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LOCAL STRUGGLES AND NEWS
Aung Ngyeh, a 31 year old Karenni, fled to Thailand in 2002, forced out of his home in Karenni State by the Burmese military’s war against ethnic populations. He now lives in the refugee camp along the Thai border working with the Karenni Development Research Group (KDRG) campaigning to stop foreign investment in the Burmese regime’s “development” projects.
For Aung Ngyeh and thousands of other displaced people like him, the Burmese military dictatorship’s “development” projects such as the planned dams on the Salween River (as well as railway lines, highways, mines and natural gas pipelines) are tools of war used by the junta to harass and evict ethnic peoples.
When he was 16 years old, Aung Ngyeh worked as forced labour building the railway lines not far from the area of the Mobye dam that feeds the Lawpita hydropower plants. Built with Japanese funding in the early 1960s on the Lawpita Falls in the Balu Chuang River in Karenni State, the Mobye dam was Burma’s first hydropower project.
About 12,500 Karenni people permanently lost their homes and fields to the dam reservoir covering about 207 square kilometers. Those living near the power plants were forced to leave at gunpoint and their fields were planted with land mines.
Since 1960, largely in efforts to control the Lawpita area, the Burmese military increased its presence in Karenni State to over 24 permanent battalions resulting in a constant terrorization of the population by the marauding soldiers. Forced labour and portering, harassment, extortion and random killings are common as well as sexual violence specifically targeting ethnic women including military gang rape.
Despite the hardship endured, the Karenni themselves derive little benefit from the Lawpita dam. At least eight percent of Karenni State does not get the electricity that is routed to Rangoon and Mandalay; anyway for most of the rural residents, the price of power is unaffordable. Moreover, as the water from the Balu Chaung River is diverted to the dam’s turbines, villagers cannot get water for their fields when they need it and suffer chronic water shortages.
Karenni State is located on the eastern edge of Burma, between Thailand’s Mae Hong Son province in the east, Shan State in the north, and Karen State in the south. The highly culturally diverse state has seven townships with a total population of about 300,000 that also includes “internally displaced populations”.
Kayah peoples are the majority inhabitants of the state but there are other ethnic groups such as the Gekho, Geba, Karen, Kayan (Paduang), Kayaw, Bre, Manumanaw, Shan, Yinbaw and Yintalai. Each group has its own language, customs and beliefs; different dialects and other differences may also exist within each group. The majority of the people practise upland and lowland rice farming together with fishing, hunting and collection of forest products.
The seven townships of Karenni State roughly equate to the former kingdoms under Karenni kings or Sawphyas that ruled independently. In what is a reflection of existing tensions today with the Burmese dictatorship, the Karenni kingdoms were never subjugated even under British colonial rule and remained separate and independent until 1948 when Burma gained independence from the British.
After independence, the Burmese set up the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL) government while the Karenni formed a parallel government, the Karenni Resistance Government (KRG), led by U Be Tu Re.
In 1948, Burmese troops invaded the Karenni states and assassinated U Be Tu Re. Ever since then, many armed Karenni groups such as the Karenni Nationalities People’s Liberation Front or KNPLF have fought the Burmese. As of 2002, all groups except the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP) – formed in 1957 from the KRG – had signed ceasefire agreements with the Burmese junta.
The junta used the ceasefire as a pretext to move into more strategic positions for greater control over Karenni area. After the ceasefire, the junta also collected the names of people involved in various Karenni liberation groups.
This is why, Aung Ngyeh says, he cannot yet return to his home in Karenni State as he is a marked man by the Burmese military. However, it still did not stop him going back sometime ago to other parts of the state, hiding in the forests and walking or hitching rides with villagers, traveling all the way up to Shan State in order to look at the present conditions.
He says that huge numbers of Karenni have already left the state: some to the border areas in Thailand, some hiding in the forests near their destroyed villages, and the vast majority forcibly moved to relocation camps where they are used as labour by the junta.
