Pesticides: Health Risks for Europeans, Disparity in African Usage.
In 2007, Peter Boafo signed up for a project that would help him and thousands of other rubber farmers in Ghana set up their own plantations.
The country’s west is filled with forests of rubber trees with a milky white sap, latex, the raw ingredient for rubber. Boafo now owns a six hectare farm, thanks to support from Ghana Real Estate Limited, the country’s largest rubber plantation company.
In 1995, it drove the creation of the Rubber Outgrower Plantation Project. With Ghanaian state support, and funding from a French and a German public bank, by 2020 it had given loans to about 9 000 smallholder farmers. Up to $65 million was invested in helping small farmers.
Boafo benefited from this. But one of his biggest problems is weeds. They compete with young rubber plants and can also act as hosts for pests and disease. Boafo said he was supplied with chemicals to help stave them off. One of these, paraquat, is a highly toxic herbicide that can have severe, even fatal, consequences if ingested. It also carries risks for the environment.
Paraquat was banned in the European Union in 2007. Yet the rubber outgrower plantation project uses the chemical and was funded by a French public development bank, Agence Française de Développement. It was also funded by a German development bank, working with Ghana’s Agricultural Investment Bank and National Investment Bank.
“The biggest side effect of the job has to do with chemical use,” said Boafo. “If you apply the chemicals as instructed, then there will be no issues. But if you don’t, you will suffer severe medical complications.”
He said he has not had any health problems from the chemicals that he uses, but other farmers admitted to being lax when it comes to using the protective equipment that is supplied with the pesticides.
Agriculture represents about 20% of Ghana’s GDP.
An investigation by iWatch Africa, a nonprofit organisation in Ghana, Mediapart, Nederlands Dagblad, De Groene Amsterdammer, El Surtidor and Lighthouse Reports found other examples of European public banks funding projects in Uzbekistan and Paraguay that use pesticides banned in the European Union.
“There is a certain hypocrisy in the EU: we ban pesticides to protect the health of European citizens and our environment but we support their use abroad by funding development projects or by exporting our chemical industries,” said Martin Dermine, director of Pesticide Action Network, a United Kingdom-based charity focused on pesticide issues.
“What goes on is that people in the global south are being exposed to highly hazardous substances,” said Marcos Orellana, the United Nations’ special rapporteur for toxics and human rights.
The French development bank said it conducts environmental and social risk assessments before funding such projects. It added that the scheme has allowed for a “reduction in poverty in rural areas thanks to the regular income and training rubber plantation farmers get”. It did not deny the use of paraquat by Ghana Real Estate Limited.
A scientific study looking at the costs of using weed killers on French-bank-funded smallholder rubber plantations, published in 2021, also explicitly mentions “paraquat-derivatives” as being one of the commonly used pesticides. The study is based on a survey of 80 small farmers.
Three farmers, two of which were direct beneficiaries of the rubber outgrower project, said they were provided paraquat by the company. None of the six farmers that iWatch Africa and Lighthouse Reports spoke to said they had been harmed through pesticide use, although some admitted having little knowledge of its potentially negative health effects and therefore opted not to wear protective equipment.
Ghana Real Estate Limited denied using the toxic herbicide. Lionel Barré, its managing director, insisted that it “has never delivered or recommended this pesticide to any farmer.” Gregory Mensah, its land use manager from 2015 to 2020, also denied its use.