The Andean village of Tauccamarca, in the highlands outside Cusco, has become the focal point in a stepped-up battle against pesticide use in Peru.
Last October, the village made news as the site of Peru’s worst case of pesticide poisoning when 44 school children fell ill after drinking a government-donated milk substitute that had been mixed with a highly toxic insecticide.
Twenty-four children died—many of them while being taken to the nearest medical clinic, which is more than an hour from Tauccamarca and accessible only on foot. The incident provoked a frenzy of finger pointing.
According to the Ministry of Agriculture’s report on the incident, a powder was mixed with milk substitute to kill stray dogs, then the concoction was inadvertently taken to the school and served for breakfast.
The government blamed the incident on community members’ “negligence and ignorance” in the handling of dangerous chemicals. Tauccamarca’s sole teacher, who served the deadly breakfast, was jailed briefly but later released after protests by the Cusco teacher’s union.
Anti-pesticide activists say the true culprit is the uncontrolled use of pesticides in Peru. Now, they and politicians are using public outrage over the incident to push for legislative bans on the most dangerous pesticides and for incentives to foster sustainable agriculture in Peru’s highlands.
In December two Peruvian groups, Action Network for Alternatives to Agrochemicals (RAAA) and the Association of Ecological Producers (Aspec), submitted a proposal to Congress that would ban 25 pesticides classified as extremely toxic by the World Health Organization. Among them are aldicarb and paraquat, which are still legal in Peru.
The proposal is now in the hands of the unicameral legislature’s Commission on Environment, Ecology and the Amazon. The panel plans to incorporate it in broader agrarian health legislation that would, among other things, clarify the responsibilities of the National Service for Agrarian Health (Senasa) regarding pesticide use and regulation.
The legislation also would promote use of organic alternatives to agrochemicals, says Luís Campos Baca, the commission’s president.
“The task for legislators is to find a way to promote safe alternatives without sacrificing the economic production of the country. It is a subject of utmost priority, and we have accelerated the legal process [of the agrarian health law] compared to other legislative projects,” Baca says.
Full congressional debate on the agrarian health law is expected to begin in March.
The government says its autopsies on the children indicate the cause of death was ingestion of ethyl parathion, a highly toxic organophosphate banned in Peru since 1996. The illegal trade in banned products is a problem throughout the highlands, where prohibited chemicals often are sold in public markets side by side with legal products.
Activists are calling for an investigation into the black market and destruction of all existing stocks of banned chemicals. They warn that the market in banned products should not deflect attention from the fact that many similarly toxic products are still legal under Peruvian law.
A 1998 RAAA study found that each year about 100,000 people in Peru are poisoned by agrochemicals, and many more such cases likely go unreported.
“These poisons arrive in isolated villages where social and medical services are non-existent,” says the RAAA’s Luís Gomero. “Farmers cannot afford to buy protective clothing and they often cannot read the safety instructions, which in any case are only given in Spanish, while most campesinos are Quechua speakers.”
According to Gomero, there is evidence to suggest that one of the legal chemicals, methyl parathion, might in fact have been to blame for the deaths in Tauccamarca.
His group is pressuring government entities to take up stalled legislation to help establish alternatives to agrochemicals. One is the Law for the Promotion of Integrated Pest Management, which was passed by Congress in 1997 but has yet to be implemented by the Ministry of Agriculture.
Pesticide use in Peru actually decreased from a high point of 25,000 tons in 1987 to about 5,000 tons in 1996 as a result of Fujimori-era free-market policies that have meant cuts in overall federal spending for farmers.
Agricultural production has increased over the same period, according to a 1997 RAAA study. This, Gomero says, shows that replacing highly toxic agricultural products with less harmful or organic alternatives will not harm the country’s economic situation.
“There are only two crops that require the use of pesticides in the highlands. It would be much easier to make the switch away from agrochemicals in the highlands than on the coast for example,” says Gomero. “If there was real commitment on the part of the government, we could begin to make the step toward true sustainable agriculture in the Peruvian highlands.”
- Rachel Hays