The villages affected by the forced relocations cover at least half the area of Karenni State and are home to at least 20,000-30,000 people. The junta gave them no more than a week to move to the specified sites and stated that, if found outside the relocation sites after that week, they would be considered as enemy troops and shot on sight.
During resettlement, the military went around looting and burning granaries, killing livestock and forcing everyone including children, pregnant women and elderly to walk through the hills to distant relocation sites.
Near the crowded relocation camps, there is little arable land to grow crops. Lacking proper food and medical care, people suffer from malnutrition and diseases such as malaria; women are constantly raped by armed soldiers and those who are captured escaping are killed.
Given the impacts of the Lawpita dam and the continuing war and forced relocations by the junta, Aung Ngyeh says that future projects such as the dams on the Salween River can only worsen an already unbearable situation for the Karenni peoples.
Presently, Thailand and Burma have agreed to build at least four dams along the Salween River in Burma, at Tasang in Shan State and Hatgyi, Weigyi, and Dagwin in Karen State. The Salween dams in total will produce 15-20,000 megawatts of electricity that will be sold to Thailand. The Weigyi dam, slated to begin construction in 2007, is at least ten times higher than the Mobye dam, and will have the biggest impacts on the Karenni. Although sited in Karen State, the dam reservoir would flood over 640 square kilometers of Karenni State, including most of the area’s lowland forests and agriculture land and disrupt riverine fisheries.
Although no studies are available about the forests in the Salween area of Karenni State, it is known that the hundreds of square kilometers of lowland forests to be submerged by the Weigyi reservoir lie within an ecoregion considered rich in biodiversity.
The Weigyi dam would completely submerge 28 villages in four Karenni townships including the entire towns of Pasaung and Bawlake, and although many villagers have already been forcibly relocated over the years, the dam would still directly affect an estimated 30,000 people. This includes the entire tribe of the Yintalai – about 1,000 people – a sub-ethnic group of the Kayah whose ancestral lands are in Pasaung and Bawlake.
Meanwhile, an estimated one third of the population are already forcibly resettled or displaced and over 22,000 Karenni refugees registered in camps in Thailand. If the Salween dams go ahead, many of these people will never be able to return home.
The Karenni groups are urging Thailand and other investors like China to halt all plans for dams on the Salween including the Weigyi dam. For the Karenni, already ravaged by half a century of war and violence waged by the Burmese junta, the Salween dams only promise more suffering.
By Noel Rajesh, e-mail: email@example.com
The information on the Karenni
peoples and the Lawpita and Salween dams are based on the report
“Dammed by Burma’s Generals: The Karenni experience
with hydropower development – from Lawpita to the Salween”
published by the Karenni Development Research Group (KDRG).
The full report is available at www.salweenwatch.org
or contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
When the British invaded India 250 years ago, they found the sub-continent covered with a mosaic of vegetation they did not comprehend. Tall dark trees, gnarled and knotted creepers, wild grasslands…the sheer tropical abundance of India’s forests shocked, overwhelmed them. Ultimately, forests came to signify a number of simpler issues (or things): snakes, tigers, barbarians/rebels, pests, and adventure. British colonizers/traders never neglected the mundane and practical, though, which lay beyond this ‘exotic’ and ‘orient’. The East India Company went on ‘empirebuilding’ and the first 100 years of British rule witnessed a colossal plunder of half of India’s forest vegetation. Resultant timbers went to feed the railways and the new and old shipyards in both India and England. The ‘cleared’ land were settled to white planters (tea, coffee, indigo and sugarcane), and the native ‘zamindars’, the new class of feudal lords that the British created.
