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Thursday, August 5, 2021

The Truth about Toxic Valley

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Documentary chronicles the effects of a banned pesticide on Australia’s flora and fauna

A husband and wife team of film producers have taken up a special cause to highlight the impact of use of pesticides in the Australian agro-industry. For the last three years, Simon and Geethanjali Kurian have worked to produce ‘Toxic Valley’, a feature-length documentary on the effects of Endosulfan, a now- banned chemical used worldwide for decades as a cheap agricultural pesticide. However, its lethal effects are still widely felt.Other pesticides similar to Endosulfan used around the world have also been covered in this comprehensive documentary.

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‘Toxic Valley’ covers three countries – Australia, India and the USA. Speaking to The Indian Telegraph, Simon Kurian said, “They (pesticides) have the tendency to bio-accumulate, meaning they are everywhere in the environment and remain there for a long time… in the air, water and soil!” The same is true of Endosulfan, where due to its easy accessibility, it was widely used. Though initially successful in eradicating pests and increasing yields of produce like cashew nuts, the overall human impact was not recorded.

In 1980 in Kasargode, a border- town in the Southern Indian state of Kerala, the Plantation Corporation of Kerala (PCK) commenced aerial spraying of thousands of hectares of government-owned cashew plantations with the Endosulfan. Helicopters flew over wide swathes of land, raining the pesticide on water bodies, homes and surrounding villages as they criss-crossed from plantation to plantation. Soon the 11 villages around the spraying radius began noticing an unusual cluster of children with birth defects –physical and mental; among adults the incidence of infertility and respiratory and neurological disorders rocketed to improbable highs. As the years passed, over a thousand deaths were attributed to poisoning and Kasargode became the face of a worldwide fight to ban Endosulfan.

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Two sided dilemma

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Simon and Geethanjali (Anji) were inspired by this decision to ban the global use of Endosulfan. So far, the use of pesticides and other organic chemicals were considered as a form of ‘risk management’ – a chemical product would be used only if deemed useful to improve land usage by means of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, with the associated risk to flora and fauna assessed at a later stage, if found to be harmful. The associated impact on humans too was considered as risk management, whereby treatment and associated costs would be handled accordingly.

Anji explained this clearly when she said, “In the EU, they take a more precautionary measure, where they use pesticides which can harm humans at a later stage up to a point where the problem is fixed.” For instance, if soil seems to be losing its fertility, chemical fertilizers would be used up to a point where the soil is able to harvest seeds. There are also economic implications for and against use of pesticides. Apart from the cost to purchase, increasing exposure when spraying pesticides also impacts the daily health of a farmer. In Punjab, it was found that the amount of pesticides-related chemicals in the bloodstream of an average farmer was a thousand times more when compared to farmers in the USA. Also, Endosulfan is cheaper to access for a subsistence farmer who has no choice but to purchase the cheapest available option he can afford. The ban and phasing out of Endosulfan has meant that these subsistence farmers cannot afford to buy other type of pesticides that are ten times the price.

Stockholm Convention

Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants is an international environmental treaty, signed in 2001 and effective from May 2004, that aims to eliminate or restrict the production and use of persistent organic pollutants (POPs).

Key elements of the Convention include the requirement that developed countries provide new and additional financial resources and measures to eliminate production and use of intentionally produced POPs, eliminate unintentionally produced POPs where feasible, and manage and dispose of POPs wastes in an environmentally sound manner. Precaution is exercised throughout the Stockholm Convention, with specific references in the preamble, the objective, and the provision on identifying new POPs.

In 2011, this Convention approved a global ban on sale, use and production of Endosulfan, with the Kasargode case study as their main cause for this action. India seeks to phase out the use of this pesticide by 2017.

The Australian story

Similarly in Australia, there is widespread use of pesticides, herbicides and fungicides which have already started to affect the environment. “As they mix in the air, we are all breathing it, eating it and no place is safe,” asserts Simon. To understand the impact better, the couple contacted Dr Matt Landos, Director at Future Fisheries Veterinary Science, who has many years of expertise and knowledge in marine health and is someone who understands fish diseases.

On a visit to a river in northern NSW, Anji observed that for a country that has plenty of birds, there were absolutely no birds in sight around the water site. On enquiring with Dr Landos about this phenomenon, he revealed, “Once this river used to support over 130 fishing families and various businesses, but now there are just 6 fishing families left.” The reason for this big fall in numbers is attributed to the seepage of pesticides from cane and sugar plantations into the river, which dramatically reduced and eventually killed many fish and marine life dependent on the river.

According to this documentary, all major river systems are polluted with pesticides and various other toxins. The former Labor party had attempted to introduce a 5-year review of chemical toxins to keep it in line with EU standards, but this initiative was recently scrapped by the Coalition. However, grassroots movements are taking steps to address the environmental and human impact of using some of these harmful toxins, as a long- term strategy. The onus of proof of any effects from the use of harmful toxins such as Endosulfan has to be proven by its victims, and the powerful manufacturing and farming lobby often consider their bottom line more significant than human implications. However, certain organic farms have cropped up and are establishing an alternative method.

So will Simon and Anji’s documentary make any impact with the Australian public? We hope so, for the sake of the environment and our long-term wellness.

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