FAO Regional Office for Latin America and the Caribbean

A Mission to advance Pesticide Management

Stories of women’s leadership in Pesticide Management in the Caribbean

Carmen Van Dijk -Deputy Director Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Husbandry and Fisheries & former Chair of the Coordinating Group of Pesticide Control Boards in the Caribbean

"Planes with pesticides would spray the fields where my father toiled to ensure banana production in the 70’s’.”

Carmen recalls her childhood, growing up on a Banana Plantation, in the coastal district of Saramacca in Suriname.

Starting as a farming teacher and later becoming one of the executives of the company, Carmen’s father would spend long hours in the fields, planting and tending to crops. This is where Carmen’s passion for agriculture stemmed and from a young age she also became involved in planting. Although the banana industry provided sustenance for Carmen and her family, it brought with it a heavy burden of family loss and a determination   to see better pesticide management in Suriname.

Agriculture is a large part of the culture of Suriname, with the coastal region providing fertile grounds for rice production and the interior for vegetables such as tomatoes, lettuce, cabbage and eggplants. Suriname imports all of its pesticides and although Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) and some highly hazardous pesticides (HHPs) are not permitted in Suriname, a renewed vision and classification of HHPs as Carmen desires, would see some products being used added to this list.

“The most difficult challenge that I encounter, at the moment is to change the way of thinking. When raising awareness, we often hear persons say that their ancestors used pesticides for many years without using protective equipment and lived for many years, so why should we spend money on protective equipment or not mix pesticides?”

For Carmen, the answer to this question, is both practical and deeply personal. After years of pesticide exposure in the field during the early 60’s till the early 90’s, Carmen’s father developed several health challenges, where doctors explained that his organs were damaged by chronic exposure that eventually led to this death. This experience motivates her to push ahead, to challenge current ways of thinking and most importantly to safeguard the health of her people and the landscape of Suriname.

“I have seen farmers using herbicides without gloves and they have deformities in the nails. I see the defects but it is taboo to talk about it. Although studies need to be conducted to prove this, it is said that one of the biggest problems in Suriname is male impotency from prolonged exposure to pesticides. Without understanding the causes of this, men would beat their wives, resulting in a high risk of suicide amongst women in some districts because after being beaten they drink the contents from the bottles of pesticides. The risks of pesticide exposure and wrongful use come full circle” - particularly for those experiencing family violence.

In coastal areas, men are exposed directly to pesticides during application on crops, whereas women and children are exposed through contact with pesticide contaminated clothing and equipment, and sometimes when harvesting. One of the major issues is that persons do not take into account the re-entry period or pre-harvest interval after the application of pesticides.

On the other hand, in the interior, it is mostly women and children who are exposed to pesticides, as women plant and take care of the crop, therefore also applying the pesticides. This is a notable difference, for Carmen, who encourages approaches that take into consideration the lived realities of women, men and children. To tackle this, awareness programmes, workshops and field visits are a large part of Carmen’s work. With the support of FAO, she is seeing positive results.

“Through our outreach session, persons are becoming aware of the dangers of irresponsible pesticide use. We receive several phone calls requesting more information on where to purchase protective equipment. Persons are taking initiatives to wear protective clothing, even if they do not yet have the proper equipment, they are making a notable improvement from spraying barefooted or wearing short pants. Also, in the Banana sector due to the new management and the strict guidelines of certification, great changes and improvements has been made in the way plants are cultivated.”

Through the FAO Caribbean Pesticide Management Project, Carmen has seen a heightened awareness on proper systems for pesticide management, including on the gendered risks of pesticide use and exposure.

“The project has taken pesticide management to another level. The Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Husbandry and Fisheries of Suriname is no longer just talking about it, but we are acting and taking concrete steps to improve our systems and ensure the information reaches those who need it. Most importantly, through the updated legislation supported by the project we will have proper monitoring.”

These successes, however, have not come without challenges.

“In a field dominated by men; a woman coming to tell men how to protect themselves is not always received well by male farmers. However, I believe this work is about collaboration and knowledge exchange. This is my passion and I am grateful to the project for providing the space for me to build my skills, set an example for others to follow and also help to guide a new generation of officers in the pesticide division in achieving greater outcomes in responsible pesticide use.”

Gender challenges are real. They are multiple and intersecting. Age, source of livelihood, education and access to information can all play a role. Cultural norms in the agricultural sector can also influence attitudes and practice. Carmen confronts them all and we celebrate her efforts and leadership and encourage her to continue on and others to join in this effort.

Carmen Van Dijk is the Deputy Director in the Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Husbandry and Fisheries and former Chair of the Coordinating Group of Pesticide Control Boards in the Caribbean.