The carnage would not stop before 1860, when a century of empire-building and associated political stresses and compulsions would make the rulers wiser, and in many areas —for instance, areas under administrative control of ‘native’ Kings and Nawabs— forests would be let alone. A different fate awaited forests within the empire. In 1864, the first forest administration for the British Empire (Imperial Forest Service) was created. In 1868 and 1878, India was ‘endowed’ with its first forest policy and forest act, which, prescribed, among other things, banishing indigenous communities from the forest and restricting forest usage by them. In the interests of the queen and empire, the British proclaimed all ‘unsettled’ and ‘ownerless’ common property resources like pastures and forests ‘eminent domain’, which meant that the colonial state would ‘manage’ the forests as it saw fit. ‘Management’ of resources (the British called it scientific forest management) was the key, which, the Indian forest policy claimed would make forests more homogenous and productive.
‘Homogenisation’ was the magic word with which every working plan of India’s forests started (till as late as 1988!). Perhaps the real urgency lay in the colonial mindset of domestication or ‘wilderness taming’ —to make something civilized out of a pagan landscape. Accordingly, in between 1864 and 1947 (when the British left India), Indian forests were taught ‘order’, with neat rows of tall and elegant pines filling up the hillsides, and sal (Shorea robusta) and teak (Tectona grandis) monocultures replacing the riffraff (in vernacular hindi ‘jhar’). In fact, forests were increasingly being managed as estates and forest villages (new colonies of plantation workers) were being set up inside forests. Later, when Dietrich Brandis, the ‘father of Indian forestry’, developed the ‘taungya’ system of plantation, many of these villages came to be known as ‘taungyas’. Taungya became the premiere plantation method not only in India, but also several Asian and African countries.
Ecologically, taungya brought the much-needed fire component back both to tropical and temperate forest systems. Socio-politically, it offered a temporary solution to the problem of increasing tribal unrest in forest areas of British India. Taungya villages had some sort of 'rehabilitation' space for displaced ‘jhumiyas’ (shifting cultivators), where they could clearfell forests and burn the area to raise food-crops. The cultivators then had to raise plantations in that land. During initial years of taungya, this labour was mandatory ‘beggar’ —the cultivators received no wages. Despite this, taungyas showed some improvements on pre-taungya forest villages. In Bengal for instance, 'permanent' forest villages started to come up from 1910 onwards, where settlers signed agreement papers or bonds with the Department. These agreements spelt out some privileges for forest villagers, like free timber and other implements for building quarters, firewood and fodder —in addition to cultivable land.
In independent India, the forest department continued with the task of homogenizing forests, and the 1952 forest policy legitimized this by saying that forests would be managed to meet the ‘paramount needs’ of the nation. These needs translated into aggressive commercial forestry, and, according to Planning Commission of India and Forest Survey of India estimates, more than 17 million hectares of plantations came up in next 38 years, till the new Forest Policy of 1988 prescribed a moratorium on clearing natural forests. Plantations continued in the post-1988 period, however, and in the 8th and 9th 5-year plan periods, about 16 million (!) hectares of new plantations were created. Though the 1988 policy talked about integrating livelihood and biomass needs of forest communities in future forest management strategies and plans, plantations programmes in India continue to be governed by industrial and urban consumers’ needs. This becomes clear from the choice of species. According to a 1999 Forest Survey of India estimate the forest department has created 15 million hectares of plantations till 1997, which include large blocks of pulp and timber plantations (Eucalyptus and Teak account for about 16 % of total area). About 20 million hectares of plantations came up in agricultural land under firm or social forestry programmes.
According to the FAO’s Forest Resources Assessment (2000), India has 34 million hectares of plantations, and going by plan targets, another 30 million are on the cards. This makes, by 2020, a whooping 65-70 (add 4+ millions between 2000 and 2005) million hectares of plantations, about 36 % of the world total! Expectedly, the Indian Government advocates the World Bank PPP (public-private partnership) formula to meet costs, which means that the State would enter into contracts with corporates (or International Financial Institutions or whatever) on behalf of user communities mobilized through the Joint Forest Management Programme. Such experiments have already been practiced in the state of Andhra Pradesh, where entire communities were driven out of their lands (officially, ‘encroached’). The strong paper/pulp lobby in India demands that ‘degraded’ forest lands be leased out to companies to raise ‘protected’ plantations, and for the time being they are demanding a ‘tiny wee’ amount of 1.6 million hectares! This is happening despite several recommendations and reports by government agencies that such moves can impact forest communities adversely.
