Tag Archives: agriculture

Agro Chemicals in The Garden of the Americas

Vegetable pickers start as early as 1 a.m. in the valley of Almalonga, Guatemala.

Vegetable pickers start as early as 1 a.m. in the valley of Almalonga, Guatemala.

I went to Guatemala as a language student, not as a photojournalist. Since relocating to Mexico City after nearly 10 years in the Asia-Pacific region, learning Spanish has become a top priority and nowhere in the world has the same range of affordable options as Quetzaltenango (aka Xela), Guatemala. So I impulsively bought a non-refundable ticket with the intention of learning as much Spanish as possible over the course of a five week intensive immersion program. Everything else was to be put on the back burner. In retrospect, if all I wanted was to focus on language then I should have left my cameras in Mexico, but of course I didn’t. Within two days of landing in the country I had started thinking about possible stories.

Three days later I was on a bus heading out of Xela to Almolonga.

The entire Almolonga valley is roughly 20km squared, and all farmable land has been spoken for. Competition for space can be intense.

The entire Almolonga valley is roughly 20km squared, and all farmable land has been spoken for. Competition for space can be intense.

Almolonga was home to some of the richest agricultural land in all of Guatemala and because of the incredible amounts of vegetables it exported across Latin America, it had earned the nickname of The Garden of the Americas. When I first arrived in the valley, an intricate grid of vegetable plots dominated the landscape, forming a patchwork quilt of various shades of green. It seemed to be an agrarian paradise of small-scale farmers, and had I turned around and left without probing any deeper that impression might have endured. But instead I started asking questions and before long realized that Almolonga – and the unbelievably perfect-looking vegetables it produced — was firmly in the clutches of the international agricultural chemical industry.

A hired labourer carries chemical application equipment towards a piece of farmland in the early morning.

A hired labourer carries chemical application equipment towards a piece of farmland in the early morning.

An advertisement for the German-owned Bayer agricultural chemicals overlooks small farms in the Almolonga valley.

An advertisement for the German-owned Bayer agricultural chemicals overlooks small farms in the Almolonga valley.

Over the course of the next few weeks I learned that Almolonga’s farmers were applying pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and fertilizers in such quantities that the land had become almost entirely dependent on them. Produced by international chemical concerns such as Monsanto and Bayer (now one and the same), these substances had been introduced to Guatemala during the Green Revolution of the 1960s and ’70s and had exploded in popularity. For a farmer with a ten square metre piece of land with which he supported his entire family, the products must have seemed like heaven-sent gifts that allowed for previously unimaginable levels of productivity.

Almolonga's fertile farmland sits at the bottom of a volcanic valley and has some of the richest soil in Guatemala. But decades of abundant agricultural chemical usage has made the soil reliant on them.

Almolonga’s fertile farmland sits at the bottom of a volcanic valley and has some of the richest soil in Guatemala. But decades of abundant agricultural chemical usage has made the soil reliant on them.

A farmer pours a German-made pesticides mix into a plastic spraying backpack, known as a 'bombero'.

A farmer pours a German-made pesticides mix into a plastic spraying backpack, known as a ‘bombero’.

A labourer pours a mixture of groundwater and powdered herbicide into his chemical spraying backpack.

A labourer pours a mixture of groundwater and powdered herbicide into his chemical spraying backpack.

Farmers in Almolonga apply agricultural chemicals without formal instruction on poper dosages. There are no directions printed on most of the chemical packages, and the only source of information comes from the chemical vendors themselves. As a result many farmer far more than is necessary.

Farmers in Almolonga apply agricultural chemicals without formal instruction on poper dosages. There are no directions printed on most of the chemical packages, and the only source of information comes from the chemical vendors themselves. As a result many farmer far more than is necessary.

Of course things that seem too good to be true most often are. Over decades since the chemicals were initially introduced, their effectiveness steadily decreased while at the same time years of overuse rendered the previously fertile soil increasingly barren.

