In 2020, 45 active substances that were 'unapproved' by the EU were shipped to Tunisia, according to the list of pesticides that are authorised for use in Tunisia, provided by the Ministry of Agriculture. This toxic trade would account for more than a third of the revenues of the world's five largest pesticide manufacturers.
The quantities of the imported substances were not provided by the Ministry of Agriculture.
CYANAMIDE, A POISON THAT REMAINS IN CIRCULATION
In 2018, more than 35,000 litres of products containing cyanamide arrived in Tunisia under the Dormex brand label. Widely used in viticulture and fruit cultivation to stimulate bud growth, particularly in Cap Bon, cyanamide is an active substance described as highly dangerous by the EU Chemicals Agency (ECHA).
In one farming community in Cap Bon, they have observed a very large concentration of cancer cases, a scientist requesting anonymity cautiously states. " It is possible that these cancers are linked to the use of cyanamide or to the use of other substances that have the same level of toxicity and are prohibited in Europe for this reason", she speculates.
Due to farmers being at high risk of exposure, even when wearing protective equipment, cyanamide was banned in the EU in 2008 because it was suspected by the European authorities of being carcinogenic and harmful to fertility. Studies also show that the substance is frequently linked to poisoning amongst agricultural workers. When in contact with the skin, it can also cause severe burns and eye damage.
However, nothing has been done to prevent the production and marketing of this substance, which continues to be shipped outside of the EU. It is the third most hazardous pesticide exported from Europe, according to the survey “Pesticides interdits : l’hypocrisie toxique de l’Union européenne” [Banned Pesticides: The European Union's Toxic Hypocrisy], conducted by Greenpeace UK (Unearthed) and Public Eye.
Among the companies producing and exporting cyanamide, the German company Alzchem was singled out in the report. When contacted by the reporters, the company defended itself, stating that: "The countries to which we export all have strict legislation for the authorisation of pesticides, and we train farmers in the safe use of our products".
"If the EU, with all its resources, has concluded that these pesticides are too dangerous, how can they safely be used in poorer countries (...) that don't have the systems in place or the capacity to control their use?" responded Baskut Tuncak, a former UN Special Rapporteur, in 2020.
In the Tunisian context, a report* by the National Agency for the Sanitary and Environmental Control of Products (ANCSEP) notes that a large proportion of Tunisian farmers struggle to protect themselves properly from pesticides, which are often used excessively, and without supervision or protection. This is despite it theoretically being the responsibility of the Ministry of Agriculture's extension workers to provide proper supervision. In 2020, Inkyfada went to meet with several farmers who confirmed that they are left to their own devices.
On a national scale, pesticides are the second most common cause of poisoning, after drugs.
Despite being contacted on numerous occasions, Hichem Aounallah, general manager of Bioprotection (the company that imports cyanamide and is the largest importer of agricultural inputs in Tunisia), did not respond to any requests from Inkyfada.
A 'DOUBLE STANDARD' POLICY
In addition to cyanamide, more than 40 other substances that are banned within the EU for being harmful to humans and the environment are brought into Tunisia each year. According to the Greenpeace UK/Public Eye report, these exports are increasing as the EU withdraws dangerous substances from its market.
"My hypothesis is that European manufacturers need to dispose of their products, which have become obsolete in Europe. It is a real poison that endangers our populations", accuses Semia Gharbi, biologist, environmental science teacher and member of the Association for Environmental Education for Future Generations (AEEFG).
She believes that this double standard allows the richest nations to pursue lucrative trade in less regulated parts of the world, and thereby outsources health and environmental impacts onto the most vulnerable. "The environment and health are increasingly reserved for those who can afford to live well", she says.
"This is hypocrisy. We are being treated as second-class humans", she adds.
The Rotterdam Convention is one of the few texts regulating international trade in pesticides and hazardous chemicals. Since 2014, it has demanded that the importing countries be notified of the dangers of chemicals entering their territory. "As not all countries have the same technical resources, the idea is to give the less developed countries the opportunity to make informed decisions", comments Semia Gharbi.
Any company wishing to export chemicals banned in its own country must issue an 'export notification' stating the reasons why the product is banned, the intended uses, and the quantity that the company intends to ship. The European authorities are required to verify these documents and forward them to the authorities in the destination countries.
However, 40% of these banned substances do not require consent, according to a recent article in Jeune Afrique. In almost half of the cases, European manufacturers therefore do not need the authorities' approval to sell these toxic pesticides to local importing companies.
In any case, "it is a crime to export substances banned for use in the manufacturing country to one of the 25 African countries that have ratified the Bamako Convention", says Baskut Tuncak, former UN Special Rapporteur.
In 2018, France became the first of the 27 countries to ban all exports of banned pesticides from its territory by 2022. However, it currently remains one of the European countries with the largest amount of exports of highly hazardous pesticides to Tunisia, behind Spain and Germany.
LACK OF TRANSPARENCY AND CARELESSNESS FROM TUNISIAN AUTHORITIES
"The responsibility for these imports is shared, and also lies with Tunisia. If we want to ban substances that we consider dangerous, we can", says Semia Gharbi.
In order for a pesticide to enter the Tunisian market, the Ministry of Agriculture must subject it to several tests to verify its conformity, its effectiveness, its impact on the environment and humans. The final decision is then taken by the technical commission* in charge of studying pesticides for agricultural use. To make up for the commission's lack of efficiency, an adjustment of the approval system was announced for 2019, with the creation of specialised sub-commissions. "We are still waiting", says the biologist.
This commission meets from time to time to update the list of approved products in Tunisia. It is up to the commission to add or remove products from the list, and in theory, a product can be removed before the end of its registration period. "If we obtain new information on the harmful effects of a substance on health, crops or the environment, we can examine it and withdraw it", says Moussa Chaabane, the commission's rapporteur and deputy director of agricultural inputs at the Ministry of Agriculture's General Directorate of Plant Health, where he has worked for over 35 years.
In practice, "when it comes to removing a pesticide from the list, things often get blocked because we insist on waiting for approval from international bodies", deplores Semia Gharbi. For Moussa Chaabane, only international unanimity is valid: "When a product is withdrawn on a global scale, there is no discussion, it must be removed (...). But there are also withdrawals on a regional scale, and a product does not have to be withdrawn here in Tunisia just because it is withdrawn in Europe."
For him, the main reason for withdrawing a product is its effectiveness, not its probable toxicity to the environment and humans. Additionally, analyses of the toxicity of pesticides on the environment and wildlife should be carried out, but are not due to lack of resources. "It is completely irresponsible not to apply a principle of precaution. If we suspect a product, that should be enough to withdraw it", says Semia Gharbi.
Another obstacle to the withdrawal of a pesticide is that it has to have an equivalent marketed in Tunisia to replace it. "We can't leave our farmers without an alternative", explains the ministry employee, while stressing that Tunisia is not the only country to reason this way.
"A toxic product is toxic everywhere", says Semia Gharbi. "I am fighting to bring our sovereignty into focus. If we affect our health, we affect our sovereignty."
For this, the biologist demands greater transparency: "The online list of approved products dates from 2017. We have no precise information on the quantities imported, etc. On what basis can we raise an alert?" At the same time, she is campaigning for the implementation of a global system for coordinating decisions: "If a product is withdrawn somewhere in the world, it needs to be withdrawn everywhere else immediately".