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The Akha and Herbicide

Herbicide Ignorance Poisons Hill Tribes
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September 1998 
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
                    the creek."

                    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
                    practicable minimum."

                    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
                    crossbones means."

                    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
                    system contamination."

                    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
                    legitimate reply."

                    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.


Copyright 1991 The Akha Heritage Foundation