PANAP’s Sarojeni V. Rengam on pesticides, women, and land reform | Pesticide Action Network
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PANAP’s Sarojeni V. Rengam on pesticides, women, and land reform

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Saro Rengam

As PAN North America celebrates our 35th anniversary, Executive Director Kristin Schafer recently had a conversation with PAN Asia Pacific Executive Director Sarojeni V. Rengam to talk about PAN’s work throughout the years.

When and for how long have you been involved with PAN? 

I was hired to be the coordinator for PAN Asia Pacific (PANAP) in 1985, under the International Organization of Consumers Unions (IOCU). I had just missed the original PAN International meeting in 1982 but then in 1985 PAN North America founders Monica Moore and Gretta Goldenman came and met with us to discuss how to launch the global Dirty Dozen campaign. Gretta then spent a year with us at IOCU and was one of my mentors at PAN. PAN AP officially got our registration as our own organization in January 1992 and I’ve been the director ever since.

What brought you to your work with PAN? 

I did my degree in biology, and had always been interested in either doing something for the environment or social work — I felt a need to do something meaningful with my life. In 1988–89, I visited women plantation workers in Perak, Malaysia and did a series of interviews. I saw the conditions of their work, how they were exploited, how they were spraying pesticides without personal protective equipment and were not given information about the pesticides and their hazards. They recieved low wages, were undernourished and had other health problems. There was also a lot of violence in the workplace and domestic violence. 

Following that, we started a project on women and pesticides, documenting working conditions and doing training workshops. I realized that you can't just tackle the issue of pesticides without taking on other aspects of the struggles of farmers, workers, and women. We are rooted at the grassroots with our partners, and that’s how we get involved in their struggle. Sometimes it seems like we’re expanding into other areas beyond pesticide work but really it's because of the needs expressed by our core constituencies.

What aspect of PAN's work makes you excited to work with the network?

Many things. When we see women on the ground who have been part of our trainings developing their capacity to lobby, campaigning on pesticide issues, and doing advocacy work, that is extremely inspiring. They have become leaders and are articulating with the government at the international level. Also, seeing the bans we’ve worked on for years, like chlorpyrifos, paraquat, endosulfan, starting to happen in other countries is exciting. 

These are a result of our campaigning, and all of us as an international network are contributing to this, not just PAN AP. We are slowly eroding industry’s efforts to keep their pesticides on the market. 

What PAN achievement/progress/win are you most proud of?

Earlier on we were very successful in our “Circle of Poison” organizing at the international level around the issue of pesticides being exported from countries where they had been banned. We won a Prior Informed Consent (PIC) provision in the Food and Agriculture Organization's "code of conduct" for pesticide management, which meant countries had to be informed if a pesticide they were importing had been banned. This then became a global treaty — the Rotterdam Convention. At one time people said we couldn’t get PIC, that no government would agree to it. But we managed to do the very hard work of making it happen. 

What current PAN work or campaigns are you excited about?

For PAN AP, we’re looking to expand our Community Pesticide Action Monitoring (CPAM) work. Once people have these skills, they can apply them to other types of monitoring as well — the environment, human health, or even social issues in their communities.

I'm also excited about the No Land No Life campaign, working on the issue of land grabbing. There's so much struggle on the ground in terms of people losing land, especially in authoritarian governments. Communities in rural areas, remote places, and Indigenous peoples often don't have papers that say “we've been here for hundreds of years” or even “we and our parents have been working here for the last two or three decades.” So they get pushed out. The struggle is very intense especially in Asia, people are getting arrested and they disappear.

This kind of work is some of the hardest to manage emotionally, as you see the violence on the ground. But you keep going because the farmers haven’t given up, the people haven't given up, women and Indigenous peoples haven’t given up. So you can’t give up. 

What does your vision of a healthy, just food and farming system look like?

We need a system where the landless get control of the land, and agrarian reform becomes an integral part of the change we’re working towards. We need a system where agroecology is widespread, and not industry-backed agroecology but a people-to-people kind of movement building. 

In this future, people have access to food that is healthy, and not expensive. People grow their own food or are part of cooperatives. All subsidies for industrial farming are removed, which puts everyone on the same playing field. I see farming that is really people- and farmer-led, agroecologically based, supports the environment and supports the economy. Some of the crops may be for fuel or fiber, but these crops are part of a bigger biodiverse system where food comes first. Food becomes the priority.

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