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KENYAKenya tries to put cap on imports of hazardous chemicals

Like so many other nations that are dependent on agriculture, Kenya has developed a love-hate relationship with pesticides, herbicides, and other chemical aids.

It has a multimillion-dollar-a-year coffee industry to protect, and the vast majority of Kenyans are dependent on livestock and crop production of some kind. But the government is beginning to question the unrestricted inflow of products like 2,4,5-T, which have been outlawed in other countries. It plans to introduce legislation later this year to weed out substances considered hazardous or superfluous to the nation's development.

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In the words of Philip Leakey, assistant minister of the environment, Kenya has become a dumping ground for products ranging from automobiles to herbicides that would fail public-safety regulations in their countries of origin. He says Japanese, European, and American automobiles arrive in Kenya without emission-control devices, polluting the air urban dwellers breathe. And rural populations and wildlife are increasingly at risk from the runoff of agricultural chemicals into rivers and streams.

About 80 percent of Kenya's population lives in rural areas and draws untreated water from natural sources. The government is concerned about mounting reports of fish kills downstream from cattle dips and coffee farms.

''If we don't act now, we are going to have a very costly problem later on,'' Mr. Leakey says.

''We are currently faced with the situation where the manufacturers of chemical products for agriculture provide buyers with manuals which vary from region to region. There is a manual which displays the hazards for the American market; a manual which tells you the hazards for the Asian market; and another manual which is one-quarter the size of the American manual for the same products in the African market.

''There is no question that the industrial nations and the companies which are manufacturing these things are guilty of promoting and sponsoring dangerous chemicals in countries where they think people don't care.''

Mr. Leakey said that while he believed that the air pollution problem could be solved only with international help, the government is compiling a list of essential chemicals and will boost the capacity of the Customs and Excise Department so that it can intercept unapproved imports at the borders.

The government, he said, would back the legislation locally with education programs and safety regulations for people who handle chemicals in the rural areas, but the primary emphasis would be on keeping undesirable products out.

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''The main constraint is that the bulk of our agriculture population is not dependent upon capital-intensive infrastructure and equipment. And when you start introducing hazardous substances with the suits, masks, and goggles which should go with their application, it becomes very expensive,'' he says.

''It is very difficult to take a man who has a very low income and who has never seen an engine before, or used an engine, and expect him to put on all this protection. We feel the best way to deal with the situation is to regulate the chemicals and see to it that the dangerous ones are not injected into those situations.''

Mr. Leakey said he believed the legislation would also open the door to significant savings for the rural economy.

''I had a fellow in here the other day complaining about the cost of weed killers,'' he said. ''So I asked him to conduct an experiment for me. I asked him to go back to his coffee farm and do half the plantation with Gramoxin and half with manual labor. I told him it would probably take about 300 Kenyans to weed around the trees by hand, but that was what the government would like him to do.

''He came back to me sometime later and said that he had been able to employ labor for one-fifth the cost of the chemicals. News like that spreads quickly among farmers.''

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