Wetenschap - 8 februari 2001

Ecuadorian farmers risk health with pesticides

Ecuadorian farmers risk health with pesticides

The farmers in the Ecuadorian highlands were not happy with yet another questionnaire from a researcher. So instead MSc student Myriam Paredes decided to work with them in the fields to learn about their way of working and use of pesticides. "We have to look at the history of families and their culture to really understand farmers' decisions."

Although she is also from the highlands of North-Ecuador, Myriam was shocked to hear about a region close to hers, the Carchi province, the biggest producer of potatoes in the country. Here, farmers use pesticides daily to increase production, but these are harmful to their health. "They grow up in contact with pesticides, but they don't see the dangers. They even think that they can build up resistance to them over time." Unfortunately, the farmers are wrong: this region has the highest rate of food poisoning in the country. Many farmers have allergies and chronic diseases as a result of high pesticide application and not using protective clothes.

Training programmes

There have been a lot of training programmes aimed at farmers in the highlands, trying to reduce pesticide use and improve the handling of pesticides. But these have not been very effective as not many farmers participated. Paredes: "Farmers do not directly relate their health problems to pesticide use." After living and working with ten families in Carchi for nine weeks, she saw that it is especially farmers that work with their whole family who are willing to do something about pesticide use. The reason is that they are concerned about the health of their families and also would reduce costs of pesticide use.

Other types of farmers are not so willing to change their pesticide use: the farmers who take risks, invest a lot in their farms and hire wage labourers to work on their land care little about the harmful effects of pesticides. Another group in a difficult situation are the farmers that own land but are dependent on others for capital inputs. The one with the capital, who does not work on the land, decides about pesticide use but is usually not very concerned about health problems related to pesticides.

Government

"We have to bear in mind that not all farmers respond in the same way to training programmes or new policies," says Paredes. And one has to look beyond economic factors, she thinks. The government has tried to reduce pesticide use by increasing taxes, but this did not have the expected effect: "Some farmers, who do not care about the health of their wage labourers, import pesticides illegally; others use cheaper, non-taxed but still harmful pesticides." These responses could be better understood by looking at the different farming styles, Paredes argues.

The idea of raising taxes comes from abroad, but Myriam believes that the government has to look at local variation: instead of general policies for the whole country, there should be more local policies, also based on the ideas of local people. Training remains very important. The farmers who tend to ignore the dangers of pesticides because they hire labourers and have enough money, are not involved in training. They are more interested in programmes that promote new crop varieties. "This could be an important opportunity to combine these programmes with training about pesticide use."

Paredes hopes that her findings will be used by organisations like the International Potato Center which trains farmers in the highlands of Ecuador. She will graduate in March from the MSc programme Management of Agricultural Knowledge Systems.

Hugo Bouter

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