Brazil Wisely Teaching Rural Kids Safe Pesticide Use
Teaching Village Children About Chemicals Protects Both The Economy And The Environment
June 11, 1999
by Dennis T. Avery
CHURCHVILLE, Va.-As our group entered the little Brazilian village, about 50 grade-school pupils and their teachers were lined up to greet us. The students sang nature songs while two little girls dressed in rabbit costumes danced. In a skit, a pupil with a backpack sprayer was musically warned to use the pesticide carefully.
The kids had comic books warning them not to use pesticide containers for drinking water or storing food. One of the scenes showed a farm worker puncturing a plastic pesticide container so it can't be misused as a water jug.
At a special science-oriented grade school a few miles down the road, 4th-grade students showed us their model landscape. One end featured dead trees and fish in a withered, brown landscape, illustrating the dangers of pesticide overuse.
The other end of the diorama was green, with lush crops and trees, graphically displaying how farm chemicals, properly used, not only help feed people, but preserve the tropical forests of Brazil's Amazon region to the north.
We had just been guests at the farm training center in Brazil's state of Parana, a project funded by Brazil and the global agro-chemical industry. Here, farm workers are trained in safe pesticide use, basic reading skills (so workers can read label instructions) and other agricultural skills.
Lately, the program has been expanded to include schoolchildren in its "little farmers" program. Without herbicides and conservation tillage, the region's hilly, volcanic soils would erode terribly.
Without pesticides, the local coffee trees would have their yields stolen by pests like leaf miners and nematodes. Without insecticides, the cornfields would be heavily infested with corn borers.
With chemicals, the state of Parana not only feeds its own families, but also is able to export substantial quantities of coffee and soybeans to the rest of the world.
In this part of rural Brazil, agriculture provides more than half of the jobs. Most of the kids we met will eventually find themselves working on one of the region's small farms.
Virtually all will spend their lives around pesticides, sprayers and pesticide containers. Many of them will leave school after only two or three years-and then use pesticides on the job.
At the training center, we saw farm workers learning why they should use the protective "poncho" to keep any spilled liquid from their backpack sprayers from coming in contact with their skin.
Other workers were learning how to keep chemical spray from a tractor- mounted spray boom from drifting onto adjoining fields or wildlands. Workers with granular pesticides were taught to wear rubber gloves and make sure the granules were properly covered up by soil to protect birds.
Many of the trainees were wearing special "moon-suits" made of chemical-repellent fabric, with plastic panels to protect their legs and backs from the harsh liquids, and plastic face masks to protect eyes and mouths.
A German scientist with our party protested that the training program burdened the trainees with too much heavy protective gear. In the heat and humidity of the fields, they would simply take it off and leave it by the fence, he warned.
Then the instructors let us try on the new protective gear they had helped develop. It's lighter and cooler to wear than cotton clothing, and repels water and chemicals. And it can be washed up to 30 times for re-use. The German then asked if he could get some of the suits to show chemical companies in other countries.
The world's long-time fear that pesticides would cause cancer has been virtually laid to rest. A new claim, that pesticides might disrupt our endocrine systems, has been sharply undercut, with two prominent studies discredited.
However, pesticides do unquestionably pose risks to farmers in the fields who must handle them in concentrated form. That's why safe-use programs are expanding rapidly.
Brazil's program is huge, well organized and well funded. In the last five years, it has trained 34,000 workers and 300,000 schoolchildren in Parana alone. Along the way, 5,000 adult workers learned to read.
Safe-use programs, funded primarily by the argo-chemical industry, are up and running in 17 Latin American countries and spreading into Kenya, Tanzania, Indonesia and Thailand.
The governments of these rapidly emerging countries have concluded that pesticides, properly used, are vital to fulfilling the future food demands of their countries. They also see pesticides as important in the protection of the environment from the habitat destruction that results from low-yield farming.
Both government and industry are quite properly willing to spend money to ensure the chemicals are used safely, so that local people don't incur health risks.
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Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, VA, and is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.