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October 01


Neem oil can replace chemical pesticides

- by Emilie

Recently India's national newspaper The Hindu and the magazines 'Down to Earth' and India Today reported on the toxic effects of chemical pesticides in agriculture. Aurovilians too suffer from pesticide spraying. But they can effectively change their environment by giving a leaflet and a bottle of neem oil to their employees, argues Emilie.

This cartoon by ex-Aurovilian Laura Lombardi illustrated the article 'The true costs of cashews' in AV Today issue # 54 of July 1993. The situation has not changed since: villagers still spray pesticides using their bare hands, not wearing protective clothing and not covering their noses and mouths.

Too many things are happening just too fast and this isn't even a new phenomenon anymore. The West is struggling with mad cows, genetically modified foods, the radioactive fallout from Chernobyl, pollution, the ozone hole, unfettered greed for profit, youthful serial killers, obesity, tobacco addiction, cancer, Aids, the list just goes on and on, and it is all accelerating and simultaneous. India too is going through an unprecedented acceleration at such a speed that it could derail with awful consequences. Can we do something, anything, a word, a gesture, so that things may improve?

In February 2001 two Indian magazines and a newspaper published special reports on the toxic effects of the chemical pesticides in the agriculture of Kerala. These pesticides (primarily Endosulfan) are sprayed by aircraft and affect the inhabitants of the villages, causing severe malformation of children and illness to adults. Thanks to the action of Sri Padre, a farmer and journalist, and Mohana Kumar YS, a doctor practising in the area, the villagers have become aware of what is happening to them and have started to protest. While Endosulfan has been banned for a long time in many countries, its use is still legal in India.

Auroville is also affected as an overwhelming quantity of pesticides (primarily Endosulfan) are manually sprayed on a large number of cashew fields that surround and are interspersed with the lands of the city and greenbelt areas. From early February onwards one can smell a very particular odour. It gives a burning sensation to the eyes, the throats swell, bronchitis appears, as do coughs, fevers, muscular pains, unexplained fatigue, even bouts of depression, and all this in people who are not in direct contact with the products being sprayed. The immediate and long-term effects on those spraying the chemicals from open barrels or handling them with bare hands, will be much worse.

The battle against the use of chemical pesticides around Auroville goes back a long way. This year Rita and Njal of Center Field, in co-operation with Boris and Village Action, have taken a different approach. Their strategy is based on establishing a direct line of communication with the cashew farmers, and on spreading relevant information in the villages in order to create an awareness of the noxious effects of the chemical pesticides. Rita and Njal not only distribute Tamil and English leaflets but also organise meetings with the villagers, always bearing in mind the advice of the Secretary of the Auroville Foundation, Mr Bala Baskar: "Speak with the villagers, not to them."

They also meet with many Auroville employees. The experiences of the farmers as expressed in these meetings are disturbing. To name a few:

  • After spraying, my body became dark, I had pain in the belly and felt I had lost half of my weight.

  • I applied pesticide on my cow to kill lice. The cow died 4 hours after.

  • I have seen dead snakes and squirrels in the sprayed topes.

  • The incidence of suicide and death is very high in my village, almost one every 16 days! Could the poison have something to do with it?

These examples show that the villagers through bitter experience realise that chemical pesticides are dangerous.

Is there an alternative? The question is often asked. In fact there is a traditional pesticide, which was almost forgotten in the drive towards modernisation. Neem oil, a product from the berries of the neem tree has been used as a pesticide since centuries. Neem oil has now been re-discovered - multinational companies, by the way, have applied for patents on neem oil as pesticides!- and is now promoted by the Departments of Agriculture of the states of Pondicherry and Tamil Nadu. These department, for the last five years, are no longer encouraging the use of chemical products and are willing to support training workshops for farmers in the use of neem. Laboratories all over India are producing increasing quantities of neem pesticides and the pest-control distributing agency of Pondicherry is ready to offer interesting wholesale rates.

Is this a ray of hope in the miasma? Indeed it is! So why aren't things moving faster? Simply because two people are not enough to change established attitudes. But if all Aurovilians would put their energy behind the elimination of chemical pesticides by giving a leaflet and a bottle of neem oil to their employees and other villagers they know, they would effectively change the environment.

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