World Rainforest Movement

Water contamination with pesticides in oil palm plantations

Lake Chini is dying. The beautiful lake in the state of Pahang is one of the only two large natural freshwater bodies in Malaysia –and is dying.  It used to teem with fish and other aquatic animals and plants and has been the home of indigenous communities, the Jakuns.  Various human activities have contributed to the pollution of Lake Chini especially the establishment of a dam.  However one contributing factor has been the pesticides and fertilisers used in the oil palm plantations fringing the lake and in many places next to the water.

The pesticides used in plantations are known to cause a litany of health problems both chronic and acute and some of them are known to be harmful to soil and aquatic organisms and are environmental pollutants.  This water contamination affects the health and well being of the Jakuns who depend on the water for drinking and other purposes.

Increased demand for agrofuels and vegetable oil means rapid expansion of palm oil plantations and demand is expected to double by 2020.  To meet this demand thousands of square kilometers of mainly rainforest and agricultural lands will be cleared to plant new oil palm plantations in Indonesia, Malaysia, PNG and many other countries in Asia and Africa and Latin America.

The use of pesticides will increase tremendously as the plantations expand. The invasion of these oil palm plantations into rainforest have and continue to destroy livelihoods and lives of indigenous communities, erode biodiversity, destroy rainforest habitat and wild life, and pollute the soil and water with pesticides and untreated palm-oil effluent causing environmental contamination of air, soil and water, soil erosion, and sedimentation of rivers.

Pesticides continue to negatively impact the health and lives of millions of agricultural pesticide users, their communities and consumers worldwide, also causing great damage to biodiversity and the environment.  The pesticides used in oil plantations have adverse impacts on human health – and particularly on oil palm workers- and the environment.

Innumerous pesticides are used on oil palm plantations, and many of them are posing great threats to water reservoirs, which in turn spread contamination to other life forms. For example, Paraquat poses a risk to non-target terrestrial and aquatic plants.  Diuron and Metsulfuron are potential groundwater contaminants and diuron also has adverse effects in aquatic environments.  In addition, insecticides such as monocrotophos, methamidophos, carbofuran and fungicides such as chlorothalonil and maneb are groundwater contaminants. Glyphosate, cypermethrin, carbofuran, and  maneb are possible endocrine disrupting pesticides. Glufosinate ammonium another pesticide used in oil palm plantations is also a groundwater contaminant.

The use of highly hazardous pesticides combined with the uncontrolled application, the methods of application as well as the conditions of use in these countries suggest that the likelihood of pesticides entering waterways and groundwater is high.  Also many of the pesticides used are inherently poisonous to the aquatic ecosystems.  Groundwater, wells and water drinking would be impacted.

Pesticide production is a multinational industry exerting undue influence on international standard setting bodies, national governments and local communities. The enormous influence these chemical corporations wield, because of their economic power, is a major factor in the persistence of pesticides in agriculture despite the mounting evidence of environmental contamination, human poisonings, and greater yields achieved when the chemical is replaced by agroecological practices.

Community groups, people’s organizations and NGOs have been organizing into networks and movements to confront the industry and challenge the expansion of oil palm plantations because of all the adverse effects to the health, environment and to the livelihoods and lives of indigenous communities, peasants, agricultural workers and women.  Many of these groups are also promoting biodiversity based ecological agriculture that builds on indigenous and local knowledge, based on appropriate technology, biodiversity conservation and respecting ecological integrity as well as advocating farmer’s including rural women’s control over land, water, seeds and forests, protection of workers’ rights and of rural communities.

By Sarojeni V. Rengam, PAN Asia and the Pacific, E- mail: and,