While plantations grow and cover the country, original plantation workers of India, the forest villagers, continue to languish in their ghettos, deprived of all privileges, and bereft of all rights. Because forestry now is a thoroughly mechanized and capital-intensive industry, and forest management practices in the country show a much-vaunted paradigm shift in favour of 'biodiversity conservation', importance of forest labour has decreased. For forest villagers, this translates into perpetual unemployment, untold economic hardships and misery. The villagers have no access to various development schemes or bank loans and any ownership rights over their agricultural landholdings or homesteads. In many areas, the Forest Department threatens them with eviction. There can hardly be better instances of a sovereign state declaring a whole body of its citizens persona non grata, and waging a war against them.
The stage set for a full-scale market invasion in terms of carbon trade and ecosystem services trading, Indian forests, and forest communities struggle against the twin menace of production and protection forestry.
By Soumitra Ghosh, e-mail:
Another new FSC certificate of a major logging operation, this time in Indonesia, has got forest watchers scratching their heads. Near the top of the Mahakam River in East Kalimantan one of four logging operations of the Jakarta-registered company PT Sumalindo Lestari Jaya has been awarded an FSC certificate by SmartWood, the forest certification arm of the New York-based Rainforest Alliance, (as well as a complementary certificate issued under the Joint Certification Protocol by the Indonesian certification body, PT Mutuagung Lestari, under the national Lembaga Ekolabel Indonesia certification scheme).
Sumalindo Lestari Jaya (SLJ) is a large corporation with four active logging concessions, additional areas of timber plantations, a plywood mill and a facility producing medium-density fibreboard (MDF). The company is 75% owned by PT Sumber Graha Sejahtera, which is part of a major plywood manufacturing conglomerate, the Hasko Group. The other 25% of SLJ is shared between PT Barito Pacific, another major timber company, and the general public.
Whether the SLJ II certificate is seen as great news for the forests of Borneo, or not, in part depends on your vision of what is possible and what you think the main threats to the region are. Borneo has already experienced extensive deforestation through ill-regulated and plainly illegal logging, and clearance for agriculture, timber plantations and oil palm estates. Over half of the areas that have already been cleared are now ‘abandoned’ land, though much of these areas are still encumbered with claims from communities. The large chunks of remaining forest in Borneo are, for the most part, now in the more remote upland regions, in the headwaters. Although most of these areas have long been allocated to loggers, until now they have been only lightly exploited because of the prohibitive costs of access and transport and the availability of more accessible and lucrative areas downstream.
The major international conservation agencies active in Indonesia are trying to save ‘the heart of Borneo’ by establishing as a mosaic of protected forests, national parks and large forest concessions under ‘sustainable forest management’, while keeping to a minimum land clearance for community and industrial use.
The threat of massive forest clearance in the headwaters is not imaginary. Indeed in July 2005, the Indonesian President announced plans to establish the world’s largest oil palm plantation in the area. According to the announcement some 1.8 million hectares of forests all along the border between Sarawak (Malaysia) and Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) are to be converted to oil palm plantations financed by China’s International Development Bank. The SLJ II concession lies astride this proposed oil palm corridor. The local government in Malinau district also has plans to convert large chunks of forests there to oil palm. Conservation organisations like WWF, which has loudly denounced the oil palm plans, and The Nature Conservancy (TNC) are keen to encourage companies to invest in long term logging in these forests rather than see them permanently cleared. The question is how credible are these plans for sustainable logging by large corporations? Can you ‘sand bag’ frontier forests against the rising tide of forest clearance by certifying logging operations or will this just encourage further pillage in the interior first by loggers and then others?