By the time I visited Almolonga, farmers were applying the substances in such unregulated quantities that the US Food and Drug Administration had banned the importation of the valley’s produce on a regular basis because of dangerously high levels of toxins. But the farmers were hooked, and in order to ween themselves off of the chemicals they would need to leave their fields fallow for roughly eight years — an impossible amount of time for a family living from harvest to harvest. So they sprayed the chemicals onto their crops in ever-increasing dosages and sold them domestically and to the neighbouring countries of Mexico, Costa Rica, El Salvador, and Honduras where the regulations were sufficiently lax. The packages the chemicals were sold in offered nothing in the way of printed instructions, and the only source of education as to their proper application came from the chemical sellers themselves, who in turn received their instruction from the sales agents of the foreign manufacturers. To me this seemed utterly dangerous, akin to appointing a weapons manufacturer as head of a country’s armed forces.

A family of farmers visit a chemical vendor to ask questions about a new type of fertalizer.

A family of farmers visit a chemical vendor to ask questions about a new type of fertalizer.

Trucks line up in Almolonga's markets to be loaded with produce for shipping to other cities and neighbouring countries.

Trucks line up in Almolonga’s markets to be loaded with produce for shipping to other cities and neighbouring countries.

Advertisements for herbicides such as Gilfosato, originally patented by Monsanto, are painted on the walls throughout Almolonga.

Advertisements for herbicides such as Gilfosato, originally patented by Monsanto, are painted on the walls throughout Almolonga.

Farmers seldom wear any protection, though rubber boots and gloves are the minimum safety gear recomended by the vendors. No official studies have been done to link the chemicals to disease and chronic illness, but the high rates of liver cancer in Almolonga are suspected to be tied to pesticide use.

Farmers seldom wear any protection, though rubber boots and gloves are the minimum safety gear recomended by the vendors. No official studies have been done to link the chemicals to disease and chronic illness, but the high rates of liver cancer in Almolonga are suspected to be tied to pesticide use.

Products on display at a chemical vendor's shop in Almolonga.

Products on display at a chemical vendor’s shop in Almolonga.

What I learned after five weeks of visiting Almolonga was the insidiousness of the agri-chemical trap that bound small scale farmers into a cycle of paying for products that had to be applied in higher and higher quantities. Like tobacco, for the companies that exported the chemicals it was a near perfect arrangement — and just as addictive. Unlike cigarettes, however, where the power to stop using the product ultimately lay in the hands of the individual, the farmers of Almolonga had virtually no agency remaining. If they stopped buying, their crops would wither.

Further complicating the problem was the fact that the vegetables grown in Almolonga looked amazing. The chemically boosted crops produced carrots longer than my forearm, and just as thick, as well as radishes, heads of lettuce, and onions of such perfect colour and shape that they would be sure to catch the eye of any supermarket shopper. This helped me recognize that the problem isn’t simply one of supply, but the fact that modern demands have come to expect such unnatural perfection. When compared to the monsters that came out of the ground in Almolonga, an organic vegetable looked downright pathetic.

A chemically boosted Almolonga carrot on the right compared to much smaller organic carrots on the left.

A chemically boosted Almolonga carrot on the right compared to much smaller organic carrots on the left.

A truck loaded with Almolonga produce leaves for nearby wholesalers.

A truck loaded with Almolonga produce leaves for nearby wholesalers.

Mounds of chemical fertilizer are spaced between heads of lettuce. The soil has become so dependent on chemicals that larger and larger quantities are necessary for crops to grow.

Mounds of chemical fertilizer are spaced between heads of lettuce. The soil has become so dependent on chemicals that larger and larger quantities are necessary for crops to grow.

During my time in Guatemala I conducted many interviews and shot thousands of pictures, which I’m working on combining into a longer piece, but I wanted to share some images from this disturbing cycle in the mean time. Feeding the planet is going to be one of the main challenges of our time, and great care needs to be taken to make sure that Almolonga’s example doesn’t become the norm. I recognize that billions of people won’t be able to buy their vegetables at organic farmer’s markets and that technology and chemistry will have an important role to play in providing food security to the world. But if this process isn’t watched with care, future generations are going to have to deal with the financial enslavement and health risks associated with placing the global food supply in the control of the same multinational corporations that invented the likes of Agent Orange.

Work in the Almolonga valley never ends, with farmers tending to their fields in the middle of the night depending on the crop and time of year.

Work in the Almolonga valley never ends, with farmers tending to their fields in the middle of the night depending on the crop and time of year.

