*Hazards on Kenyan coffee estates

Issue 

Kenya is among the highest pesticide users in sub-Saharan Africa according to a recent audit, "Pesticide Use and Management in Kenya", commissioned by World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). The audit examines the hazards of pesticide use, products available on the open market and pesticide shipments to Kenya. As in many developing countries, pesticide use in Kenya is concentrated in large-scale production of export crops that generate foreign exchange, such as fruit, vegetables, flowers and coffee. The Kenyan pesticide market was worth approximately US$40.4 million in 1992. Approximately 60% of pesticides used are applied to coffee, primarily fungicides to combat coffee berry disease and leaf rust. As part of the WWF audit, author Hassan Partow visited 19 coffee estates during peak spraying periods in 1993, interviewing 105 pesticide mixers, loaders and applicators on these estates. The report shows that spraying is predominantly a male occupation, while coffee harvesting is done almost exclusively by women and children. The women are frequently required to pick coffee in recently sprayed areas. Typically, workers sprayed from six to 11 hours a day. There are no lunch breaks or other rest pauses, and the monthly wage is roughly US$11-14, placing pesticide farm workers in the lowest income group in Kenya. In none of the estates were soap, drinking water or field sanitation facilities available to pesticide workers during spray operations. Water was available to workers only from drums intended for mixing pesticide concentrate. Most workers waited until reaching home to wash, and many workers complained of the difficulty of obtaining soap. Workers mixed chemical concentrates using bare hands and stirred with a tree branch or stick. Pesticide solutions were poured without use of funnels, making spillage and splashes unavoidable. Applicators sprayed both with and against the wind as spray tractors were driven up and down the rows in succession to save time and fuel. Some workers were provided with protective gear: 59% of those observed were supplied with overalls or aprons, and 36% with boots. However, most worked bare foot (53%) or wore open slippers (11%). For those provided with overalls, laundering was either weekly (in 68% of cases) or at two to three week intervals, forcing workers to use pesticide-soaked clothing for long periods. Protective clothing often was deteriorated, and rarely replaced. None of the workers had received formal training in mixing, loading or application of pesticides, and the application equipment was generally in a poor condition, with leaks occurring regularly. None of the workers questioned were familiar with first aid procedures. Over half of the workers (58%) did not know the name of the chemical they were applying. (These included fungicides such as captafol and chlorothaloni, insecticides such as azinphos methyl, diazinon and omethoate, and herbicides such as glyphosate and paraquat.) Most workers reported adverse health effects during periods of pesticide use, including dizziness and eye irritation. Other common symptoms were skin irritation (84%), breathing difficulties (71%), stomach problems (58%) and nausea (20%). Women harvesters complained that the most common adverse effects were skin irritations, dizziness, nausea and vomiting. Many pickers were adamant that pesticides were the cause of such ailments, noting that these symptoms did not arise when they were processing coffee or weeding manually. While the overwhelming majority of workers were aware of the health consequences of pesticides, their fear of job loss led most to dismiss occupational safety as an unaffordable luxury. One spray operator summed up the dilemma saying, "If the pesticides don't kill us, then hunger will".
[Abridged from Pesticides News, September 29, 1995, based on the report "Pesticide Use and Management in Kenya" by Hassan Partow, Institut Universitaire D'Etudes du Developpement, Geneva.]

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