Commercial Farmers' Union of Zimbabwe

Commercial Farmers' Union of Zimbabwe

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Cotton farmers at risk from pesticides

Cotton farmers at risk from pesticides

October 12, 2012 in Business

Cotton farming has been a vital cog in Zimbabwean agriculture. It has 
dominated the local agricultural industry for almost a century.

Report by Peter Makwanya

Any talk of farming at any level, by any one, evokes images of cotton and 
the successes it brought about. There has been quite a number of players who 
came into the Zimbabwean cotton industry, trashed the environment and 

Cotton-growing companies in Zimbabwe and the world over have serious 
shortcomings on issues of environmental and business ethics.

Concerns such as land use, exploitation of workers and the use of 
pesticides, environmental and health implications cannot continue to be 
mystified. Conventional cotton farming is adversely destroying the 
environment and affecting the health and well-being of thousands of farmers 
in Zimbabwe.

Ethics in general refer to personal code of conduct based on respect for 
oneself, others and the surroundings. From the environmental point of view, 
ethics can be defined as a discipline that analyses issues regarding people’s 
moral obligations to future generations with respect to the environment.

A deeper analysis on the conduct of cotton companies in Zimbabwe reveals 
that they pay lip service or have a palliative approach to the fundamentals 
of ethical considerations. By failing to adhere to environmental ethical 
obligations, they have also failed not only themselves but their ethical 
business practices.

Cotton companies cannot claim to be ethical if they violate the basic rights 
of farmers, ignore health, safety and environmental standards.

These are the issues that have a heavy bearing on the sustainable 
livelihoods of the farmers they claim to have at heart.

For centuries, cotton companies have been quietly pocketing enormous profits 
from exploiting the unsuspecting rural farmers. The question is: For how 
long are they going to play tomfoolery with farmers? For how long are they 
going to continue deceiving farmers with their glib?

Research by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), United Nations 
Environment Programme (UNEP) and World Health Programme (WHO), provides a 
shocking account that between 1% and 3% of agricultural workers around the 
world suffer from acute pesticide poisoning, with at least one million 
requiring hospitalisation each year. These figures equate to between 25 
million and 77 million cotton farmers around the world.

Why cotton? The reason is that cotton amounts to 16% of global pesticide 
release; more than any other crop in the world. Cotton farming is also 
considered the “dirtiest” due to the heavy use of insecticides, the most 
hazardous type of pesticides to human and animal health.

To cotton companies (this is not assumed knowledge) already have 
comprehensive information regarding this. As such, what are they doing about 
it? Do they have insurance cover for their beloved farmers or is there any 
cotton company-owned hospital that treats people suffering from suspected 
poisoning from cotton cultivation related diseases?

Zimbabwe is one of the 16 African countries that use not “extremely 
hazardous” but “highly hazardous” cotton chemicals. It is therefore clear 
that in Zimbabwe there are people suffering from chronic effects of 
long-term pesticide exposure, which include impaired memory and 
concentration, severe depression and confusion. This is long-term in the 
sense that, toxic agro-chemicals first applied 50 years ago now pollute the 
country’s land, air, food and drinking water.

This means that cotton chemicals that were applied in 1962 are beginning to 
have their effects felt now. These chemicals are causing substantial damage 
to humans and the environment.

Women and children, who mostly participate in cotton cultivation, are prone 
to dangers of pesticides because of their vulnerability. Hazardous cotton 
pesticides are known to contaminate rivers and are a threat to fresh water 
resources. About 99% of the world’s cotton farmers live and work in 
developing countries, where there are low levels of safety awareness, no 
access to protective apparatus, illiteracy and chronic poverty.

Zimbabwe, because of its status as a country “that is failing to develop” 
can be classified as part of the 99%. It is common knowledge that Zimbabwean 
rural cotton farmers often store pesticides in their bedrooms or near 
foodstuffs. As a result, reports of suicide cases have appeared in numerous 
editions of the print media.

Due to poverty, carelessness or ignorance, some rural communities end up 
using these pesticide containers for water storage. The situation becomes 
more dangerous when drinking water is not treated, as is the case with the 
majority of Zimbabwean rural communities.

Research shows that hazardous pesticides applied to cotton can potentially 
contaminate both cottonseed oil and cottonseed derivatives in animal feeds. 
In simple terms, it means the hazardous chemicals can affect the whole food 
chain; therefore, human beings, animals and the environment are not spared.

It is also clear from the environmentalists’ point of view that ethical 
practices are normally resisted by some sectors of the society, including 
cotton companies.

Events of the 2012 cotton marketing season, where farmers got a shocking raw 
deal from cotton companies, which announced buying prices when cotton was 
overdue for sale, is not sustainable. Buying prices should be announced in 
advance so that farmers who intend growing cotton may do so out of choice 
and economic considerations.

Cotton farming is a high-risk job which is very exploitative. This past 
farming season we have in Zimbabwe witnessed thousands of the rural poor 
working for little, or no reward at all.

In fact, they have been relegated to the dustbin of the farming discourse. 
Sometimes we witness cases of misplaced priorities by these cotton 
companies, where a company sponsors rugby, which is considered an elitist 
sport in Zimbabwe, while ignoring construction of roads in the rural areas 
where the cotton is grown.

The rural constituencies have served these cotton companies in good faith, 
but they have to destroy the environment in order to construct make-shift 
roads so that cotton companies can have easy access to their loot.

Some communities do not have basic educational facilities such as decent 
classrooms. Children learn under freezing conditions in winter and in 
sweltering and suffocating heat come summer while their major and only 
important stakeholder is watching.

There are also capable and scholarship-deserving students from these 
impoverished communities who fail to go to universities, not because they 
are dull, but due to lack of funding. They have been dumped and loathed by 
the exploitative cotton companies.

Indeed, it is not cotton companies’ sole responsibility to undertake these 
social obligations, but these same rural constituencies have nurtured cotton 
companies to what they are today.

To reduce environmental damage and compromising the health of their major 
stakeholders, cotton companies must engage in research to find out which 
organic cotton species are suitable for sustainable farming, depending on 
available variables. The advantage of growing organic cotton is that it does 
not require the use of pesticides and fertilisers.

Organic cotton farming does not poison the environment or the people 
involved in the production. If cotton companies in Zimbabwe have proved 
through research that organic farming is not suitable in our situations, 
then they must ensure that agro-chemical companies sell recommended 
pesticides only. They should allow the selling of pesticides bearing the 
labels of manufacturing countries and companies. The chemical products 
should have genuine eco-friendly certifications.

Farmers need to have constant training, awareness and education programmes 
in chemical handling and better pest management techniques. Protective 
equipment should be readily available and affordable too. The brush and 
bucket spraying technique is highly contagious, so in that regard sprays 
should be cheap as well.
Lastly, ethical business practices are eco-friendly and sustainable as they 
regulate the behaviour of all businesses that operate in the supply-chain 
such as contractors, suppliers, distributors and sales agents.

Makwanya is a climate change communicator who writes in his own capacity and 
can be contacted on: [email protected] or [email protected]


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