The Centre for Pesticide Suicide Prevention (CPSP) has hosted an important session on human rights and pesticide poisoning. The virtual event took place on Monday 21 March 2022 and formed part of the satellite programme at this year’s Consortium of Universities for Global Health (CUGH) conference.
Human-rights based approach to pesticide poisoning
We were delighted to be joined by a panel of prominent figures in human rights and global health. This included the current UN Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights, Dr. Marcos Orellana, who set the scene by outlining the human rights-based approach to pesticide poisoning.
He explained how disadvantaged communities suffer disproportionally from the effects of pesticide exposure, which aggravates existing global injustices. Dr. Orellana spoke about the right to science, and the duty to align policy with best available evidence on pesticide management. He also talked about the right to a healthy and non-toxic environment and the states’ duty to guarantee it.
Gender and the leading role of women
We then heard from environmental activist Dr. Vandana Shiva, who presented a different perspective. She said that many in the affected communities are not aware of the full extent of health, environmental, and human rights impact of highly hazardous pesticide use. She stated that “people need the truth about the harm of pesticides.”
Dr. Shiva spoke emphatically about the people affected by pesticide poisoning in India and her experience of working with them, particularly with widows. She explained that women carry the burden of pesticide poisoning, often being left without husbands and land when farmers die.
She shared her belief that women have a leading role to play in creating pesticide free, debt free, suicide free agriculture. She also shared her view that the world needs to reject a “militaristic view” of pests and weeds, treating them as enemies.
Impact on children in Asia
Our next speaker was Sarojeni Rengam from Pesticide Action Network Asia Pacific (PANAP), who shared examples of community monitoring projects PANAP have undertaken across Asia.
She explained that pesticide exposure is not just an issue for adults, but also affects young children who participate in agriculture. In some cases, children have gone blind as a result of the toxic chemicals they have been exposed to.
The double standard of exporting “banned” chemicals
Ms Rengam also pointed out the double standard of “banned” pesticides being exported from high-income countries (including the European Union) to be sold in low and middle-income countries where bans are not yet in place.
This was discussed further by Baskut Tuncak, Director of at the Toxics Use Reduction Institute and former UN Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights, who explored the ethical and legal dimension of exporting chemicals “banned” domestically to third countries.
Mr. Tuncak talked about the deep injustices that agricultural communities face as a result of these double standards. He recalled with sadness hearing Brazilian farmers comparing big companies’ intense use of pesticides to “chemical weapons” that are being used to drive them off their land.
The right to comprehend
We were also joined by Prof. Hanna-Andrea Rother, an environmental and occupational health specialist based at the University of Cape Town. She explained the difference between the “right-to-know” vs. “the right-to-comprehend”.
Even though information on “pesticide safety” is present on pesticide labels, there are many factors that make them unclear and misunderstood. Farmers and other pesticide users have a “right-to-comprehend” that is often practically not possible.
Despite this, harmful exposure to pesticides is categorized as ‘misuse’, putting the blame on the end-user.
Pesticide suicide and the right to life
Our final panellist was Dr. Leah Utyasheva, CPSP Policy Director, who spoke of the right to life and prevention of pesticide suicides.
She explained that the wide availability of toxic pesticides in rural communities was a direct risk to people’s lives and that the most effective way to prevent deaths was through regulatory action.
Dr. Utyasheva talked about the obligation of the States to take positive action to prevent pesticide exposure and poisoning, both intentional and unintentional. She also spoke about the need to decriminalize suicide, which will help reduce stigma associated with suicide, formulate effective response, and improve suicide reporting.
The need to prevent pesticide exposure
The presentations were followed by a lively panel discussion, answering questions submitted by our virtual audience.
The panellists agreed about the need for the human rights based approach to pesticide management and for the prevention of pesticide exposure and poisoning.
The session finished with a powerful video telling the story of Warunika, a 16 year old girl who died after drinking a lethal pesticide. The video explored the rights of children and the obligations on authorities to offer them protection.
This event was designed to spark debate and discussion around an important issue. Opinions and views shared by speakers are not necessarily endorsed by CPSP.
A recording of the full event is available to watch on the CUGH conference virtual platform.
Links to publications
Download a summary of useful publications and other resources shared during the event: