUF has written to the Malaysian authorities to urge them to resist industry pressure and keep to the scheduled paraquat ban. We are working together with the Pesticides Action Network and other public interest organizations to hold the government to its brief, i.e. defending the health and safety of agricultural workers and their communities and resisting the pesticide lobby.