Posted in Blog, Environmental, Guatemala Also tagged , , , , , , , , |

The Toxicity of Agriculture

A man walks across a bamboo bridge over a canal that feeds into the Mekong River.

A man walks across a bamboo bridge over a canal that feeds into the Mekong River.

“It’s not going to be worth it,” Gareth shouted at me as I crouched unsteadily on a three inch wide bamboo pole stretched across a mud-brown irrigation canal. With barely suppressed happiness, he added “I’m going to walk just down there, where there are actually people doing stuff.” And then as a parting afterthought: “I bet your legs are getting pretty tired.”

Sarcasm aside, he was right; I had been balanced on the rickety bridge for nearly twenty minutes and had lost all sensation in my right foot as I stubbornly waited for someone to cross a similar bridge further up the canal. It was another ten minutes before anyone cooperated, and as I pushed the shutter I was pretty sure it would be an average shot – probably not worth it, though I would never admit it to Gareth.

We had driven into the countryside surrounding the Mekong delta’s economic capital of Can Tho  with the intention of exploring the relation between agriculture and the river in an area known as “the rice bowl of Vietnam.” And considering that Vietnam was the world’s second largest exporter of rice, that was quite a bowl. Arriving in the deep blue gloom of the early morning, we’d had to wait for half an hour next to a roadside vendor selling cobs of boiled corn (though who was shopping for corn at 5 a.m. we’d never know) before there were any signs of life from the surrounding fields.

An early morning vendor prepares boiled corn to sell on the side of the highway outside Can Tho.

An early morning vendor prepares boiled corn to sell on the side of the highway outside Can Tho.

A farmer corrals his flock of ducks in the early morning on the outskirts of Can Tho.

A farmer corrals his flock of ducks in the early morning on the outskirts of Can Tho.

The ducks came first. At least a hundred of them poured over the earthen embankment of a rice paddy and began waddling frantically over the field’s uneven contours, their ultimate destination unknown. Behind them came a farmer, the obvious cause of their flight, unrolling long sections of plastic fencing which he assumedly planned to use to coral the birds. The indigo sky of an hour before had given way to a soft grey mist which obscured the horizon and muffled the sound from the nearby highway. Watching the farmer weave through fog, doggedly pursuing the flock as they shape-shifted amorphously like a school of sardines to avoid him, the scene was a postcard for an idealized vision of quaint agrarian life. As we shot pictures and tried to keep our feet out of the swampiest sections of the paddy, it seemed like we had found the perfect place to witness the natural and healthy connection between water and people. As we were to find out, however, this association was anything but.

“Ummm, sorry guys,” Mi, our translator, said from a few metres away where she had been talking to the farmer. “You are actually preventing them from herding the ducks. He asks if you will please stop taking pictures now.”

A duck flees into a field after being injected with antibiotics. With animals living in such high concentrations, injections are needed regularly to prevent infection.

A duck flees into a field after being injected with antibiotics. With animals living in such high concentrations, injections are needed regularly to prevent infection.

The Roundup Effect

Though this was the first time during the trip that we had actively spent time on a farm, the landscape had been almost entirely rural since we entered the country. Unlike neighbouring Cambodia, the fields of Vietnam were a vivid green instead of the dead brown of the dry season. We had attributed much of the fertility to the immense system of irrigation canals that spread the Mekong’s waters throughout the delta, but even so the harvests looked exceptionally verdant. The periodic sightings of advertisements for Monsanto’s Roundup, one of the world’s most widely used agricultural herbicides, should have given us some insight, but until we had spoken to farmers on the ground we weren’t even close to understanding the scope of the issue.

A worker sprays herbicidal grass killer to an area surrounding an ancestral grave. The runoffs of these chemicals enter into Vietnam's irrigation network and from there spreads downstream into the Mekong river. Vietnam is one of Southeast Asia's largest exporters of agricultural products, and farmers often use heavy quantities of agrochemicals to ensure high crop yields.

A worker sprays herbicidal grass killer to an area surrounding an ancestral grave.

“We have separate crops. One for selling, and one for eating,” said Lung, the owner of the farm we had wandered into. “The water from river is extremely important, because without it we could not farm here. But for anything else, we can’t use it – there are too many chemicals.”

