Appetites for sparrows and snakes here and abroad has led to a substantial increase in rats and insects munching on rice and vegetable crops in Cambodia.
And with fewer predators to keep crops pest-free, farmers are increasingly turning to pesticides though they often have little knowledge of how the chemicals can affect their health, agriculture officials say.
At least one farmer died from pesticide poisoning last year and several became seriously ill, according to a report by the Center for Cambodian Agriculture Studies and Development.
Meanwhile, despite the increased use of pesticide, pests are creating havoc for farmers. Hundreds of hectares of rice fields have been destroyed by rats and insects in the past month alone, said Hean Van Horn, deputy chief of the crop protection office for the Ministry of Agriculture. He attributes this to the dwindling number of sparrows, which eat the insects, and snakes, which eat the rats.
“I never see any snakes or sparrows in the fields or jungle,” Hean Van Horn said. “But I always see many of them in cages at Neak Leung or in front of the Royal Palace.”
The hunters’ ranks are increasing every year because the snake and sparrow markets are good and hunters can often make more money than farmers, he said.
“Snake blood mixed with rice wine is popular in restaurants,” he said. “The rich people spend quite a lot of money on it.”
Snakes are also shipped to Vietnam and China.
“Sir, sir, buy some birds from me,” calls Keo Chey, a 60-year-old bird vendor at Wat Phnom, as he carries a cage holding 30 live sparrows and runs after a foreign tourist. She buys sparrows each morning at the market for 800 riel apiece and sells them for 1,000 riel. On a good day, she can make 3,000 to 4,000 riel.
Seng Pha, who sells roasted birds near the Royal Palace, buys birds from farmers in Takeo and Neak Leung for wholesale prices of 200 riel each and sells them for 500 riel. She has been a vendor for the past four years, selling between 70 and 100 birds a day. She makes about 30,000 riel a day, but said there are fewer and fewer sparrows every year. But she has no shortage of customers.
Teng Hong comes to the riverfront every Saturday to eat sparrows. “They are very delicious,” he said. “We like it very much. They are cheap and they are the best food with beer. We can eat 10 to 15 roasted bird each time.”
If hunters reduced their take, farmers’ dependence on pesticides would decrease significantly, Hean Van Horn said.
As part of a project researching pesticide pollution in Cambodia, the Center for Cambodian Agriculture Studies and Development visited 123 pesticide shops in several provinces in October and November of 1999.
More than half the pesticide dealers interviewed sell pesticides without separating them from cosmetic products, food, drinks and medicine. “Most pesticide traders seem to not be aware of the dangers caused by pesticides,” the report stated.
Only one of the 34 dealers interviewed have received any education on pesticides. “Most of the vendors do not know how to read the [label] on the pesticide,” said Keam Makardy, who helped write the report.
Nearly one-third of the 168 pesticides available in Cambodia—including the four most popular chemicals used by farmers—are classified by the World Health Organization as highly toxic and very dangerous. Eight of the 168 pesticides are on banned for use by the Ministry of Agriculture. Forty-three of the pesticides fall under a restricted use category.
Those using pesticides seem to know as little about the chemicals as those selling them.
Seng Dou, a 24-year-old farmer in Chroy Changva commune, started using pesticides on his vegetable crops three years ago. He said the smell didn’t bother him for the first four months, but then he began getting headaches from working with the chemicals.
He does not wear a mask or gloves when he sprays his crops. A friend told him simply to eat a piece of candy when he uses the pesticide to keep the taste out of his mouth. Soon he plans to quit farming and become a cyclo driver in Phnom Penh, a job he feels will be better for his health. “I feel quite weak and tired,” he said.
Farmer Keo Chouk said he doubts his pesticides will hurt him. “My father was a farmer for 15 years and he is still alive now,” said Keo Chouk, 19. “If you don’t drink [the pesticide] you will never die. If you are careful, you will never have a problem.”