Yemen’s Toxic Qat
Mohammed Yahya Jahlan
SANAA, Dec 2015, (Al-Araby al-Jadeed): Yemeni men sit in a circle, each boasting of having the best Qat, a shrub with young leaves which contains a compound with effects similar to those of amphetamines.
However, they are unaware that the green leaves and stems which are placed in their mouths and chewed on for a minute before stuffing them into one of their inner cheeks, could be infested with toxins coming from internationally-banned agriculture pesticides imported by Yemen.
Chewing Qat for hours to kill time, these men are not aware that such shrubs aid in decreasing their life span with these two factors. One is due to its natural hazards, and the other is the traces of banned pesticides in its leaves.
Inside the gathering (Maqyal), the conversations revolve around politics and economy as well as private and public matters. Outside, a race is afoot to produce the best quality Qat for more profits – a task made easier by these smuggled pesticides.
A visit to several pesticide shops, however, is enough to dispute claims both by the Ministry of Agriculture and the Customs Authority that they are tracking down on these banned pesticides.
This reporter visited 22 shops selling pesticides in various areas of the capital. He found that 70% of the shops were also not licensed despite operating publicly. Up to 90% of the remaining licensed shops were found in violation of a law regulating the trade of pesticides stipulating that the owners of such shops should have university degree or be a qualified technician.
In light of the spread of unlicensed shops, there is no official statistics which specifies the number of specialised shops for pesticides. Around 52 licensed agents work in the sector legally. They are allowed to import pesticides to sell them to retail stores.
We were able to obtain Topaz and Dioxin pesticides. We also discovered so-called “black fertilizer”, which is also banned according to the Plant Protection Department of the Ministry of Agriculture, even though it is not a pesticide, but a type of fertilizer that contains iron. We also discovered “red fertilizer”, another banned substance that contains Aluminium. The iron and Aluminium give plants a reddish colour, and affect the internal membranes of the kidneys, causing kidney failure, according to Dr. Al-Hanmi.
Officials at the Ministry of Agriculture and the Customs Authority do not deny the fact that internationally banned fertilizers are making their way to Yemeni markets. They also say that some dealers manufacture pesticides locally that contain international banned substances.
The results of our field visits are consistent with conclusions of a study conducted by Dr.Abdul-Rahman Thabet, professor of pesticides and environmental pollution at Sana’a University and information supplied by environmental and consumer affairs researcher Yassin al-Tamimi indicating that banned pesticides are being sold in the local market.
The list of prohibited pesticides includes “Topaz” which is of Israeli origin. Qat farmers are particularly fond of this pesticide which they say is effective, along with dioxin, as this investigation documents.
Because these pesticides accelerate the fruit ripening period, farmers buy them in the hope they will be able to achieve quicker profits. One such farmer is Mohammad al-Faqia from Hamdan, Sana’a Governorate. He stated: “Pesticides speed up the emergence of fruits, especially the Qat tree, which is desirable to us. They are also easily available.”
According to farmers, using the banned pesticides smuggled to Yemen doubles Qat production — Crops are cultivated four or even five times a year, instead of just two as normal which leads to higher revenues.
According to Dr. Abdullah al-Hanmi, agricultural expert, Topaz and Dioxin contain dangerous chemicals such as methyl uracil, which causes cancer of the blood known as leukaemia.
However, farmers are not aware of the danger of these pesticides and how to use them, said Faqia, urging the government to educate farmers.
The arbitrary use of pesticide, the proliferation of smuggled banned types thereof as well as the absence of oversight by the competent authorities, all pose a risk to Qat consumers, according to Dr. Hanmi “Yemen has some of the highest rates of cancer in the world as well as chronic conditions like renal failure, hepatitis, diabetes, and others,” he stated.
According to Oncology Consultant Dr. Ahmad al-Barda, pesticide residue that reach Qat consumers is a key cause of cancer in Yemen.
The latest figures from the Ministry of Agriculture (2010) indicate Qat farming consumes 70% of insecticides and fungicides imported legally.
Qat is a green plant that belongs to the family of stimulants. It is classified according to quality and price. The plant grows usually in Yemen and Eastern Africa. It is consumed by a large segment of the Yemeni population. They chew it for 4 to 6 hours at a time before discarding it. Qat contains alkaloid, a stimulant. It could also cause a decrease in appetite. It is classified by the World Health Organization as a harmful drug that can cause mild or moderate addiction. But it is less addictive than alcohol and tobacco.
Dr. Murshid al-Daaboush, professor at the Faculty of Agriculture at Sana’a University, had published a study in 2013 showing that the area cultivated with Qat in Yemen rose in 2012 to 12% compared to 9.09% in 2001. Only 4% of the country’s surface area of 572,970 square km is arable.
Dr. Daaboush’s study on Qat and its impact on agriculture stated that 18 out of 21 Yemeni provinces grow Qat. Since 1970 until 2012, the area cultivated with Qat increased 21-fold, at the expense of other crops.
Dodging the law
Pesticides that are not registered, smuggled, or adulterated by companies by combining several types with a view to spur plant growth are available in Yemen, according to Dr. Thabet.
The concentration of the active ingredient in these pesticides usually exceeds the limit, according to Dr. Hanmi. He said that most of these pesticides are plant hormones manufactured in the laboratory and are used to increase vegetative growth. They have health effects on the environment, soil, and consumers, he added. The banned pesticides affect metabolism within cells, which leads to chronic diseases such as severe anaemia, according to Dr. Hanmi.
