Eugenia Mejías is a temporero, one of the thousands of seasonal laborers who help harvest Chilean export crops from October to February each year. She never imagined that her work on a farm near the central Chilean city of Rancagua would result in a mother’s worst nightmare.
In 2004, Mejías saw her 14-year-old daughter Evelyn die from complications stemming from severe birth defects that left the girl with hydrocephalus, misshapen and paralyzed legs, a twisted, partially exposed spine and a body the size of a three-year-old’s. Mejías, her family’s doctors and outside experts attribute the defects to Eugenia’s own exposure to pesticides when she was pregnant with Evelyn.
She says that during her pregnancy, she lived yards from an apple orchard in which planes regularly sprayed agrochemicals without taking the appropriate precautions to protect nearby workers and residents. She remembers breathing the chemical fumes in her home and enduring headaches, stomach aches, diarrhea and nausea. Before her death, wheelchair-bound Evelyn served as a de facto poster child in Chile for the ongoing campaign here against hazardous pesticides. Says Mejías: “We want to speak out because this must stop.”
Similar tales are unfolding all too frequently in Chile and the rest of Latin America. Experts say that as pesticide use increases in a region scrambling to tap world agricultural markets, toxic chemicals often are being used without proper controls, endangering millions of farm workers. At the same time, they contend, government pesticide regulations—where they exist—often go unenforced. The result, health researchers say, is elevated odds of birth defects and developmental problems among the children of farm workers and a growing risk of skin disease, miscarriages, sterility and cancer among the workers themselves.
The United Nations International Labor Organization (ILO) reports that while developing countries use just 20% of the pesticides sprayed worldwide each year, their farm workers suffer the overwhelming majority of pesticide poisonings.
Gero Vaagt, head of the pesticide management program for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), acknowledges that little pesticide-management headway has been made in Latin America over the past 10 to 20 years. Those pushing for greater control of the chemicals say national efforts often are stymied by scarce resources or political roadblocks, so they have pinned their hopes on international agreements. Says Vaagt: “Progress has been slow.”
While analysts place blame on government inaction in the developing world, they also point to the United States and Europe, which ban and severely restrict numerous pesticides at home but allow their multinational firms to sell and use them abroad. Fruits and vegetables—some containing illegal pesticides—then are exported back, posing enormous challenges to U.S. and European regulatory officials whose job it is to ensure that the growing stream of food entering their markets from foreign countries does not contain toxins.
Bolivia has Latin America’s highest rate of growth for pesticide imports, which more than doubled over the past five years. An estimated 30% of those imports is contraband. Plagbol, an independent group in La Paz that advises the Bolivian government on pesticide issues, this year documented that four of the 14 pesticides banned under Bolivian law—Aldrin, DDT, Folidol and Endrin—continue to be sold in the country.
“The farmers do not understand the risks involved [with these chemicals], nor even that they are prohibited,” says Guido Condarco, Plagbol’s coordinator. “There is also little control by authorities. And many pesticides enter the country under other product names.”
This so-called “circle of poison” problem is not new. In 1979, journalists from the Center for Investigative Reporting in Berkeley, California, first sounded the alarm in an article in Mother Jones magazine that sparked an outcry in the world media and in the halls of governments.
In the United States, repeated proposals in Congress to outlaw the export of banned and severely restricted pesticides, most notably legislation pushed by Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, have been defeated under pressure from the powerful chemical manufacturers’ lobby.
“Decades ago, we rightfully decided that certain dangerous pesticides should not be used here, but our laws did not contemplate that these poisons could enter our food supply from outside our borders,” Leahy said in a written statement to EcoAméricas. “Those who produce these poisons are a powerful lobby on Capitol Hill, and they have worked hard to keep the Congress from closing this loophole.”
Six multinational companies account for about 80% of the worldwide agrochemical market. The leading pesticide seller is the German company Bayer, followed closely by Switzerland-based Syngenta, German-owned BASF, and three U.S.-based chemical companies, Dow, Monsanto and DuPont. These companies increasingly have set their sights on Latin America.
Globally, pesticide sales are soaring, surpassing US$35 billion last year and in the past few years rising faster than they have in decades. In 2004, they saw their largest one-year increase in more than two decades thanks in no small measure to an extraordinary 25% gain in Latin America, where they topped $5.4 billion.
Pesticide sales in Latin American countries are projected to reach a total of $7.5 billion by 2009. Industry observers say the rapid growth is driven by expanding crop areas, new disease outbreaks and an increase in plantings of pesticide-tolerant genetically modified crops. In recent years, Brazil and Argentina in particular have experienced a huge surge in pesticide purchases.
