Chinese farmers: working blind with toxic pesticides

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Feature Story - 2013-08-08
Xiaogui belongs to the Hmong people, and already has seven or eight years experience in planting the herb Sanqi. Like so many people in his village, both him and his sister's sole income is dependent on farming, and their children often pitch in with the work as well. In fact, the entire Wenshan area specializes in planting Sanqi. Every household plants at least a few acres of the herb.

Yunnan farmer

A Hmong farmer applies pesticides to his Sanqi field. Dehou town, Wenshan City, Yunnan. © Simon Lim / Greenpeace

Sanqi is an expensive herb to cultivate, and growing it requires a lot of hard work. Firstly it should be grown on "virgin land", which means at least two or three fallow years before it can be planted. Secondly, it must be planted alongside other plants supported by poles, in order to create shade. All of this means extensive manual labor.

Women here pick the herbs, while men sow the seeds in January. Sanqi is more vulnerable to pest and disease than other plants, so farmers have become accustomed to applying a mixture of pesticides. Generally these farmers lack clear knowledge as to what harm these pesticides can cause. They only know that the right mix helps protect the seeds from pests. But they are not informed about the available environmentally friendly pest management alternatives and techniques.

Xiaogui says during the planting period he uses particularly potent pesticides such as carbofuran and phorate. Because it's used to kill insects that live underground it is usually sprinkled directly onto the soil. This combines with a variety of other pesticides applied once a week, or during the rainy season twice a week. Xiaogui says he has never really been taught how best to use these pesticides – he just works off his own bat.

Nor is Xiaogui too familiar with what harm pesticides can cause to his health. Which means when he and his sister's husband are handling these toxic chemicals they wear little protection. At times they're exposed to direct skin contact, such as when mixing the chemicals in the pesticide tank where Xiaogui's brother-in-law reports feelings of dizziness. But no one in the village bothers to wear a mask or gloves, so neither do they.

Panax Pseudoginseng Farm in Yunnan

Dehou Town, Wenshan County, Yunnan Province. The Wenshan Prefecture is the origin and the main production area where almost 98 percent of China's total Sanqi fields are located. © Simon Lim / Greenpeace

Xiaogui's daughter is currently in fourth grade, and on the weekends will help out on the fields by weeding or catching mice. Xiaogui's four-year-old son also likes to play in the field. His family isn't careful about keeping the pesticides away from the children. And after spraying they only use simple detergent to wash hands and clothes.

Xiaogui acquired his pesticides from Chinese herbal medicine traders, who not once asked about his methods of application. The farmer says he has no idea where his herbs are then sold. Xiaogui is far from affluent, and the cost of purchasing pesticides is no small burden. Currently, farmers like Xiaogui are not receiving any support to consider alternatives to their existing chemical pesticide use.

This story is part of our investigation: "Heal the Herbs" that reveals a cocktail of pesticide residues on Chinese medicinal herbs.

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