‘Double Standards’: South Africans Exposed to EU-banned Pesticides

PAARL, South Africa (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — After six years of working on a vineyard just outside Cape Town, South African farmworker Diana Ndleleni collapsed between 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 European Union, are not imported into South Africa 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, a town 60 kilometers east of Cape Town, where hundreds of female farmworkers gathered last month to demand an end to toxic pesticide imports.

“I felt very, very sad when I learned 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 South Africa.

The organization 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 tons of pesticides banned in the EU due to health and environmental risks were exported by EU countries and Britain to Brazil, South Africa, Kenya and others, 2023 research by the Heinrich Boll Foundation found.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Toxics and Human Rights Marcos Orellana said after a visit to South Africa 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 were unwilling to write reports giving the causes of ailments, despite what they said in person.

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 — a South African research and advocacy group — has also compiled a list of 192 highly hazardous pesticides registered and used in South Africa. 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.”

South Africa has for decades prioritized intensive agriculture over protecting human health and the environment, Orellana said.

The South African Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development (DALRRD) told the Thomson Reuters Foundation it planned to ban a range of highly hazardous pesticides by June 2024.

Orellana called on South Africa 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 it 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 South Africa.

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 were used was a key component of their safety.

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

CropLife said South Africa had “completely different climate, crops and pests” from Europe and said both farmers and farmworkers were legally obliged to ensure PPE was 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 “non-compliance 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.”

Using the law

There is a cocktail of reasons why hazardous pesticides are prevalent in South Africa, said UnPoison network coordinator 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 South African public is unaware of how many hazardous pesticides are used to produce their food, Shevel said.

“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 DALRRD’s pledge to phase out some chemicals by June 2024, but said they were not the most dangerous ones and the announcement lacked details such as timelines and methodology.

The DALRRD said it would “continue to review the safety of pesticides that are used in South Africa in line with International trends.”

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

“In January 2023 the German government introduced a new 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.”