Malaysian Government Bans the Herbicide Paraquat

PENANG, Malaysia, September 23, 2002 (ENS) - The government of Malaysia has banned the use of the herbicide paraquat, known to cause blurred vision, kidney and skin damage, intestinal illness, breathing difficulties, and death due to lung injury. The decision pleased environmental groups that have been lobbying the Malaysian government to prohibit the chemical.

The order issued by the Pesticides Control Division of the Agriculture Department and signed by the Secretary of Malaysia's Pesticides Control Board, states that effective August 27, 2002, applications to register or re-register paraquat will be rejected; and all applications currently under process to register or re-register paraquat will be stopped.


Malaysia (Photo courtesy Project Trust)
All new applications to advertise will not be entertained, and all advertising applications currently under consideration for approval will be stopped, the government said.

Paraquat is a product made by Swiss agribusiness giant Syngenta, and sold under the trade name Gramoxone. Gramoxone herbicide, containing the active ingredient paraquat, is the world’s second largest selling agrochemical.

The broad-spectrum herbicide is sold by Syngenta in more than 100 countries. It is used on bananas, cocoa, coffee, cotton, palm oil, pineapple, rubber, and sugar cane, both on plantations and by small-scale farmers.

Syngenta says the chemical increases crop yields, raises productivity, reduces the need for extensive manual labor and does not leach into groundwater. "This is the herbicide which first made possible the concepts of minimum tillage, conservation tillage and no-till farming," the company says.

But it does cause harmful health effects in humans and animals. Seven European countries and four developing countries already have banned or restricted paraquat. In Sweden it has been prohibited since 1983, but Malaysia is the first Southeast Asian country to halt use of the chemical. The decision also applies to calcium cyanide, which is also used on the plantations.

The Malaysia based Pesticide Action Network Asia Pacific (PAN AP) and the Berne Declaration based in Switzerland have been sending information to the government about less poisonous alternatives to paraquat. They were pleased to see that the government justified its decision by pointing out that more cost efficient and less dangerous alternatives are available on the market.

"We welcome and applaud this important decision by the Malaysian government. The decision to ban this poison is long overdue. The challenge we face now is to see a world wide ban and phase out of this chemical," said Sarojeni Rengam, executive director of Pesticide Action Network Asia and the Pacific.


Malaysian mother and child (Photo courtesy FAO)
"We strongly urge the board of Syngenta, the largest producer of paraquat, to stop the production of this chemical that has caused suffering amongst so many agricultural workers and farmers," said François Meienberg of Berne Declaration.

In March, PAN AP and the Malaysian workers rights organization, Tenaganita, launched a study showing that women plantation workers are being poisoned due to exposure to toxic herbicides, especially paraquat.

Responding to the government's decision to ban the chemical, Tenaganita coordinator Irene Fernandez said, "As we have stressed before, paraquat, which is so widely used in plantations here, is a known poison without an antidote. It has caused severe poisonings in workers who use it. We want all the manufacturers, especially Syngenta, to respect the government's decision by ceasing production of paraquat, and we demand that they recall all stocks of paraquat immediately."

An international coalition of nongovernmental organizations is pressuring Syngenta to abandon the production of paraquat. To underline its demand, the coalition on Wednesday started an e-mail campaign on the website of the Berne Declaration, calling on Heinz Imhof, Syngenta's chairman of the board, to take action now.

While not addressing the paraquat issue directly, in his speech to a business audience at the World Summit on Sustainable Development September 1 in Johannesburg, Imhof emphasized the importance of a "constructive dialogue in food and agriculture: a realistic exchange among the research community, farmers, processors, retailers, consumers, governments, NGOs and other components of civil society."


Sygenta chairman Heinz Imhof (Photo courtesy Sygenta)
"We must work together to develop local approaches to support safe, high quality food production," said Imhof, "in a spirit of mutual benefit, responsibility and respect."

Syngenta told analysts of the Deutsche Bank in May that it seems unlikely the product will be forced out the of the market by regulators, the NGOs claim.

PAN Germany said today in an email to raise support for the lobbying effort that Syngenta's new paraquat factory in China shows that "the company intends to continue the production and use of this dangerous pesticide and that its management has dismissed all objections and concerns."

Not everyone connected with Syngenta agrees that paraquat is safe. Professor Klaus Leisinger, executive director of the Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Development until September 1, does not think so. In a letter to the Berne Declaration he said he "shared the concern about the safe handling of paraquat under small farming conditions in developing countries."