Too dangerous: Malaysia bans Syngenta Pesticide Paraquat

Zurich and Penang, 20.09.2002 - NGOs applaud the decision made by the government of Malaysia to ban the use of paraquat. The recently announced decision was taken at a cabinet meeting on August 27, 2002. Malaysia is the first Sout-East-Asian country to make the ground breaking step to phase out the use of this controversial product, which is very harmful to human health. Several European countries have already imposed a similar ban. The Malaysian decision follows the demand by various NGO's to ban the pesticide worldwide. Paraquat is the most important product of Syngenta, the worlds biggest agrochemical company.

The circular - issued by the Pesticides Control Division of the Agriculture Department and signed by the Secretary of Malaysia's Pesticides Control Board - states that as of August 27th, 2002 and with immediate effect, 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. Previously registered products, such as Syngenta's Gramoxone, will be phased out in stages. In terms of advertisements, all new applications to advertise will not be entertained, and all applications currently under consideration for approval will be stopped.

The Government justified its decision by pointing out that more cost efficient and less dangerous alternatives are readily available on the market. The decision also applies to calcium cyanide, which is also used in the plantations.

"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", states Sarojeni V. Rengam, Executive Director of PAN Asia and the Pacific (PAN AP).

"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," François Meienberg of Berne Declaration added.

In Malaysia, paraquat has been a major cause of concern due to continued poisonings suffered by plantation workers-especially pesticides sprayers who are mostly women. Because of its effects to workers and users of Paraquat, Malaysia classified it as a Class I (extremely hazardous) pesticide, a higher classification to that of the World Health Organisation Class II (highly hazardous) designation.

In March 2002, PAN AP and local workers right organization, Tenaganita, launched a study confirming that women plantation workers were being poisoned due to exposure to highly toxic pesticides, especially paraquat.

Responding to the decision, Irene Fernandez, Coordinator of Tenaganita, commented, "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!"

With annual sales of US$ 430 million (seven percent of total turnover), paraquat, marketed by Syngenta under the brand name Gramoxone, is the most successful product of the Swiss company. With reference to the international NGO-campaign for a worldwide ban of paraquat, Syngenta told analysts of the Deutsche Bank as recently as May of this year, that it seems unlikely the product will be forced out the of the market by regulators.

Meanwhile, Syngenta's lack of sensitivity is getting adjusted by more forward-looking agricultural producers. George Jaksch, director of corporate responsibility and public affairs at Chiquita told Switzerland based Berne Declaration that "under its Better Banana Project, Chiquita is working to improve the safety of its workers and the protection of the environment on its plantations. Because we are serious in pursuing these objectives we have banned products like paraquat from our plantations." The network of Fairtrade Labelling Organizations has banned the use of paraquat for certified producers for all crops this year.

Despite mounting opposition, Syngenta seems determined to stick to its product. At the company's second quarter conference in August 2002, CEO Michael Pragnell again affirmed the product's safety and stressed its importance, e.g. for Chinese subsistence farmers. Ironically, Professor Klaus Leisinger, executive director of the Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Development until September 1, 2002, disagrees. 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."

The international coalition of NGOs* continues to press 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.

* Berne Declaration (Switzerland), Banafair e.V. (Germany); Bio Suisse (Switzerland); Central American Institute for Studies on Toxic Substances (Costa Rica), Fédération genevoise de coopération (Switzerland); Foro Emaus (Costa Rica); Swedish Society for Nature Conservation; Pesticide Action Network Asia Pacific; Pesticide Action Network Germany; Pesticide Action Network Latin America (RAP-AL); Pesticide Action Network North America; Pesticide Action Network UK; Red de Accion sobre Plaguicidas y Alternativas en México (RAPAM)