A quest for sustainability:
Industrial scale logging on Indonesia’s outer islands got going on a large scale in the 1970s and since then has contributed to a massive depletion of the country’s forests. Over-harvesting, poor forest management, lack of replanting or managed natural regeneration, and plainly illegal operations and clear-cutting have been widespread. Timber production has rocketed to five to six times the annual allowable cut, driven by massive over-capacity in pulp, wood chip and saw mills, while illegal raw log exports continue. The combination of ill-regulated forestry, logging roads, government promoted migration and conversion to plantations and tree crops has driven rates of deforestation to as high as 1.5 million or even 3 million hectares per year, though exact figures are contested.
In recent years, Indonesia has experienced an overall shift towards increasingly illegal logging and smaller scale operations. The national environmental forum, WALHI (Friends of the Earth-Indonesia) has called for a moratorium on all large-scale logging, and the promotion of certified community-based operations in their stead. The larger conservation NGOs, however, have been working with a small handful of the larger logging companies, like SLJ, that are trying to buck the trend to illegality, by helping them get certified.
For a number of years, SLJ has been seeking to upgrade its forest management standards to meet the demand from the US market, notably The Home Depot, for certified timber, with a focus on the largest of its four concessions, the so-called SLJ II concession, which it commenced logging in 1991. The 270,000 hectare concession is currently being logged from its southern end near the Mahakam river in West Kutai district, from the log pond near the community of Long Bagun, but the majority of the concession stretches over into the headwaters of the Kayan river in Malinau district, reaching almost to the border with Malaysia. As its logging advances, SLJ plans to extend its network of logging roads northwards over the watershed into the major part of its concession in Malinau.
In SLJ II, Sumalindo has been using high tech timber inventory techniques, zoning its concession for High Conservation Value Forests and applying reduced impact logging, as part of a coordinated effort by TNC and WWF-Indonesia called the Alliance to Promote Forest Certification and Combat Illegal Logging in Indonesia, mainly funded by USAID and The Home Depot. The system was also designed to complement an existing programme of collaboration between TNC and large-scale timber corporations, aimed at promoting responsible forestry by building market incentives for good practice.
Since the SLJ plywood and MDF processing plants in Samarinda use timbers from a number of concessions, developing a technique that can distinguish between the SLJ II timbers and other woods is crucial to the success of this sustainable management and marketing effort. To this end TNC and SLJ, with technical advice from SGS and URS, have been experimenting with bar-coding to assist timber tracking. The idea is that the bar codes can be stapled onto the logs when timbers are cut, traced by bar code-reading devices all along the ‘chain of custody’, applied to products made only from these timbers in the processing plants, and so allow timbers to be securely traced from stump to the point of import in the USA.
In January 2005, local forest watchers in Kalimantan calling themselves the ‘East Kalimantan Working Group on Forests’ (Pokja Hutan Kaltim - EKWGF), who have links with local communities at the headwaters of the Mahakam, alleged that timbers from outside the SLJ II concession were being laundered through the log pond and getting bar codes stapled in inappropriately. Whereas in its audit report, SmartWood notes how it looked carefully into these concerns and assured itself that the timber tracing procedures are now being adequately applied, EKWGF asserts that timber mixing is still going on.
Competition between loggers and planters for control of Kalimantan’s forest lands has been carried out with relatively little regard for the rights and priorities of the indigenous peoples who are the rightful owners of these forests. However, the whole of the SLJ II concession lies in the traditional territories of indigenous Borneans, now commonly referred to as Dayaks. Those in the south of the concession now resident near Long Bagun, used to be referred to as Long Glats, while in the north the peoples are Kenyah and Punan, who have been living in these headwater forests since the earliest historical records, but who apparently settled in their present five villages, currently only accessible by week-long canoe rides or by missionary planes, between the 1950s and 2002.
FSC Principles and Criteria require that forestry operations are legal, recognise and respect the legal and customary rights of indigenous peoples and only go ahead with their free and informed consent. A detailed look at the SmartWood audit of SLJ II shows that the company still has a long way to go before it can be said to be meeting these conditions fully.
