Profit and poison: Gambling with agricultural chemicals in Senegal’s Cotton Zone

Sarah Hardin’s article ‘Charging Responsibility for the Repercussions of Pesticide Usage in Post-War Francophone Africa‘ is now available online-first in Environment and History (subscription access required). Here she introduces some of the article’s findings.

Agricultural supply shop. Vélingara, Sénégal. June 2016. Photograph by Sarah Hardin.

In Senegal, as in other West African countries, many women earn an income from growing and selling onions, tomatoes, cabbages and other vegetables. Inputs such as fertiliser, fungicide and pesticide help them make the most of their labour. Yet occasionally a woman uses too much or the wrong kind of pesticide on her produce. At the market, shoppers take their chances.

In the United States, consumers’ anxieties drove the regulation of pesticides in the 1970s, but producers in the Global South continued to work with chemicals banned in the Global North through the 1980s. They had to balance their desire for a healthy life with a successful one.

Agricultural supply shop. Vélingara, Sénégal. June 2016. Photograph by Sarah Hardin.

In southeastern Senegal in the 1960s and 1970s, men and women made a living through cotton production, an industry that has used more toxic pesticides than the food industry. Today, people in the region still recall the brand name of the most common, most effective, and most dangerous chemical used, péprothion, which was 25 per cent DDT, 12.5 per cent endosulfan, and 6.25 per cent méthyl-parathion. Young men carried it in a canister on their backs to spray the growing cotton plants. Sometimes they fell ill. A few died. But many continued to take the risk because cotton production was profitable.

Cattle keeping cool. Linkéring, Senegal. May 2016. Photograph by Sarah Hardin.

In the twenty-first century, however, the sector is struggling. The cost of inputs have gone up, but production levels and the purchase price have not kept pace. Many farmers argue that cotton production is no longer worth the risk to themselves, their families, or their livestock. Péprothion and other pesticides killed domesticated and wild animals that wandered into treated fields.

My new article is based in part on interviews I conducted in Senegal and France and on conference minutes by agronomists in France. The article examines agronomists’ and extension agents’ ethical anxiety over introducing such potent chemicals into agrarian areas from the 1950s through the 1970s. They knew that animals and humans alike had fallen victim to accidental poisoning across francophone Africa. At first many hoped to find better pest control methods or at least to minimise pesticides’ dangers. They believed that the chemicals were necessary for development. Indeed, the inputs supported economic booms that contributed to several West African countries’ independence. Yet pesticides’ side effects have gone unnoticed by much of the academic literature on the period. The European agronomists at the time initially urged precaution. After independence, however, their rhetoric shifted from stressing the danger of the chemicals to blaming user-error for accidents.

One of the reasons why they shifted responsibility onto African farmers was, my research revealed, that users had found alternative and non-approved uses for the chemicals. Whereas some observers condemned such practices, the article argues that Senegalese rural residents took the new tools available to them to make the best of their situation. Some villages produced cotton in order to raise money to send a young man abroad where he would hopefully prove to be a good return on investment. Now, one way or another, almost every family in southeastern Senegal has a member who lives abroad and sends home remittances.

Field on the left has manure. Département de Vélingara, Sénégal. May 2016. Photograph by Sarah Hardin.

Since cotton is no longer the cash cow it once was, some farmers remaining in the region have tried to grow organic cotton and other crops. Some of the challenges they face include unpredictable rainfall and difficulty accessing markets. Nonetheless, as the research shows, people are capable of surmounting obstacles.

Sarah Hardin, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor

History Department

Saint Anselm College

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