The Akha and Herbicide
Herbicide Ignorance Poisons Hill Tribes
MAESAI, Chiangrai, Thailand, September 11, 1998
(ENS) - Improper use of the herbicide paraquat is
exposing the Akha tribal people in the hills of
five Southeast Asian countries to serious health
problems and environmental damage according to
Matthew McDaniel, an American living in Maesai.
The paraquat is sold under the name Gramoxone, a
tradename of the manufacturer, the UK based Zeneca
Group PLC. Gramoxone is the world's second largest
agricultural product, the company says.
"I have many times witnessed the improper use of
Zeneca. I have never witnessed the proper use of
Zeneca," says McDaniel. "The stuff is sold like
salt or sugar, it is that common. The Akha have the
containers in their baskets in which they carry
everything else, including the vegetables for later
cooking. It is stored inside the hut, the outside
of the container always wet with the concentrate."
The Akha are a hill tribe of farmers and
hunter-gatherers who live in the high mountains of
China, Burma, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam.
McDaniel has worked with the Akha for seven years,
constructing safe wells and water systems and
providing literacy, medical and agricultural
assistance. Originally from Salem, Oregon, he is
works on behalf of a registered non profit in the
State of Oregon, The Akha Heritage Foundation.
[Gramoxone] Zeneca's Gramoxone stacked in boxes in
a Chinese-owned shop where the Akha
hill tribe lives in the mountains of northern
Thailand. The concentrate shown in this box costs
about US$5 for a liter bottle.
The tribespeople have no idea of safe chemical
handling, McDaniel says. "They pour it in the
backpack units, mix it with water, get the
concentrate all over their hands and then proceed
to get the spray on everything including
themselves. I have seen the red blisters all the
way up the legs of the women."
"The backpacks leak, spill all over the person's
back. Then it all gets washed near the well or in
Zeneca is an international bioscience group based
in the UK and traded on the New York Stock Exchange
(NYSE:ZEN). The company is active in agrochemicals
and pharmaceuticals. Worldwide, it sells in over
100 countries, manufactures in 25 countries and
employs over 30,000 people.
All this seems a world away from the Akha
cultivating food crops in the hills of Thailand.
"It is very common to see these bottles in Akha
huts, because they work for big Thai farmers and
they are often asked to spray 'wonder stuff'
between crops on the weeds," says McDaniel.
Gramoxone is deep green as a concentrate, stains
the hands and fingernails this color, and becomes
milky white when mixed with water. Discarded
bottles are easy to spot.
Zeneca's safety, health and environmental policy
states that "environmental impact is reduced to a
But McDaniel says the company should put clearer
warning labels on Gramoxone bottles. "There is no
skull and crossbones on the bottle anywhere. Still,
he admits, "the Akha do not know what the skull and
Gramoxone is a contact herbicide used to control
annual weeds in a wide variety of crops. Describing
the product, Zeneca says, "It is rapidly
inactivated on contact with soil and causes no
damage to crops through root uptake nor
contamination in soil or water."
Gramoxone has reduced the need for mechanical or
human weed control and played a key role in the
development of minimum or zero tillage practices.
This preserves the most fertile part of soil and
conserves moisture, thereby reducing soil erosion,
the company says.
The company makes a point of recommending safe
handling of its chemical products. An article by
Michael Bienek for the University of Minnesota,
"Chemical Safety: A Must in Todayís Agriculture,"
quotes Ed Ready, manager of environmental affairs
for Zeneca Ag Products. Thorough cleanup is a must
with the new generation crop chemicals, Ready said
. "Most herbicides had extremely large margins of
crop safety a few years ago," Ready said. "However,
many new products are much more active and there is
a high potential for crop injury if these products
are applied to the wrong crop or we have spray
But this type of information does not reach[widow]
the Akha hill people, although Zeneca's
Gramoxone is widely advertised on Thai television.
McDaniel says there is no effort made to educate
the hill people or the majority of the Thai
population about the hazards of improper handling
of the product.
"They use Zeneca so often in their work that they
only laugh when I tell them it can kill them,"
McDaniel says. "'You don't expect us to give up our
dollar a day, do you?' seems to be the Akha's
Yet the Akha do know by experience that Gramoxone
can kill. This woman (pictured) is a widow because
of Gramoxone. Her husband drank it to kill himself
because he had four children and no money.
Still, it is common to see the Akha with the
concentrate all over their hands, washing out
containers near wells and using the empty
containers for drinking water bottles.