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After six years of working on a vineyard just outside Cape Town, farmworker Diana Ndleleni collapsed between the grapevines grown to make wines renowned throughout the world.

Her doctor said she had permanent lung damage that he believed was from years of inhaling pesticides sprayed on the grapes. He said she would not be able to work again.

Nearly a year after spending a week in hospital, she joined hundreds of other women marching to demand these pesticides, banned in the EU, are not imported into SA where workers report a range of health issues from rashes, to asthma and even cancer.

“These pesticides are a silent killer,” said Ndleleni, outside a community hall in Paarl, where hundreds of female farmworkers gathered last month to demand an end to toxic pesticide imports.

“I felt very, very sad when I learnt they were banned in other countries, but not here. Why are our lives less important?” asked the 61-year-old in a raspy voice between coughs. She said she had been too sick to work since late 2022.

Ndleleni is part of a collective called Women on Farms Project, a group fighting for the rights of female farmworkers in SA.

The organisation said both men and women were affected by pesticides, but as women are more often recruited as seasonal workers, they are not given proper training or personal protective equipment (PPE) and so were more at risk.

In 2018 and 2019, 140,908 tonnes of pesticides banned in the EU due to health and environmental risks were exported by EU countries and Britain to Brazil, SA, Kenya and others, 2023 research by the Heinrich Böll Foundation found.

The UN Special Rapporteur on Toxics and Human Rights Marcos Orellana said after a visit to SA in August that the EU’s export of banned pesticides “reproduces long-standing racist and colonial patterns of exploitation”.

Farmworkers said doctors, like Ndleleni’s, often work for the farms, and so are unwilling to write reports giving the causes of ailments, despite what they said in person.

Compiled list

The Women on Farms Project is focusing on 67 pesticides banned by the EU and aims to get medical reports from independent doctors to try to prove a link, building on existing academic research from the University of Cape Town.

The UnPoison network, an SA research and advocacy group, has also compiled a list of 192 highly hazardous pesticides registered and used in SA. More than a third of them are banned in the EU.

These include the pesticide mevinphos, which can cause neurological defects, carbofuran, which can cause reproductive and developmental defects, and terbufos, an insecticide with neurotoxic effects, UnPoison said.

“It is double standards because if these chemicals are so harmful to the EU, it cannot be right that is OK for our country,” said Colette Solomon, director of Women on Farms. “African lives are of equal value to European lives.”

SA has for decades prioritised intensive agriculture over protecting human health and the environment, Orellana said.

The SA department of agriculture, land reform & rural development said it plans to ban a range of highly hazardous pesticides by June 2024.

Orellana called on SA to “ban the import of all highly hazardous pesticides … without delay”, and destroy existing stockpiles.

The European Commission committed in 2020 to ensure chemicals banned in the EU were not produced for export, but three years later has still not stopped the practice. In May this year, it launched a public consultation on the issue.

During the protest, women marched, sang and danced through Paarl with brightly painted placards reading “Racist double standards” and “African workers’ lives matter” to the offices of Bayer, a major German pharmaceutical and biotechnology company with a large presence in SA.

Key component

Once they arrived, the women handed over a memorandum calling on the European Commission and Bayer to end the production and export of pesticides already banned in Europe.

Both Bayer and CropLife, an industry association, said the way pesticides are used is a key component of their safety.

Bayer said its products are “safe to use when applied according to the label instructions” and said it fully complies with local laws and regulations.

CropLife said SA has “completely different climate, crops and pests” from Europe and said both farmers and farmworkers are legally obliged to ensure PPE is worn if product instructions said it should be.

But farmworkers said farmers repeatedly ordered them to work on fields soon after crops were sprayed, without PPE. They said pesticides also drifted onto nearby settlements and they had to relieve themselves in sprayed fields due to a lack of toilets.

Women on Farms co-director Carmen Louw said “noncompliance of farmers is a separate issue from toxicity of pesticides”.

“We know of cases where workers had full PPE and still turned orange,” she said. “Even if European farmers had PPE, hazardous pesticides are still banned there.”

There are many reasons why hazardous pesticides are prevalent in SA, said UnPoison network co-ordinator Anna Shevel.

These include outdated pesticide regulation dating back to the 1940s, a lack of testing for pesticide residue, no public chemical database, illegal pesticide imports, unregulated spraying and few alternatives for farmers.

The public is unaware of how many hazardous pesticides are used to produce their food, Shevel said.

Lacks detail

“There is no pressure from the public on retailers and thus no pressure from retailers to government to regulate production better,” she said.

UnPoison welcomed the department’s pledge to phase out some chemicals by June 2024, but said they are not the most dangerous ones and the announcement lacks detail such as timelines and methodology.

The department said it will “continue to review the safety of pesticides that are used in SA in line with international trends”.

Solomon from Women on Farms said the law will be one of the best weapons against pesticide poisoning.

“In January the German government introduced a law that German companies have to ensure workers are respected along their value chain,” she said.

France also has progressive legislation to prohibit the production and export of hazardous substances, said Solomon.

“We want to test these laws. Laws are wonderful on paper but in terms of implementation, does it have teeth?” she said.

“If there is a ban, it should be global.”

Thomson Reuters Foundation

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