Maradi/Kano — Farmers in Niger are using dangerous, black market pesticides in unregulated quantities, with little impact on agricultural yield but with potentially severe health consequences, say experts.
"In Maradi Region [central Niger], what you discover is that farmers have no fear. It's horrific. They know the pesticides they are using are dangerous, but they still won't take the precautions to protect themselves," said James Litzinger, a pesticide expert and agricultural consultant who is assessing pesticide usage for an NGO in Maradi.
"They don't die immediately from the pesticides, so they don't worry. They, like farmers in Nepal and elsewhere, want to see the pest die directly after they spray - that takes some very strong materials."
The pesticides he saw in wide use in Maradi Region were organophosphates. First developed as insecticides, this class of chemicals was mass produced (though not widely used) as chemical warfare agents in Germany in the 1940s. Known as nerve gases, they have been used in several wars since, including in Vietnam and the Iran-Iraq conflict. They are among the most widely used insecticides in the world. Although they are heavily regulated by the European Union and the US Environmental Protection Agency, their use often goes unchecked in the developing world.
Niger registers low on the pesticide use database, but that is no reflection of reality.
Manou Bagué, head of the agriculture department that employs personnel to monitor pesticide use, said the ministry does not have enough agents in place to survey each region.
Control posts have been set up at borders to detect the kinds of and amounts of pesticides arriving, and to curtail entry of banned products such as endosulfan or paraquate, but "lots of types of products cross our borders without control," due to porous borders, he told IRIN.
On farms outside the capital, Niamey, the most frequently used pesticides are Lambda, malatium, Demontor, Califone, DD Force (Pia-Pia) and Furadan, farmers told IRIN. Some come from the capital, others from Nigeria or from China via Nigeria - especially Lambda - said farmer Souley Amadou.
The patents for many pesticides ran out years ago, and manufacturers simply need to buy the raw materials and reformulate them. "Anyone can make them... Farmers don't necessarily distinguish between a brand name and another name. They will try anything once," said Litzinger.
Unbranded, black market pesticides are much cheaper than brand names, said Amadou.
Abdou-Karim Adamou, an agricultural trainer with Niger's national agricultural agents network (RECA), said the network has identified 106 insecticide products on sale in Niger. Among these products were 19 active ingredients, just six of which were approved.
"This makes it difficult for trainers and producers to do their job well," he said.
Bature Ibrahim, a pesticide trader in Sabon Gari market in Kano, northern Nigeria, said the organophosphate most often used and traded in Nigeria is Pia-Pia, which is made locally. It is supposed to be used as a mosquito killer, but traders use it to preserve grains, such as cowpeas, despite its serious health hazards.
It is widely exported across the border in Niger, he said. "There it is also abused as a pesticide."
Hakeem Ajeigbe, an agronomist with the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture in Kano, told IRIN that despite some being banned, many strains of organophosphates are still produced and available in Sabon Gari market. "Some are made here, while some is smuggled from Cotonou in Benin. There is a huge market for it," he told IRIN.
Pesticides are grouped into four toxicity levels, the most toxic being level one.
"My job is to insist that farmers only use threes and fours," said Litzinger. Many farmers he spoke to in Maradi said they used pesticides with level one and two toxicity. "Unscrupulous dealers will bring them in from Nigeria, from Ghana, and farmers who have not been trained to know better buy them."
Studies have linked organophosphates with cancer, cardiac problems, respiratory problems, birth defects, cognitive dysfunction and other illnesses.
Agronomist Ajeigbe said the most common ailments associated with the pesticides in Nigeria were trouble breathing and flu-like symptoms.
In most of Niger's farming communities, women and children spray the crops while wearing no protective clothing or breathing equipment. As Litzinger put it: "If you're old enough to work, you're old enough to spray."
Pesticides can also have a serious impact on animal health, by lowering fertility rates, causing birth defects, lowering milk production, among other effects, said Farouk Djangno, an animal health specialist in Niamey. The quantity of pesticides eaten must be large to cause animal deaths, he said.
According to Umaru Maigari, a doctor in Niamey, individual cases of pesticide-related illness are presented to clinics, but there have been few known mass contaminations from pesticides. The number of cases rises following anti-locust campaigns, when a large amount of toxic chemicals is sprayed across a wide area. Locals who eat the dead locusts show symptoms of vomiting and diarrhoea.
A veterinary specialist said animals that graze in areas just-treated for locusts, also fall sick, sometimes fatally.
Training and yield
Farmers IRIN spoke to in Maradi and on the outskirts of Niamey said neither they nor their families had been trained to use pesticides properly.
Because of this, they are widely misused, which means pesticides may have little impact on yield, said Litzinger.
"I doubt these pesticides even work. The pests they are trying to control are often in the plant, not on them, so the pesticide cannot reach them," he explained. "Pesticides are like drugs - if you give a little bit, you get nothing. You need to reach a dosage threshold that's effective. They are often way below that, so they're wasting their time," he told IRIN.
Common pests in Niger are stem boars, seedling maggots and soil-born fungi. The latter can cause blights, but combatting them requires a fungicide, not a pesticide.
Inappropriate pesticide use, combined with poor soils and chronic drought, means yield loss from pests remains very high, said Litzinger.
RECA and other government agencies do train farmers' associations how to use pesticides, including how to measure and stock them and which to use for which plants. But these trainings have little impact on which products the farmers end up using. Most farmers are illiterate and cannot distinguish between banned and approved substances, said RECA's Adamou.
Bagué confirmed this: "You must realize that most farmers are illiterate, so they don't understand how dangerous their products are," he told IRIN.
According to him, Niger has signed on to pesticide regulations adopted by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). But rules are different between the Sahel zone, which includes Niger, and the wet zone, which includes Nigeria and Benin, a fact that "can cause problems," he said.
Niger has also signed onto international agreements on pesticide use and organic pollutants, including the Stockholm and Rotterdam conventions. The government agreed to a pesticide strategy in 1996.
Ultimately, to increase yields, and thus food security, the government and partners must work on a variety of measures simultaneously: putting pesticide policies into practice through widespread awareness-raising and training; finding good seed sources; treating seeds against soil-borne pathogens; using fertilizer to strengthen plants' ability to tolerate pests; and improving water conservation techniques.
Despite the multiple obstacles, the problem "is not insurmountable", said Litzinger.
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations. ]