Is Cambodia’s agricultural land wasting away?
By Lucinda Dunn
In light of plastic-free July hashtagging its essential message throughout the internet and social media highlighting the plastic world we live in, I thought it apt to write a piece I’d been thinking about for a few months now (although I’m a little late).
Plastic in Cambodia.
I travel to Cambodia several times per year for my PhD project to work with rice farmers to promote sustainable integrated pest management (IPM) practices and empower farmers with options and methods to make their own informed and sustainable decisions. I am incredibly grateful for my opportunities to travel here and work closely with farmers, Cambodian students and explore the country. I love this country, the people and the values. However, there is one dampener on the trip – reliance on and disposal of plastic.
The exuberant use of plastic water bottles, straws and plastic bags is nothing new in Southeast Asian countries. In a region typically with minimal access to clean water, buying bottled water can also be associated with wealth status. Moreover, recycling options are minimal, if not non-existent. Often cities are the more significant focal point in regards to plastic and pollution due to higher tourist and local populations. However, plastic pollution does not decrease in more rural areas, but it does change.
As I travel further away from the city and into the beautiful green (although not so green in this current drought) rice fields to my study sites, it looks like a paradise at first glance.
But as the story goes, paradise is never as perfect as is seems. When walking through the rice fields, I am astounded by the amount of plastic waste that litters the landscape, though it is not as much the typical plastic waste found on the streets of the city.
I am more focused on the fact I can tell what herbicide, insecticide and fungicide each farmer has used. How can I tell this? Each field will have the array of chemical bottles, packets, bags littered on the bunds and throughout the rice fields themselves (Figure 1).
Figure 1. Pesticide containers plaguing rice fields, Battambang (2019)
While one (selfishly) positive aspect of this is that I can find a lot of my required information on farmer practice and chemicals they are choosing to use by just walking through the fields and staring at the ground. However, as selfish as that sounds the positives of this pollution are significantly outweighed by the negatives.
Rules on using or disposal of hazardous waste chemicals and their containers in many countries such as Australia are strict and regulated because of the health risk (both human and environmental). There are rules in place regarding disposing of hazardous waste for Cambodia1,2 however, these rules are not as strictly followed or policed. The rules on the farm are easy to follow and as simple as to drop the bottle in the field when you’re done with it and walk away. This is beginning to have a flow-on effect, quite literally.
Nets are often used in irrigation channels to catch fish and crabs and other possible aquatic food sources. However, a university student informed me that the nets are catching more plastic than fish… far from the perfect catch. Furthermore, residual pesticides and microplastics in the water supply are subsequently likely ingested by the fish and eaten for by farmers and their families for dinner. The question is: do farmers realise the impact of pesticides and plastic waste?
I conducted over 100 rice farmer surveys in which I ask farmers opinions on pest management and pesticide use, and yes, the majority of farmers are aware that pesticides are hazardous to the environment and their health. Despite this, farmers are often unaware of alternative management methods. Unfortunately, their most relied upon pest control method is most likely causing more damage than it is good.
Using other integrated pest management (IPM) techniques like light traps and fields days with booklets of beneficial insects such as lady beetles are alternative methods. Most farmers (~75%) in both rice and other crops such as mungbean identify lady beetles are “bad” or “pests”. Thus, some use of insecticide can be attributed to targeting insects that are not pests at all and then the plastic packaging is all that is left behind.
I understand that agricultural waste is a different issue with its own set of rules and regulations that need to be put in place. It is not as simple as bringing your own “keep cup” or BYO container to the input seller for a refill of poisonous pesticide. Although, I wish it were. However, it would be beneficial to push for manufacturing and supply companies to increase sustainable packaging and pollution education. This could be in the form of biodegradable, reusable, refillable, recyclable packaging, or minimal to no use at all, i.e. encouraging integrated pest management regimes. An example of recycling and repurposing agrichemical containers is an initiative in Australia called drumMUSTER3. DrumMUSTER collects rinsed out agrichemical containers which are then recycled into items such as wheelie binds, fence posts and garden stakes3.
Unfortunately at this time, Cambodia has minimal recycling infrastructure with some of the recycling collected going to Thailand and Vietnam for processing4. Raising awareness about recycling in Cambodian communities, particularly in rural areas would be beneficial however it will be a challenge4.
We can work through this by placing value and resources into improving recycling systems and infrastructure, improving environmental and recycling education in schools and farmer field schools, talking to the input sellers and the input suppliers. Pesticide use is often necessary to some degree in most agricultural systems. If correctly applied, pesticides can reduce yield loss and actually lessen the requirement for supplemental or additional chemical application. What is not necessary is the waste that is left behind.
For many reasons, reduction in agricultural waste in Cambodia is a long way off and not on the top of the priorities. I do think it should be. I am in no way trying to shame, blame or ridicule farmers or their suppliers but merely point out a critical environmental issue that is plaguing the landscape that supports the production of one of the world’s most important food source. Once the problem is highlighted, steps can be taken to progress forward to a more sustainable, perhaps plastic-free future.
A plastic-free future is not impossible for Cambodia, so do not be discouraged. There are some great organisations, cafes, and restaurants that are really taking the opportunity to spread the message of plastic pollution and use the reduce, reuse and recycle method in Battambang and the rest of Cambodia5.
References and access to more information:
- Hun Sen Samdech, et al. (2012). LAW ON THE MANAGEMENT OF PESTICIDES AND FERTILIZERS. Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. Phnom Penh.
- Ministry of Environment (2004). National Profile on the Management of Chemicals. Ministry of Environment.
- AgStewardship Australia Limited, (2019). “drumMUSTER.” Retrieved 19/09/2019, from http://www.drummuster.org.au/.
- Open Development (2016). “Solid Waste.” Cambodia. Retrieved 17/09/2019, from https://opendevelopmentcambodia.net/topics/solid-waste/#ref-90788-19.
- Rhodes S (2019). “Plastic Free Southeast Asia.” PLASTIC FREE SOUTHEAST ASIA AND AUSTRALIA. Retrieved 17/09/2019, from https://plasticfreecambodia.com/.