In common with most logging
operations in Indonesia, the boundaries of the ‘State
Forest Areas’ in which the SLJ II concession has been
granted have not yet been duly surveyed, agreed and gazetted.
This is important as the boundary delineation process is the
main way that the government checks that proposed forest concessions
do not overlap communities’ lands. In the case of SLJ
II, only a very small part of the boundary has yet been gazetted,
making the concession technically illegal. SmartWood however
has decided that the company has done its best to persuade the
government to regularise these boundaries and has granted the
certificate on condition that the company continues to use its
best efforts to get them sorted out.
In effect, the FSC certificate is being awarded to Sumalindo for its SLJ II operation not so much because the operation already complies with the FSC standards but in order to encourage the company to gradually bring itself up to the mark. ‘Step wise certification’ it seems is being introduced by the back door.
Some may argue that in the circumstances this is not altogether a bad thing. The major threat to the forests in the ‘heart of Borneo’ now come from plans to clear the forests for oil palm estates, compared to which logging operations may seem like a better land use choice. But shouldn’t the decision to waive legality requirements, for example to gazettement, be made at a policy level rather than pushed through by certifiers acting on their own? And how can indigenous peoples negotiate from a position of strength with the company if the auditors have already shown they are reluctant to insist on full compliance with protections of community rights if that will delay certification?
It seems a pity that these issues were not candidly discussed through debate with civil society, or FSC and LEI members, before the certificate was granted. It is now almost inevitable that the new certificate will become the focus of a protracted dispute between different NGOs, the auditors and the FSC.
By: Marcus Colchester, Forest Peoples Programme, e-mail: email@example.com
For details of the audit
see: SmartWood, 5th January 2006, Forest Management Public Summary
for PT Sumalindo Lestari Jaya II. http://www.rainforest-alliance.org/programs/forestry/smartwood/public-summary-reports.html#indonesia
In Malaysia, women plantation workers appear to have been neglected in the Government’s plans to eradicate poverty and enhance the status of women. The progress achieved so far in empowering women has been unequal. Women plantation workers still lag behind, since they are unable to free themselves from the vicious cycle of poverty they find themselves in.
The plantation industry is a crucial part of the country’s development. Malaysia is a world leader in palm oil and natural rubber production and the cultivation of these crops is a major agricultural activity in the country. Apart from smallholders who depend on these commodities for their livelihood, there are also waged labourers employed by plantation companies. In 2005, an estimated 1,268,500 people were employed in the agriculture and fishery sector, which includes farm workers, plantation workers and forestry workers. Large segments of the population involved in the agriculture and plantation sector are poor.
In recent years, the Consumers’ Association of Penang (CAP) has been working with labourers on oil palm and rubber plantations on the Peninsula. We have been involved in occupational health and safety issues, the fight for better wages, securing basic needs such as housing, health and sanitation, and other social issues such as domestic violence and alcohol abuse. In the area of occupational health and safety, the primary concern has been the use of highly hazardous herbicides such as paraquat, which was only recently banned in Malaysia.
Currently women make up nearly half the workforce on plantations where spraying a variety of herbicides is an integral part of plantation work. The reason why plantation companies employ women as herbicide sprayers is because women are readily available since they are unable to find other jobs. They are also considered timid, docile and compliant workers, as they do not question management and are easy to manipulate.
Most women on the plantations were born and raised there, as were their parents and grandparents. The environment on the plantation is hardly conducive to attaining a decent education or acquiring the critical skills needed in more specialized sectors of the economy. Studies have shown that women in poor rural households attain lower levels of education. This fact added to the prevailing poverty places women on plantations in a very vulnerable position.
Lack of education, age and social exclusion therefore diminish women’s opportunities and limit their possibilities for joining mainstream jobs in the industrial and service sector. Since most companies provide housing for their workers, this is a further incentive for women to continue living on the plantation.
