Playing with poison

Indiscriminate pesticide use is hurting Nepal’s vulnerable communities the most

Farmers work the soil in Kavre's Kuntabesi. Photo: KANCHAN KATTEL

Pesticide use in Nepal has surged tenfold since 2000 despite its risk to human and environmental health – with Nepal’s women, indigenous and disadvantaged castes most affected. 

Till 2022, 164 chemicals had been registered for use, most of them to boost vegetables production and the rest for cereal grains. Many of the pesticides in Nepal fall under Class II of the WHO classification, and are categorised as toxic. 

While the use of pesticides ensures fewer pests, more yield, and greater income in the short term, they degrade land, water, soil — and most importantly, human health over time. 

Humans are exposed to pesticides through ingestion, inhalation, or by direct skin contact, all of which can lead to acute and chronic illnesses. Some symptoms such as rashes, nausea, and headache can appear immediately, but more chronic problems like birth defects, reproductive and nerve disorders, and cancers develop over time.  

Read also: Banned pesticides are widely used in Nepal, Ramu Sapkota

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Pesticide imports from 1998 to 2022.

Most research treats farmers as a homogenous group, but while most benefits flow towards better-off farmers, the burdens fall on society’s most vulnerable. Indeed, beyond the green fields and big harvests that pesticides hide the disproportionate impact of pesticides on marginalised communities.

Women, Janjati and Dalit households which have lower literacy and income tend to have higher exposure to toxic pesticides. Often, people from these communities are unable to read toxicity labels on pesticide containers and cannot afford safety gear. 

Nepali women bear the brunt of farming and agricultural work without having decision-making power.  They have to overlook the health risks associated with pesticide use during pregnancy, postpartum periods, and menstruation cycles. Women might also often ignore proper safety measures for handling toxic materials. 

“Many older women dress inappropriately,” said a female health volunteer who was interviewed for a 2021 study in Kavre that involved farmers. “I see many with their masks on, and a few with full-sleeved clothes and gloves, but almost none wearing the PPE. Skin contact with chemicals is high.” 

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Fields in Kuntabesi. Photos: KISHOR ATREYA

She suspects this ignorance of proper safety procedures has increased women’s exposure to toxic pesticides, leading to a rise in uterine cancer cases in Kavre.

The men may be more aware of the dangers of toxic pesticides, but express confidence that they are immune to the effects of exposure to such chemicals. Some even boast they can digest pesticides if swallowed.

“I have tasted Dithane fungicide and nothing happened to me,” bragged one farmer.

 “It is suffocating to wear PPE while working in the field,” camplained another.  

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, Sonia Awale

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A farmer applies pesticide in a paddy field.

This casual disregard for safety while dealing with toxic pesticide exposure is alarming and is responsible for premature deaths in farmer families. Pesticides also create health and environmental burdens, disproportionately affecting vulnerable caste groups, while worsening economic and caste disparities. 

Most Brahmin and Chhetri households generally own land that is more productive than other groups which they rent out to farmers from underserved castes. Such farmers then face greater exposure to pesticides. 

For Dalit and Janjati communities that rent land that they till, it has become the norm to apply higher doses of pesticides in greater frequency in order to increase yield and try to maximise their profit. 

They also lack safety tools. Sometimes they do not see them as important, or cannot afford them. Many Dalit households do not even own a spray tank, and practice open mixing and loading of pesticides.

Farmers from the Danuwar community in Kavre point out that their traditional Thitri fishing method is not practiced any more. Until the early 2000s, the Danuwar wove basket-like fishing traps called Thitri from gooseberry or bamboo sticks and left them overnight on the edges of the overflow channels of paddy terraces to collect basketfuls of fish come morning. 

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A vegetable field during winter. Photo: KANCHAN KATTEL

“My father and elder brother practised Thitri every summer,” a young interviewee told us. “They brought fish for us and we sold the excess. Some neighbours sold about 30kg of fish every season.” 

There was an unwritten rule that while the crops were for their landlords, the fish were for the Danuwar community. The fish have now disappeared from fields and rivers, and with it the Thitri tradition because of pesticides.  

The chemicals can kill invertebrates in soil and water even at safe levels. But in Nepal, users neither recognise nor apply safe levels of pesticides, which results in the irreversible destruction of the ecosystem from soil organisms, frogs, fish, and snakes. 

The future of agriculture in Nepal will depend on how we treat our ecosystem, and especially their impact on vulnerable communities. The social and environmental costs of pesticide use can be addressed by pursuing viable alternatives that prioritise public health and ensure environmental sustainability. 

Read also: Preventable poisoning, Buddha Basnyat

This article is based on a chapter from an upcoming book Environmental Justice in Nepal: Origins, Struggles, and Prospects. 

Kanchan Kattel is a PhD researcher at the Department of Nutrition and Public Health, University of Agder, Norway. Kishor Atreya is an Associate Professor at the Institute of Forestry, Tribhuvan University.

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