By David Stenerud
Scandinavian Tobacco Co. and its subsidiary Tiedemann Tobaksfabrik receive significant amounts of tobacco from Malawi.
NorWatch visited the desperately poor African country, and present documentation that Malawian tobacco workers handles potentially deadly pesticides not wearing a thread of protection. They thereby expose both themselves and their future children to grave health risks.
Straight onto the skin
We are at the Malawian state-owned company ADMARC's 50 hectar tobacco plantation Chimwemwe, not far from the Zambian border. This is the main area for tobacco production in Malawi.
A gate leads in to the nursery. It's early August 2002. The plants are merely eight weeks old. Before entering, we have to dip our feet in the fatally poisonous fungus-killer copper oxychloride. The workers rinse their bare feet in the poison.
For this is the most vulnerable time tor the tobacco - illnesses and insects pose danger to the entire crop. Therefor, precautions are necessary - pesticides, more than enough to be on the safe side.
- Against insects, especially grasshoppers, we use Acephate, says nursery manager Tessie Gwesere.
The substance he's talking about is ranged moderately poisonous, class 2, by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Nevertheless, it is recommended to avoid inhalation and skin contact. Known effects of absorbation of Acephate through lungs and skin are headaches, breathing difficulties and eczema. Long term effects may be depressions and asthma. According to the organisation Pesticide Action Network UK (PAN-UK) the pesticide may also pose dangers of foetus deformations.
The effects of Acephate, and other so-called organo-phosphates, on the nature as such are regarded as modest: These substances are broken down relatively quickly in soil. Leaks directly to water may, on the other hand, cause fish to die.
An even worse poison is the fungus-killer copper oxychloride, which the workers, as said, dip their bare feet into, and spread across the field from open buckets. This pesticide is a copper salt which breaks down very slowly.
The direct effects on humans are of fatale proportions (source in the following; Hummel Corton Inc.):
- Inhalation: coughing, shortness of breath, sore throat, runny nose.
- Skin contact: redness, swelling, itching, pain.
- Swallowing: digestional inflamation, stomach pains, nausea, vomitting, diarrhoea. Then; Ears ringing, dizziness, enhanced blood pressure.
- Long term effects of exposure to copper: capillary damage, headaches, cold sweats, weak pulse, kidney damage, liver damage, effects on the central nervous system causing depressions, spasms, paralysis and coma. Death may occure from shock or kidney failure.
- Die from what-not
According to Hummel Corton's copper oxychloride Material Safety Date Sheet (MSDS), protective goggles, PVC gloves, impregnable boots and approved inhalation filter are required. All those items are, of course, non-existent on the Chimwemwe farm.
'Cause there is no work environment regulations in effect in Malawi, and the perspective on health is quite different from that of the western world:
- We see people dying from all kinds of things, said med. Douglas Mtisau of the Mkhoma hostital to NorWatch. He continued:
- But no-one has bothered doing anything to map the distribution of poisons around us, and find out what it does to people.
Malawi is the ninth poorest country in the world, at the moment tormented by famine, 20 percent of the grown population have HIV or AIDS, life expectancy is 39 years. What significance have depressions, headaches and an early death from pesticide exposure under such circumstances?
News to Tiedemann
- We know nothing to suggest that the toobacco from Malawi contains pesticides. But what you are referring to, and what you have seen, is about social standards, and when it comes to pesticides in that respect, I have to say that what you are telling me is new to us, said Tiedemann's information director Jan Robert Kvam to NorWatch.
- It is absoluterly revelavant to us, though, but Malawi is after all one of the poorest countries in the world, and we have been aware for a long time, and are aware, that there are considerable social problems in the country, deepened Mr. Kvam.
He doesn't think boycott is the right answere to the problems of Malawian tobacco industry:
- We have been in contact with the labour union in Malawi, who say that boycott is not the solution, Mr. Kvam told NorWatch.
That view has been confirmed before NorWatch by, among others, Malawi Congress of Trade Unions (MCTU). Logically, really: 70 percent of Malawi's foreign exchange earnings come from the export of tobacco.
Facts: Report on pesticides
The UK organisation Christian Aid studied for two years the British American Tobacco Co. Brazilian subsidiary Souza Cruz. February 2002 the report was ready. Conclusion: Tobacco workers experience severe health damage from pesticides, therein organo phosphates. Among the findings were: Depressions and as much as a sevenfold increase in suicide rate compared to the general population, insomnia, joint and muscle aches, stomach catarrh, blood in the urin, then chronic dizziness and motory failure. (Read the report "Hooked on Tobacco" at; www.christian-aid.org.uk).
Norwatch Newsletter 7-8/02