28 July 2009

Government to ban aerial spraying as environmentalists demand protection of human rights vs business interest

Quezon City. In a meeting of high level government officials last week, the Department of Health (DOH)-led Inter-Agency Committee on Environmental Health (IACEH) has included in its draft policy paper on pesticides the banning of aerial spraying as an agricultural practice.

This is partly because environmental groups like the Eco Waste Coalition, Greenpeace, National Task Force Against Aerial Spraying (NTFAAS) and Davao-based Mamamayan Ayaw sa Aerial Spraying (MAAS) earlier demanded from IACEH to issue the ban after government public health experts have established in a study the dangerous levels of health and environmental effects of the said practice by banana growers.

IACEH, which also acted on the recommendation of the National Poison Management and Control Center, University of the Philippines-Manila (UP-NPMCC) on its 2006 study “Health and Environmental Assessment of Sitio Camocaan, Hagonoy, Davao del Sur”, noted that there are no guidelines on techniques and procedures on aerial spraying, environmental and health monitoring as well as designation of buffer zones.

The ban forms part of the DOH short term action after observing policy gaps in pesticide use, among which, is the absence of a regulation on aerial spraying in agricultural activities, particularly the absence of precautionary measures and risk assessment and reduction on the pervasive use of agrochemicals.

The body is also looking into the compliance of agricultural plantation to social responsibility to the community, environmental impact assessment and their occupational health program for agricultural workers, notwithstanding government’s admission of its inability to fully monitor and police the practice with only three personnel for the entire region.

“To be in business is not a matter of right but a privilege. In the discourse about aerial spraying of pesticides, wherein a clear-cut policy is absent ever since and severe public health and environment hazards are clearly established and verifiable, that privilege is mandatorily prevailed upon by the most supreme right – the right to life of affected citizens,” Rene D. Pineda, Jr., a member of the Ecowaste Coalition and head of NTFAAS, told officials in the meeting.

Pineda added that it becomes mandatory for government to immediately stop the practice owing to its mandated duty to protect that right or face the consequences of violating their mandates.

“Banning aerial spraying fits well with the DOH’s ‘National Objectives for Health 2005-2010’ and should be formalized with immediate effect to stop the chemical fumigation of people without their consent,” Rei Panaligan, Coordinator of the EcoWaste Coalition, said.

The EcoWaste Coalition cited Chapter 4 on “Reducing the Burden of Disease” of the “National Objectives for Health,” which lists the need to “protect individuals, families, workers and communities from exposure to occupational and environmental hazards, disease agents or stressors” as one of the government’s strategic thrusts for 2005-2010.

Company representatives presented their defense before the IACEH that aerial spraying is the most cost-effective method of application against Black Sigatoka approved by the Fertilizers and Pesticides Authority and added that the use of technologically advanced tools has increased accuracy and margin of safety vis-à-vis off-target spray. Sigatoka is disease of the Cavendish banana variety that manifests as a yellowish fungus in the leaves.

Dismissing their claim, Cecilia Moran, a farmer and MAAS president representing to the said meeting the affected villagers from Davao City, Davao del Norte and Compostela Valley said: “Hindi kami Sigatoka, kaya dapat hindi kami nauulanan ng spray ninyo. Hindi naman namin sinasabi na itigil na ninyo ang business nyo kasi may alternative pa naman kayo tulad ng ibang mga asensadong plantations na ground spraying lang. Samantalang kami wala ng magagawa kung hindi magdusa at maghintay sa sarili naming lupa ng kamatayan dahil sa aerial spray.”

Villaverde also pointed out that since DOH is concerned with people's health, they would need studies from the plantation group that will prove that their practices are safe to people's health.

Toxicologist and medical doctor Lynn Crisanta Panganiban of the UP-NPMCC presented the various pesticide poisoning studies during the meeting. The ban aerial spraying issue was later referred to IACEH sub-sector on toxic substances and hazardous waste.

They are expected to submit their final recommendation for action within five days.

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