Internationally, the pesticides that contain synthetic plant hormones or bromide-based chemical hormones are dealt with under the Montreal Protocol. Yemen is one of its 180 signatories. the pesticides contain methyl bromide, an anti-septic that is now used on a large scale in protected farms in Yemen, particularly in the province of Saada.
According to Dr. Hanmi, this substance causes mutations in the genetic material which leads to mutations within the genes that control cell division resulting in cancerous tumours.
Under the botanical pesticides regulatory law No. 25 of 1999 and its implementing regulations issued in 2002, the General Department of Plant Protection at the Ministry of Agriculture is the only authority in the Republic authorized to regulate pesticides.
Article 15 of the law requires dealers to obtain a permit to sell pesticides, which in turn needs the applicant to have a university degree in plant protection or to hire a competent technician.
Breaking the law
When this reporter confronted the Ministry of Agriculture with evidence including pesticides he purchased from both licensed and unlicensed shops, the ministry admitted to the presence of smuggled and banned pesticides in the markets. However, the ministry said its crews regularly raids and inspection visits to detect the sale of these substances. The ministry said it does not grant licenses to any shops to open in any way that violates the law.
But the weakness of the ministry’s capabilities and resources makes it hard to achieve better results in controlling the pesticides markets, according to deputy minister of agriculture for agricultural services Dr. Mohammad Ghashm. This, he continued, “is allowing “unscrupulous” people to “sell death and disease in the markets”.
The head of the inspection and control department and judicial officer at the Directorate General for Plant Protection, Engineer Abdullah al-Haj Hammoud, washed his hands clean of any responsibility. He said that the violations are the result of “duplication” in the ministry’s decrees leading to overlap in the jurisdictions of the authorities that regulate the trade of pesticides.
Law No. 25 is almost obsolete, according to Hammoud, after a decree was issued by agriculture and irrigation authorities in the provinces granting licenses to pesticides shops. Thus, his department is no longer the authority to regulate pesticides.
Not only that, but reports by several committees formed to study the issue have indicated the presence of problems and obstacles. These include the lack of qualification among specialists in the agriculture and irrigation offices regarding pesticides, and the lack of technical and material resources to implement the laws and decrees.
In his defence of the Plant Protection Directorate, Hammoud said the department has only one laboratory to test pesticides. “The work is often interrupted because of electricity blackouts,” he added.
Dealers justify selling smuggled pesticides to save money, time, and energy. Testing pesticides costs nearly $10,000 to laboratories abroad, to obtain quality certification, before having to deal with the ministry’s bureaucracy to obtain permits, said Rashad Masoud, a dealer.
According to Hammoud, the complacency of the Customs Authority is also a factor in the proliferation of banned pesticides, whether imported or locally produced.
Between March 2012 and March 2013, the Ministry of Agriculture seized nearly 61,221 litres of smuggled pesticides, according to a report. The report noted that a comprehensive survey of all provinces and customs terminals in Yemen would reveal the real number to be much higher.
Punishment of violators includes prison sentences and fines, according to section six of the law. Punishments vary according to the type of the offence, and in case of recidivism, the punishment is doubled. The authorities may also revoke permits and ban violators from engaging in any activity related to pesticides. They can also shut down stores permanently or temporarily in accordance to the seriousness of the offence as assessed by the court.
The deputy director of the Customs Authority for judicial affairs Dr. Abdul Jabbar al-Marrani does not deny the fact that banned pesticides are making their way to Yemen via smuggling, often by sea. But he said the issue is complicated and requires concerted efforts by everyone under a comprehensive strategy that also brings in the army and law enforcement agencies as well as civil society groups.
At the same time, Dr. Marrani insists on the need to tighten legislation, especially in relation to the role of the Ministry of Agriculture and to constantly update pesticide databases and distribute them to all customs ports.
Amid this controversy, former Customs official Dr. Lutf Barakat stresses the importance of issuing a quick and bold government decree assigning one specific government branch to import pesticides using only one designated terminal, before selling them to farmers at cost or below cost. This will also help protect the country’s agriculture industry.
Dr. Barakat said this would guarantee that only safe pesticides would enter Yemen, using instructions for use under the oversight of agricultural engineers.
Such a decision would also help safeguard against diseases that have spread dramatically such as cancer, he added. “All these actions no matter how much they cost the government will cost much less than dealing with diseases like cancer and treating patients at the expense of the state.”
Cancer is the number one cause of death in Yemen. Nearly 12,000 people die each year from cancer, according to the National Centre for the Treatment of Cancer. A WHO report predicted back in 2010 that up to 22,000 people would die of cancer in Yemen soon, the highest rate in the Middle East.
The Yemeni household uses grains, vegetables, and fruits that are grown relying on pesticides, according to Dr. Ahmad al-Barda, cancer specialist and Fellow of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
“Bad habits in society like Qat consumption is one of the leading causes of these diseases,” he added. He said that the link between Qat and oral cancer has been scientifically established.
The presence of residues from pesticides in Qat coming in contact with wounds in the gum during chewing ensures they infiltrate the body where they accumulate over time, Dr. Barda said. This causes cancer in the gums and the teeth, the mouth membranes, tongue, and pharynx.
In the absence of any sign of a serious effort to counter the proliferation of toxic pesticides and fertilizers, Yemenis continue to buy death, albeit slow. No one is drawing their attention to the danger of what they are consuming on their tables or the Qat they are chewing along with deadly chemical substances.
This investigation was completed under the supervision of Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ) and coached by Noureddine Khamaiseh. The investigation started before the recent crisis in Yemen. The prevailing security and political situation in Yemen, has made it difficult to obtain official information on the annual import of fungicides and insecticides in Yemen.