Thirty years ago, Emmanuel Avokpo, now 55, ran a lucrative farming business growing tomatoes, yam, maize and peanuts on land he rented. He sold his produce in Tchaorou and nearby Bohicon in southern Benin.
But the land was destroyed when labourers working on a nearby road incorrectly disposed of chemicals they no longer needed. ”They dug a hole and we saw them bring some stuff and burn it" Avokpo explains, looking out onto what is now wasteland.
"The farm management came here to inspect. They said we could no longer farm on this land and that if people ate what we grow they will get ill."
The lingering smell was what first alerted local residents of a problem. Soon afterwards many started to suffer with coughs and other illnesses.
No one knows exactly what those chemicals were, but the land remains hazardous to farm on, even now—and the smell persists.
From the fertilizers used in farming to the pesticides sprayed on cotton crops to protect them from destruction, chemicals are still widely used in everyday life in Benin, even though, for decades, their impact on human health and the environment has been felt right across this small West African country: the mismanagement of chemical waste has led to illness and death.
Benin is now determined to confront the problem with the help of a UN Environment grant of nearly $250,000, which was allocated through the Special Programme on Institutional Strengthening for Chemicals and Waste Management. The Special Programme supports developing countries and countries with economies in transition with the aim of promoting a country-driven approach to chemical management, and strengthening institutional capacity to develop legislation and regulation and creating effective frameworks to implement its obligations towards the Basel, Rotterdam, Stockholm and Minamata Conventions as well as the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management.
The chemical industry is an important driver for Benin's economy. However, many people use chemicals every day with little knowledge of the risks involved. During the 1999-2000 cropping season, the misuse of chemical pesticides was responsible for 147 cases of human poisoning, including 10 deaths.
Yet nearly two decades on, workers in Benin’s cotton fields regularly carry out their job with no protective equipment.
Many farm labourers work in the fields with their sisters or wives. Even their young children help. All of them are exposed to dangerous chemicals. Walking side by side, 22-year-old Emmanuel Tanda and his two younger brothers slowly pace through the cotton fields.
Every few steps, they simultaneously pull the triggers of their long sprayers attached to the chemical packs they are carrying. Each nozzle widely disperses pesticides designed to prevent the crops from being destroyed by insects.
It's a common sight in Angaradébou, a small rural town in Kandi, in the far northeast of Benin. But no one wears masks or uses any other protection.
"Why don't you protect yourselves when you know the product that you use is dangerous?" Felix Tchabi asks them. Tchabi has worked for Benin's environment ministry for 12 years. He is the head of environmental monitoring and tracking and the focal point of Rotterdam Convention. Thereby, one part of his job is to educate people about hazardous chemicals specially pesticides.
"I am the secretary in my village," says Tanda. "When we ask, they say protective equipment will come, but when the treatment arrives we have to get to work, we can't wait and let the cotton be attacked. So, we just get on with our job.”
Tanda says when any of them get ill, with a stomach complaint, headache or cold-like symptoms, they just think it is tiredness from work.
Felix explains the hazards as they stand in the fields. One fact shocks the men: "In the long term," he says, "this product can make you sterile, both men and women."
Like many other countries, Benin has signed and ratified several key Conventions and international agreements that focus on the sound management of chemicals and waste. These include the Basel, Rotterdam, Stockholm and Minamata Conventions, as well as the regional Bamako Convention, which prohibits the import of hazardous waste.
But despite this—and other projects run by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), which identified and decontaminated several sites—the sound management of chemicals in Benin remains a problem.
Jacqueline Sagbohan, Benin's FAO project coordinator for the management of expired pesticides, says they targeted contaminated sites in Malanville in the far northeast, another in the centre of Benin and two in the capital, Porto Novo.
But she says the banned pesticide Endosulfan remains an issue, even though Benin joined an international ban in 2008. Despite the ban, Sabgohan says farmers have "gone back to using it, it has not disappeared completely". Cotton farmers mix it with other chemicals, says Sagbohan but "it has a lot of harmful effects".
Benin has lacked the technical and institutional capacity, finances and coordination to implement its own policies nationwide. The UN Environment Special Programme aims to reduce the impacts from the misuse of chemicals and help the country manage them more effectively.
The head of the Environment and Climate General Directorate, Martin Pepin Aina, acknowledges that the task facing Benin is big. “With our porous borders, it is difficult to stop chemical products getting in.” he says. But he is confident that with sensitization, improved legislative management frameworks, and the establishment of new laws that will strengthen capacity at the borders and action backed up on the ground by environmental police, Benin can commit to improving its the long-term management of chemicals and waste.
In the rural northeast, down a red brick dirt road track, lies the village of Ganikpérou in Oroukayo, Kouandé. People live a traditional village life, in mud-brick homes with straw roofs. Cooking happens outside on wood-fire stoves. The only light comes from kerosene lamps.
The villagers of Ganikperou are in mourning. In September 2018, eight members of the same family—mother, father, two daughters and four sons—died from toxic poisoning. Villagers say they died one by one, in the same room. The only survivor was a one-year-old baby, who didn't eat the food cooked for dinner that night.
Tchabi listens as villagers air their grievances to the government official.
The authorities burned all utensils after the deaths and made the villagers bury the remaining food.
Tests have yet to conclude exactly what killed the family, but suspicion has fallen on the sauce which was eaten with a traditional maize pâté. They believe the food had come into contact with chemical pesticides.
Tchabi warns villagers not to mix chemicals with food and says there have been similar cases in other villages. But with just one death, they are rarely investigated. "It is my duty, I will continue to tell people about all these chemicals, so that one day all this dying will stop in our country," he says. "We cannot continue losing our children like this."