A Pure Earth team conducting pesticide cleanups was welcomed in home after home in Tajikistan. In an area near the Afghan border, where we had to pass through checkpoints and guards with guns, we were showered with hospitality. We were even invited to a wedding!
At one home, the owner’s 12-year-old son climbed up a persimmon tree to pick some fruit for our group. According to local tradition, the man told us, any stranger who knocks on a home’s door would be welcomed.
Living with Poison in Farkhor and Ziraki
The homes we were visiting were located in Farkhor and Ziraki, two areas in Tajikistan surrounded by large amounts of highly toxic pesticides, including DDT, which had once been used by large cotton farms in the area. Following the dismantling of the Soviet Union, the pesticides were left abandoned in unsafe conditions, where they sat in disintegrating bags leaking poison for decades.
We were in Tajikistan not only to remove the pesticides from two crumbling warehouses, but also to inform residents about the pollution, and what they can do to protect themselves.
Our outreach team included university students from the capital of Dushanbe and members of a local NGO whom we trained. When our team talked to people in the two communities about the pesticide problem, we found that many had been living with poison for so long that they did not even notice it. But we did. The small of pesticide was strong.
Over the years, residents would sometimes use the pesticides in their home gardens, and the community even stored food in the pesticide storage warehouses. With new houses being built on the contaminated land, more and more people were being put at risk. [Read about how Pure Earth’s coordinator in Tajikistan, Ulugov Umidjon Amonovichis, managed to stop houses being built on toxic land.]
Farkhor: 40 Bags of Pesticides Removed
In Farkhor, we found three new houses that were built attached to three old warehouses that were completely filled with pesticides. About 12 people lived there.
The Pure Earth team gathered about 20 soil samples from the courtyard, and took 50 readings with the XRF (X-ray fluorescence) analyzer, which registered arsenic and other heavy metals. We saw chickens, rabbits and children running around this contaminated yard.
The team took three days to properly bag the pesticides they found to prevent further leaking. The bags were then loaded onto a truck and taken away to a secure storage site. In total, about 40 bags (31,066 kg) of pesticides were cleared from the Farkhor.
Ziraki: 69 Bags of Pesticides Removed
In Ziraki, located just 1 km from the Afghan border, the Pure Earth team bagged and removed 69 more bags bags of pesticide (12,971 kg). They even found a pesticide branded “Kung Fu” in the piles.
While no one was living on this warehouse site, the area was open to the public, with a grapevine nearby, and across from a field where children often played. A settlement of homes was located across the stream, which was likely contaminated. We saw locals washing spoons in the water, which had a blueish hue, and we saw a dead chicken in another body of water in the warehouse compound.
We offered the local men watching us work respirators to use but many were uncomfortable with the color of the respirators — they were pink! But some eventually put on the respirators. After an hour of exposure, we were all getting headaches.
A Healthier Future For Newly-Wed Couple
In total, we removed about 110 bags (44,037 kg) of obsolete pesticides from the two towns and transported them to a specially designated hazardous waste storage area in Vakhsh. Our team worked closely with the local government on the cleanups. While owners of polluted sites are sometimes upset at the attention a cleanup brings them, the landowners here welcomed our work. They understood that their land would now be more valuable for future projects.
During one of our lunch breaks, we took a short 15-minute walk to see the local wedding that was taking place. It is good to know that the young couple would begin a new phase of their lives in less toxic surroundings.