In 2004, CAP conducted a study of 11 oil palm plantations located in the northern states of Malaysia. The study focused on women herbicide sprayers, their working conditions and the consequent health impacts. Work on an oil palm plantation is back-breaking and hazardous. Women herbicide sprayers are expected to carry an 18-litre (4-gallon) drum containing herbicide and complete 14 to 16 rounds of spraying per day. Tractor spraying is also conducted on some plantations, where big drums of herbicide are placed on both sides of the tractor. Two women carry the pumps and spray as the tractor moves.
In either case, the sprayers themselves are engulfed in a fine mist of herbicide. Recommended safety measures are rarely employed. The use of protective masks, gloves and boots is often impractical owing to the hot and humid tropical climate. Due to the widespread lack of awareness of the hazards of herbicides, inhalation and skin absorption are the major causes of occupational poisoning cases among women sprayers.
On the plantations, management decides which pesticides or herbicides to use as well as their frequency of application. The majority of workers interviewed did not even know what herbicides they were using while others identified them only by colour or odour. The women obligingly carried out their supervisors’ instructions on proportions and mixing of the herbicides. Most of the women were not even aware of the toxicity of the chemicals and the dangers that they were being exposed to.
The only protection women wear are safety boots and maybe a handkerchief or towel to cover their mouth and nose. The women complain that management is reluctant to replace worn personal protective equipment and demand that workers show them the damaged equipment. Even so, they only replace equipment periodically. Most women must purchase their own safety boots since they cannot get replacement for torn boots from their employers. Others do not replace their boots since they cannot afford to do so.
The women work six days a week on a rotational basis and receive menial wages in return for their work. Earning their full weekly wage usually involves working long hours in the blazing sun. Furthermore, fear of losing their job makes them put up with unpleasant conditions including offensive remarks and undue pressure, while at times being subject to sexual harassment.
Workers are paid between MYR 15 to MYR 18 (USD 3.95 to USD 4.75) per day. Each herbicide sprayer earns MYR 350 to 450 (USD 92 to 118) per month. Some plantation companies give an extra MYR 2 (about USD 0.50) per day to herbicide sprayers. This is a clear indication that danger lurks in herbicide spraying compared to other work. On some plantations, electricity and water bills are deducted from salaries.
The survey results found that women sprayers are often not in good health. They suffer from acute and chronic ailments related to their work. Most plantations provide medical facilities for their workers although most of the time these facilities are inadequate and ineffective. If the women suffer from major illnesses that the plantation paramedic cannot treat, they must visit a medical doctor in the nearest town. Ill health affects productivity directly, so many illnesses go unreported.
Another disturbing revelation is that, as they are not provided with protective equipment, workers who are employed on a contractual basis work in worse conditions and are expected to manipulate more potent and harmful herbicides, and do not have medical coverage.
Why do the women remain on the plantations despite the poverty they experience and exposure to poisons? During the 1980’s many plantations replaced rubber trees with oil palms due to higher economic returns. Therefore women plantation workers who were previously skilled rubber tappers lost their source of livelihood. Some of the women had tapped rubber all of their working-life and were therefore left in a difficult employment situation. In order not to be evicted from the plantation, the women had no choice but accept any job offered by management. Hence the women became herbicide sprayers even though it was not their choice of work.
As palm oil commodity prices increase in coming years, we can expect Malaysian production also to increase since it is one of the country’s major crops. This will further intensify women’s involvement in the sector. Women will find it increasingly difficult to escape this vicious cycle of poverty and their increasingly poor health will be the price they pay.
It is difficult to break out of a poverty situation and education is one of the means by which families on plantations can escape poverty. For this reason, there is a need for policy and programme interventions to assist and encourage the children of plantation workers to pursue their education.
Excerpts from: Plantation
workers face poverty and poison, by Mageswari Sangaralingam,
Consumers’ Association of Penang, http://www.socialwatch.org/en/informesNacionales/437.html
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