Manh, a youthful looking 40-year-old man who worked in a neighbouring field despite sporting a broken arm, said exactly the same thing. The delta’s farmers, who grow nearly half of Vietnam’s rice, would not eat the crops they sold. And though it is perhaps unfair to single out Monsanto (we found a wide spectrum of brand names printed on the herbicide and pesticide packets), the widespread use of agricultural chemicals was clearly a public health issue.

At a nearby watermelon plantation we stopped to speak to another farmer, Huynh, who candidly explained the necessity of chemicals. Since Vietnam’s economic reforms of 1986 – which abandoned the communist collective farming system of past in favour of a free market that incentivized farmers to increase crop production by allowing them to keep their profits – Huynh said that farmers were routinely harvesting three rice cycles a year.

A farmer applies agrochecmicals to a patch of watermelons on the outskirts of Can Tho. The runoffs of these chemicals enter into Vietnam's irrigation network and from there spreads downstream into the Mekong river. Vietnam is one of Southeast Asia's largest exporters of agricultural products, and farmers often use heavy quantities of agrochemicals to ensure high crop yields.

A farmer applies agrochecmicals to a patch of watermelons on the outskirts of Can Tho.

A farmer shoulders his chemical sprayer on a farm outside Can Tho. The runoffs of these chemicals enter into Vietnam's irrigation network and from there spreads downstream into the Mekong river. Vietnam is one of Southeast Asia's largest exporters of agricultural products, and farmers often use heavy quantities of agrochemicals to ensure high crop yields.

A farmer shoulders his chemical sprayer on a farm outside Can Tho. The runoffs of these chemicals enter into Vietnam’s irrigation network and from there spreads downstream into the Mekong river. Vietnam is one of Southeast Asia’s largest exporters of agricultural products, and farmers often use heavy quantities of agrochemicals to ensure high crop yields.

“Before we could use this water for cooking and drinking,” Huynh told us, gesturing to a nearby creek, “but since we have started producing so much, we cannot. We have to use chemicals to keep the crops healthy. It is necessary, but it means we can’t use the water.” All the while we were speaking to him, workers in fields behind carried 40 litre backpacks filled with pesticide which they applied liberally to the young watermelons at their feet. Each time their packs were drained, they would return to the canal to dump out the remnants before mixing a fresh batch using the same water – which was connected directly to the Mekong and all it’s associated downstream tributaries.

Necessities and Consequences

It would have been unfair for three outsiders, as we were, to sit in judgement of farmers who struggled daily to keep their heads above the poverty line. We were simply passing through and would eventually return to our reasonably comfortable lives in Phnom Penh, while they would remain to support extended families on the revenue generated by their farms. We were in no position to deliver advice or reprimand, and made no attempts to do so. Yet as third-party observers who were committed to following the course of the Mekong for most of a year, it was difficult for us to see the practice of steadily poisoning the water supply that nurtured their crops and kept their livestock alive as anything but a mistake that would have disastrous ramifications in the future.

A lone farmer tends to her rice field on the outskirts of Can Tho. Advancements in agricultural practices mean that far fewer farmers are needed per hectare of land. Vietnam is one of Southeast Asia's largest exporters of agricultural products, and farmers often use heavy quantities of agrochemicals to ensure high crop yields.

A lone farmer tends to her rice field on the outskirts of Can Tho. Advancements in agricultural practices mean that far fewer farmers are needed per hectare of land.

Thinking of Tan Van Vu, a shrimp farmer living far downstream who reported a 40% decrease in his productivity due to a mysterious sickness that had spread through this ponds, we left the workers to their spraying. Though we had no scientific proof that there was a connection between Vu’s poisoned shrimp and the chemical residue that floated in the water in these farms, we knew that whatever was put into the water here would inevitably make its way downriver to him.

Back on the side of the highway we sat down at a roadside cafe for a quick shot of morning coffee. When we told the curious cafe owner that we were following the Mekong from Vietnam to its source in China, she smiled reminiscently: “I used to love swimming in that river. But now it makes my skin itchy.”

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A River’s Tail is a year long collaborative multimedia journey exploring the Mekong river from sea to source. The following article originally appeared on the project’s main page and the images shown here represent only my part of the project’s creative output. To view the project as it was intended, I encourage you to visit the project’s main page by clicking here to follow the full journey.

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Environmental, The Mekong River, Vietnam Also tagged , , , , , , , , , |