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Toxic Tours - VI: Tracking the Dirty Dozen across Nepal

By Shailendra Yashwant

The Stockholm treaty on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) calls for an immediate ban, withdrawal, retrieval and containment of a host of man-made poisons. And yet, in a warehouse in Patan, Nepal, many of the deadly date-expired pesticides known as the Dirty Dozen had been lying around for years. Similar stockpiles of over 50 million tonnes of obsolete pesticides are lying around the world in forgotten warehouses and dumps, mostly in third world countries

Photograph by Shailendra Yashwant

I had always wondered what happened to date-expired or 'obsolete' agricultural and domestic pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, rodent killers etc. Greenpeace recently offered me the opportunity to study and make safe a warehouse in Nepal that is home to poisons that have been either withdrawn from the market or have simply expired.

It was an ordinary-looking warehouse, stocking some of the deadliest chemical formulations in the business, situated on the fields of the National Agricultural Research Council (NARC) premises in Patan, a 20-minute drive across the river Bagmati from Kathmandu.

For scores of Nepalese agricultural technicians and labourers working in the experimental field sites around the warehouse, even those who are used to handling pesticides almost on a daily basis, the warehouse and its contents represented a grave danger. They understood better than the naïve residents of the colonies around the site, that pesticides are poisons, designed to kill lesser life forms instantly, and human beings slowly, very slowly. But job security came first, so they were not interested in objecting to the presence of the stockpile of poison despite its threat to their health and environment.

Especially Shiva Nepal, a cleaner/peon with NARC, who was entrusted the responsibility of maintaining the warehouse and therefore the man in charge of bringing in the expired stuff. Occasionally his bosses would ask him to clean and reorganise the place to create more space. He did all this without dissent or demand for protective gear, quietly suffering his dimming vision, a constant headache, a bothersome cold and other unarticulated illnesses. There was no way he was going to risk his job but he constantly worried about the health of his wife and children.

As my colleague and I slipped into the Hazmat (hazardous material handling) gear (similar to the ones seen in the media during the American anthrax scare), we asked Shiva if he had worked in the gear before. He informed us that the 'bosses' wore it when supervising his work but he usually entered with a scarf around his face, rubber gloves and shoes. Reluctantly he donned a brand new pair that we offered and adjusted his own gas mask before opening the door to the warehouse.

The warehouse was brimming with assorted pesticides in leaking and damaged bottles, canisters, cans, boxes, bags, sacks and drums of various sizes, from 100 ml to 100 kilos. They represented hundreds of tonnes of similar pesticides manufactured under the guise of 'plant medicine' by a host of multinational corporations and sold to Nepal over 30 years either as direct aid, acquired with financial assistance from transnational banks and development agencies or simply dumped as samples by companies trying to test or palm off their banned products on an unsuspecting population.

We found pesticides that have been banned in Europe and other Northern nations long ago. These included mercury-based Agallol and Ceresan from Bayer; Dieldrin from Shell; DDT from Dupont; Sevin from the infamous Union Carbide factory in Bhopal; Lasso from Monsanto; Marlate from Novartis; Dichlorvos from Ciba-Geigy; Calcyan from Degesch and a host of other equally deadly chemical formulations from a variety of Indian companies. Ampules and liquids and powders, dead rats, cockroaches and the mortified remains of an owl littered the warehouse.

Stockpiles of over 50 million tonnes of obsolete pesticides like the ones at Patan are lying around the world in forgotten warehouses and dumps, mostly in third world countries. Eighty per cent of these chemical formulations were originally manufactured by MNCs. In most cases the identity of the manufacturers or the exporting nations is available: most of these companies are members of CropLife, formerly the Global Crop Protection Fund (GCPF), an umbrella organisation consisting of major agro-chemical giants like Bayer, Shell and others that professed 'product stewarship' as a corporate ethic.

A new international treaty on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) ratified in Stockholm in May 2001 calls for an immediate ban, withdrawal, retrieval and containment of a host of man-made poisons, which include Hexachlorobenzene (HCB), Lindane and organochlorine pesticides like DDT, Dieldrin, Endrin, Aldrin, Chlordane, Mirex, Toxaphene and Heptachlor. Together these pesticides, fungicides and kill-it-all-cides are sometimes referred to as the Dirty Dozen. Not surprisingly, we found these and others that need to be on the list of banned products lying in Patan and five similar sites across Nepal.

In the context of this treaty and the much-advertised 'product stewardship' ethics of the offending companies, Greenpeace is trying to focus attention on these stockpiles. But more important than targeting the companies responsible was the containment of these poisons. The torn, rusting, rotting and decaying packaging meant that the six tonnes of assorted pesticides were exposed to all the elements and were a constant threat to the envirionment and the health of the surrounding population.

Towards this, our team was geared with cling film, Pe bags, HDPE barrels, a vacuum cleaner and a number of other packaging devices like a Pe welding machine. To enter the warehouse, the team had Hazmat suits, gas masks with p3 filters, headlamps, rubber gloves, boots -- and a sense of purpose.

Each package or container was either cling-filmed or bagged before it was shoved into the barrel lined with sawdust of packaging rubbish. The barrel inventory was shouted out to our colleague who would then issue the correct stickers with UN numbers and toxicity signs.

All of us felt quite safe in our cumbersome gear but stories of mercury permeating through rubber and skin nagged at the back of our minds. It was hard and painstaking work, especially in rubber suits in which you shed all your bodily fluids within the first 15 minutes, but we soon found a rhythm and quietly, at a steady pace, the poisons began to disappear from the shelves.

Meanwhile the on-site press briefing had resulted in front-page coverage in almost all the local English and Nepali newspapers. But more importantly, the coverage of the activity and meeting with local NGOs like Pro-public, Nepal Federation of Environmental Journalists, Explore Nepal, and others had led to heightened awareness regarding the issue and a commitment on the part of the Nepalese government to raise the liability clause again with the multinationals.

For us Greenpeacers, this opportunity to 'take action' and 'make a difference' -- two of our core values -- gave us an unprecedented sense of satisfaction. The warehouse might not be squeaky-clean after a three-month-long exercise, but it was 90 per cent safer than it had been for the last ten years. That would definitely make a difference to the scores of agricultural workers, especially Shiva.

(Shailendra Yashwant is a senior photo-journalist who has worked with The Hindu, Outlook and The Independent. He is associated with the toxic campaign of Greenpeace and has been documenting the subcontinent's ecological problems for several years.)