South Africa prioritises chemically intensive agriculture despite a huge impact on poor communities.
This is one of the findings of the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and toxins.
Dr Marcos Orrelana released the preliminary findings at the conclusion of his 12 day visit to South Africa, during which he met government officials and organisations fighting for an end to the use.
He told the South African government that “to this day, the legacy of pervasive air, water and chemical pollution disproportionately impacts marginalised and poor communities”.
Orellana said many of the pesticides used had been linked to cancer, fertility problems and other serious health impacts.
“Many of these are banned in the European Union and United States and were imported to South Africa and stored in direct contravention of the provisions of the Rotterdam Convention to which South Africa is a party.”
Orrelana also called for an overhaul of the legislative framework that enabled the continued use of toxic pesticides.
Legislation which existed pre-democracy, such as the Hazardous Substance Act of 1973 and the Farm Feeds, Agricultural Remedies and Stock Remedies Act 36 of 1947, remained in place in South Africa and had resulted in harms and human rights infringements, he added.
“This results in the legalised poisoning of agricultural workers in the fields and neighbouring communities.”
He said the implementation and enforcement of legislation concerning chemicals and wastes fell under many departments, making co-ordination and coherence challenging.
The agchem industry had an “impermissible” influence in government affairs, and he was also told that a register of the pesticides used was solely owned by a private company and not the government.
“The legacy of pervasive air and water pollution to this day is disproportionately impacting marginalised and poor communities.”
This is despite South Africa’s constitution recognising the right of citizens to an environment that is not harmful to their health or well-being.
Members of the Women on Farms Project (WFP) and the Commercial, Stevedoring, Agricultural and Allied Workers Union in the Western Cape, told the Special Rapporteur how the agchem industry was allowed “to act with impunity”.
WFP spokesperson Colette Solomon said there was little oversight over farm bosses and the way agrotoxins were used on their private property.
“Our government should enforce labour laws take punitive action against those who do not comply.”
Solomon added that farmworkers and the communities suffered several respiratory and skin problems when the pesticides were being sprayed.
“In the vineyards, there are no ablution and hand washing facilities and women have to relieve themselves in the bushes where the pesticides have been sprayed. So they experience urinary tract related problems. Also, they are not provided with PPE,” she said.
Since 2019, the WFP has been campaigning for a ban of at least 67 Highly Hazardous Pesticides (HHPs), which included pesticides responsible for serious injury and illness, long-term debility and, in some cases, deaths.
“We want an end to the racist double standards being practised internationally. Companies in Germany, for instance, continue to produce pesticides banned in Europe but export them to Africa. They are hazardous to Africans just as they are to Europeans.”
The South African People’s Tribunal on AgroToxins, a voluntary collaboration of organisations exposing the human and environmental rights violations related to agricultural chemicals, described the impact of the harmful pesticides on humans and the environment as “worse than you can imagine”.
Spokesperson Haidee Swanby said: “People’s rights are being trampled on. Farmworkers are exposed to toxins which affect their health. We are drowning in toxins.”
She urged the government to immediately ban hazardous pesticides and implement and enforce legislation to protect farmworkers.
A study estimated that 2 239 human deaths and more than 9 500 cases of bronchitis a year could be attributed to air pollution in South Africa.
During the violence that erupted in KwaZulu-Natal in July 2021, the UPL chemical warehouse in Cornubia, Durban, which stored thousands of tons of pesticides, was set on fire.
The nearby Blackburn informal settlement was particularly hit by the toxic pollution of the air and waters.
In Mpumalanga, communities resorted to the high court after reports of children getting sick with asthma and eye itching, and adults suffering from shortness of breath while clinics lacked medication or ways to store it.
“Some areas in Mpumalanga resemble a ‘sacrifice’ zone as low-income, black communities live in the vicinity of heavily polluting industries which have disproportionately impacted their human rights,” said Orellana.
The University of Cape Town’s School of Public Health has launched a study to determine the impacts of the Durban disaster on children’s health and development as well as community response and agency.
The Department of Rural Development and Land Reform welcomed Orrelana’s visit and said it agreed with his recommendation for the overhaul of the legislation governing pesticides.
“By the end of this month, we will gazette new regulations which amongst other things will prohibit the use of certain Highly Hazardous Pesticides with carcinogenic, mutagenic and reprotoxic properties,” said spokesperson Reggie Ngcobo.
He said the ban on HHPs was expected to come into effect by June 2024 and the government would monitor the imports and continued use.
However Orellana said he was told that while the government did not have a publicly available list of registered pesticides, an industry association had an online database for purchase.
“Similarly, I have received information that consultants not registered with the South African Council for Natural Scientific Professions have been involved in the preparation of applications for the registration of agricultural pesticides, in open breach of the Natural Scientific Professions Act, 2003,” he added.
AgriSA said it welcomed the government move to ban the use of HHPs and urged the industry to comply with international standards.
“As an industry, we export most of our products and these need to be environmentally compliant. If people use unapproved toxic pesticides that will be irresponsible,” said AgriSA CEO Christo Van der Rheede.