By Charles Mkoka, Globe and Mail
Officials in Lilongwe, Malawi, are working hard
to promote safe alternatives to the agricultural pesticide methyl
bromide, which they hope to phase out by the end of the year.
If they succeed, says the Science and Development Network website,
Malawi will beat South Africa to be the first country in the region
to phase out all non-essential use of the chemical.
Methyl bromide is widely used to kill pests that damage tobacco,
a cash crop and principal source of foreign capital for Malawi.
But few farmers are aware that the pesticide is hazardous to human
health and the environment, and is partially responsible for depleting
the ozone layer of the Earth's atmosphere.
Parties to the Montreal Protocol on ozone-depleting substances
are required to stop using methyl bromide. The deadline for developing
countries is 2015.
"We are currently ahead of schedule," says Aloysius
Kamperewera, Deputy Director of Environmental Affairs, the Malawian
government department coordinating the work.
"Malawians need to consider the long-term adverse effects
of the substance," says Raphael Kabwaza, Director of Environmental
Affairs. "It might not be tomorrow, next week or next month,
but the effects of methyl bromide on the environment are disastrous."
Malawi's Agricultural Research and Extension Trust has intensified
efforts to raise awareness among farmers of the threats posed
by methyl bromide and of its alternatives. The campaign is targeting
farmers with leaflets, articles in the press, farm visits and
Customs officials have also been notified that any imports of
the chemical after December 31 should be impounded. Officials
will be trained in order to enforce the forthcoming ban.
Malawi is the second-largest user of methyl bromide in Africa
after neighbouring Zimbabwe. Each year more than 127 tons of the
chemical are used, with tobacco growers using 85% of this.
One of the alternative approaches to pest control being promoted
is the use of soil-less culture, since a principal tobacco pest
-- a microscopic nematode or worm -- lives in soil.
In soil-less culture, plants are grown in trays that float in
plastic ponds set above the ground. Each tray has 200 compartments
containing a single tobacco seed and mulch made from pine bark
to enhance root development. The seeds absorb nutrients from the
water -- which is supplemented with fertiliser -- and use the
bark for support.
Two other alternatives being recommended are the pesticides metham
sodium and dazomet (traded in Malawi as Basamid), both of which
are also toxic and should be handled with care, but are considered
safer than methyl bromide.
"There is need for more time for the rural farmers to understand
the phasing-out of the substance," says Kamperewera, describing
the challenges ahead. "It is a gradual process, but they
will embrace the idea with time."
According to the Agricultural Research and Extension Trust, about
71 500 tons of methyl bromide are used worldwide every year. Most
-- 75% -- is used in developing countries. Montreal Protocol's
Multilateral Fund to Assist Developing Countries is supporting
Malawi's phasing-out of methyl bromide.
Journalists promote science reporting
Meanwhile, Malawian journalists have just launched a network to
promote homegrown science reporting, including coverage of the
elimination of pollutants such as methyl bromide. Science has
had minimal coverage in the tiny Southern African nation until
The Coalition of Journalists on Environment and Agriculture hopes
to fill what chairperson Raphael Mweninguwe sees as a widening
gap in local journalism. It aims to have a regional scope, monitoring
and seeking members from the 14 countries of the Southern Africa
"It is of paramount importance that science journalists
acquaint themselves with their subject in order to report professionally,"
The coalition aims to enable Malawians to make informed decisions
about issues affecting them. These include the development of
new biotechnologies to enhance food security.
"The rapidly growing population needs to be constantly updated
on developments taking place in the world of science," says
Mweninguwe, adding that without good science reporting the population
cannot make informed choices about their own actions in relation
to the environment.
Currently there is no science publication produced by professional
journalists in Malawi, but the network aims to fill the gap. Their
magazine, The Green Environment, will focus specifically on science
and development and will be available to the general public as
well as members.
Two existing publications, The Zambezi and SADC Today, do cover
issues such as climate change and biodiversity conservation at
regional level. But they are produced by the Southern Africa Research
and Documentation Centre in Zimbabwe and are not always available
in Malawi because of funding problems.
"It is about time journalists brought science issues to
the masses," says Gray Munthali, deputy director of meteorological
services in Malawi.
The coalition "is a move in the right direction", says
Hassan Nkata, a journalist with the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation.
Nkata hopes the coalition will mean that more information on the
role of science in development can reach rural Malawians through
the corporation's radio listening clubs.