By Aven LaRosa
In recent years, the use of herbicides in the Northeast has soared. Farmers across the region have doused their fields with chemicals to rid the land of weeds, often suffering from dangerous health effects related to herbicide exposure. But in Na Samai subdistrict of Yasothon province a significant number of farmers have recently shifted to abandon herbicides in their farming practices. The critical factor in this remarkable trend seems to be the power of social networks.
In the Northeast’s agricultural heartland of Yasothon province, 54-year-old rice farmer Paiboon Hasamlee worked as an herbicide sprayer to earn extra income. But five years into his self-made side-career, he felt a sudden onset of dizziness. Then he lost all feeling in his arms and legs.
For years, farmers in Na Samai subdistrict have heavily relied on the use of herbicides in their farming practices. In 2012, all farmers in the area were spraying their fields with chemical products. Posters and radio ads in the area touted the ease of herbicide use and how effectively it could remove unruly grasses and weeds in rice fields.
Some farmers in Na Samai say that as younger generations in Isaan flock to find work in cities, leaving their aging parents to tend to family farms alone, herbicides are the only practical option. Without the extra hands to help pull out grasses each season, it would be impossible to farm without hiring chemical sprayers, they say. Herbicides are also more convenient than plowing, the traditional and labor-intensive method of ridding fields of grass.
All across rural Thailand the use of chemical agricultural inputs has increased dramatically in the past decade. Thai farmers’ spending on imported pesticides increased by 71% between 2007 and 2013, according to a recent study by the Ministry of Public Health.
When introduced, many farmers were unaware of the dangerous health effects of herbicides, which can include rashes, nausea, and headaches, along with more dangerous symptoms, such as seizures and convulsions, sometimes even resulting in death, health experts warn.
After several seasons of Na Samai farmers using herbicides prior to planting crops, a health crisis emerged.
“I had to go to the doctor twice a week for about 6 months,” Mr. Paiboon said, shaking his head as he reflected on the treatment he underwent for herbicide-related health conditions. “I received hundreds of injections to relieve my symptoms.”
Wira Seangchat, director of the Na Samai subdistrict health center, became alarmed when he saw an influx of farmers visiting with skin conditions, dizziness, and nausea. “I knew as a health professional that [these maladies] were caused by exposure to herbicides,” Mr. Wira said. “I realized that we needed to do something to get villagers to stop using herbicides.”
Seeking a solution to this health crisis, officials in Na Samai subdistrict and the local health center implemented a variety of education programs to inform villagers on the dangers of chemical use.
In an effort to convince Na Samai farmers to transition away from herbicide use, Mr. Wira showed villagers graphic photos of skin infections contracted by exposing open wounds to herbicides. Mr. Wira said he has seen seven cases of these wounds in the sub-district, and they take months to heal.
Along with Ubon Youwah, leader of the Alternative Agriculture Network (AAN) of the Northeast, the local government and the health center began educational campaigns four years ago. They have met some success as now over 40% of farmers in four of Na Samai sub-district’s villages have stopped using herbicides entirely, said Mr. Ubon. This estimate does not include many farmers who are transitioning to non-chemical farming practices and are reducing the use of chemical inputs in their fields.
Precha Chairat, 53, Vice Head of the Na Samai Subdistrict Administrative Organization shifted to herbicide-free farming himself without noticing any decrease in rice yield, a concern that keeps many from abandoning the chemicals. “Whenever I talk to people in the 13 villages of my sub-district, I always tell them what I am doing on my own fields and show them that, even without chemicals, my yield stay the same and my grasses are under control,” he said.
While the informational sessions have widely spread awareness about the health risks of using herbicides, Mr. Precha believes that the key to stopping herbicide use is social networks.
In Na Samai village 11, where Mr. Precha’s rice plot is located, he serves as a role model for herbicide-free agricultural methods, experimenting with plowing, weed whacking, and rock salt as alternatives to herbicides. Villagers are much more inclined to abandon herbicides if they see evidence that they do not need chemicals to have a good yield, he observed.
Maleerat Nonrata, a 64-year-old farmer in Na Samai subdistrict, has also inspired others to stop using herbicides. Three years ago, she was diagnosed with chemical-related maladies including inflamed and pained joints in her hands and high blood pressure – conditions that were likely the result of herbicide use, her doctor told her. Ms. Maleerat decided to swear off herbicides for good.
Since recovering, Ms. Maleerat has urged her friends and neighbors to transition as well, preaching that her health improved significantly after switching practices. Ceasing herbicide use also reduced the financial cost of farming, she emphasized.
Wichai Patoonwan, a 59-year-old farmer, looked to Ms. Maleerat for inspiration before transitioning. “I haven’t had any health effects myself, but I saw my friends and neighbors with problems so I stopped using herbicides,” he said.
Farmers who find success in experimenting with a traditional or innovative non-chemical farming techniques often share their experience with their neighbors, which creates a ripple effect in the community. “[It’s about] spreading knowledge by word of mouth about best practices for farming without chemicals,” Mr. Wichai said in reference to the network of roughly 500 households in Na Samai village.
In the monthly meetings with the headmen of each of Na Samai’s 13 villages, Mr. Precha urges them switch from herbicides so that other farmer households will follow.“If headmen use herbicides and chemicals, it’s likely that people in their village will use them too,” he said. “But if a headman transitions to not using herbicides anymore, it is likely that his people will also switch.”
As a network of role models is forming in the area, each season people like Mr. Precha prove to their neighbors that there is no reason to be skeptical of the transition to herbicide-free farming.
“I don’t consider what I’m doing to be inspirational,” he says. “The success of what I do is seen by others in the area and then they switch too.” In leading this small-scale agricultural reform, farmers like those in Na Samai are proving that it is possible to make the switch to chemical-free agriculture in Isaan.
Aven LaRosa is an anthropology student at Rutgers University who has been studying in Khon Kaen for the past four months.