Malawi works to eliminate dangerous pesticide

Officials in Lilongwe, Malawi, are working hard to promote safe alternatives to the agricultural pesticide methyl bromide, which they hope to phase out by the end of the year. If they succeed, says the Science and Development Network website, Malawi will beat South Africa to be the first country in the region to phase out all non-essential use of the chemical.

Methyl bromide is widely used to kill pests that damage tobacco, a cash crop and principal source of foreign capital for Malawi. But few farmers are aware that the pesticide is hazardous to human health and the environment, and is partially responsible for depleting the ozone layer of the Earth’s atmosphere.

Parties to the Montreal Protocol on ozone-depleting substances are required to stop using methyl bromide. The deadline for developing countries is 2015.

“We are currently ahead of schedule,” says Aloysius Kamperewera, Deputy Director of Environmental Affairs, the Malawian government department coordinating the work.

“Malawians need to consider the long-term adverse effects of the substance,” says Raphael Kabwaza, Director of Environmental Affairs. “It might not be tomorrow, next week or next month, but the effects of methyl bromide on the environment are disastrous.”

Malawi’s Agricultural Research and Extension Trust has intensified efforts to raise awareness among farmers of the threats posed by methyl bromide and of its alternatives. The campaign is targeting farmers with leaflets, articles in the press, farm visits and training courses.

Customs officials have also been notified that any imports of the chemical after December 31 should be impounded. Officials will be trained in order to enforce the forthcoming ban.

Malawi is the second-largest user of methyl bromide in Africa after neighbouring Zimbabwe. Each year more than 127 tons of the chemical are used, with tobacco growers using 85% of this.

One of the alternative approaches to pest control being promoted is the use of soil-less culture, since a principal tobacco pest — a microscopic nematode or worm — lives in soil.

In soil-less culture, plants are grown in trays that float in plastic ponds set above the ground. Each tray has 200 compartments containing a single tobacco seed and mulch made from pine bark to enhance root development. The seeds absorb nutrients from the water — which is supplemented with fertiliser — and use the bark for support.

Two other alternatives being recommended are the pesticides metham sodium and dazomet (traded in Malawi as Basamid), both of which are also toxic and should be handled with care, but are considered safer than methyl bromide.

“There is need for more time for the rural farmers to understand the phasing-out of the substance,” says Kamperewera, describing the challenges ahead. “It is a gradual process, but they will embrace the idea with time.”

According to the Agricultural Research and Extension Trust, about 71 500 tons of methyl bromide are used worldwide every year. Most — 75% — is used in developing countries. Montreal Protocol’s Multilateral Fund to Assist Developing Countries is supporting Malawi’s phasing-out of methyl bromide.

Journalists promote science reporting

Meanwhile, Malawian journalists have just launched a network to promote homegrown science reporting, including coverage of the elimination of pollutants such as methyl bromide. Science has had minimal coverage in the tiny Southern African nation until now.

The Coalition of Journalists on Environment and Agriculture hopes to fill what chairperson Raphael Mweninguwe sees as a widening gap in local journalism. It aims to have a regional scope, monitoring and seeking members from the 14 countries of the Southern Africa Development Community.

“It is of paramount importance that science journalists acquaint themselves with their subject in order to report professionally,” Mweninguwe says.

The coalition aims to enable Malawians to make informed decisions about issues affecting them. These include the development of new biotechnologies to enhance food security.

“The rapidly growing population needs to be constantly updated on developments taking place in the world of science,” says Mweninguwe, adding that without good science reporting the population cannot make informed choices about their own actions in relation to the environment.

Currently there is no science publication produced by professional journalists in Malawi, but the network aims to fill the gap. Their magazine, The Green Environment, will focus specifically on science and development and will be available to the general public as well as members.

Two existing publications, The Zambezi and SADC Today, do cover issues such as climate change and biodiversity conservation at regional level. But they are produced by the Southern Africa Research and Documentation Centre in Zimbabwe and are not always available in Malawi because of funding problems.

“It is about time journalists brought science issues to the masses,” says Gray Munthali, deputy director of meteorological services in Malawi.

The coalition “is a move in the right direction”, says Hassan Nkata, a journalist with the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation. Nkata hopes the coalition will mean that more information on the role of science in development can reach rural Malawians through the corporation’s radio listening clubs. — SciDev.Net

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