Still, despite the bullish market for pesticides overall, diverse pesticides researchers report that manufacturers continue to push a variety of banned and restricted pesticides in the region.
Global pesticide leader Bayer, for example, sells more than a half dozen chemicals banned and severely restricted in the European Union (EU) including aldicarb, azinphos-methyl, carbofuran, endosulfan, and lindane. Syngenta is a global booster of paraquat, which is banned or severely restricted in several European countries, including Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Belgium, Germany, France and the Netherlands. Among BASF’s products, meanwhile, are the EU-banned monocrotophos.
And the U.S. pesticide leader Dow sells several banned and severely restricted chemicals abroad such as 2,4,5-T, ethylene dibromide, pentachlorophenol and phosphamidon. DuPont continues to market methomyl, a highly potent insecticide that is restricted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and blacklisted by the United Nations.
Meanwhile, pesticide manufacturing has been expanding rapidly overseas. “In the last ten years, India and China have emerged as major agrochemical producers, with many national companies as well as subsidiaries of transnationals,” says Barbara Dinham, a longtime activist with the Pesticide Action Network group in the United Kingdom who has tracked pesticide manufacturers and their products. “The market for pesticide use in those countries is growing, attracting more agrochemical manufacture. Similar manufacture from both transnationals and generic companies remains very significant in many Latin American countries, particularly Brazil, Mexico, Argentina and Colombia.”
Multinational pesticide makers are withdrawing some chemical ingredients from the marketplace because governments are requiring them to seek new approval for certain pesticides through a costly re-registration process. In other cases, however, companies have sold rights to the chemicals to smaller companies.
An example of the latter concerns dibromochloropropane (DBCP), the active ingredient in Nemagon, an extremely toxic soil fumigant once used on Central American banana plantations. The EPA suspended DBCP in 1977—and banned it in 1985—after finding it might cause sterility in workers who handle it. After Dow Chemical and Shell Oil stopped producing DBCP in the mid-1970s, Los Angeles, California-based Amvac Chemical, which has bought the rights to several pesticides discontinued by the larger multinationals, began making DBCP.
Today, companies including Dow, Shell, Dole Food, Del Monte Fresh Produce and Chiquita Brands are being sued on grounds that DBCP three decades ago caused the sterility of thousands of banana-farm workers in Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama. Workers also blame DBCP for problems including miscarriages, birth defects, liver damage and cancer. The first of five such cases filed in Los Angeles County, California—Dole’s home turf—entered final arguments this month.
“The U.S. pesticide-export policy assumes that the importing government is the best suited to make pesticide-import decisions,” says Erika Rosenthal, a lawyer with the Center for International Environmental Law and an expert on pesticides in Latin America. “The problem with this convenient justification is that agricultural companies have significant influence and have basically captured their host governments in many cases. Most governments in developing countries also lack the regulatory infrastructure necessary to evaluate pesticides.”
Against that backdrop, advocates of pesticide restrictions have looked to international agreements—two in particular. The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs), signed in 2001 and since ratified by 149 countries, calls for the elimination of 12 highly toxic chemicals—nine of which are pesticides. The Rotterdam Convention on Prior Informed Consent Procedure for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade, known as the PIC, was signed in 1998 and took effect in February 2004. Currently, 117 nations have ratified the PIC, which requires that countries importing any of 39 chemicals—29 of which are pesticides—be informed of any bans or severe restrictions on them.
Jay Vroom, president of CropLife America, the trade association for U.S.-based pesticide manufacturers, argues these international conventions have rendered exports of banned pesticides moot. “We think that there has been a lot of progress in the implementation of these international conventions, and a lot of capacity-building around the world in almost any country that needs to be a sovereign entity with regard to the regulation of these complex products,” Vroom says.
Restricted pesticides defended
Vroom defends production and export of some pesticides prohibited or tightly restricted in the U.S. “There are a lot of good, rational drivers on why a product may not be registered in a country where it is produced but perfectly legitimate and safe to use in another country with different kinds of crop pest infestations and climate conditions,” he says.
Others argue that while the PIC and POPs treaties are important contributions, they have little effect on the main pesticide problems facing Latin American and other developing countries. “The problem is the POPs list does not deal with the pesticides that affect us in the short term,” says Desiree Elizondo, a former top Nicaraguan environmental official and now a consultant on regional pesticide issues. “And the PIC list is small. It does not include the pesticides that we are actually using in Latin America. We need a much more radical change at the international level.”
The Latin American Pesticide Action Network, RAP-AL, a region-wide network of groups, has been pressing for a complete ban on the use of all pesticides found on the World Health Organization (WHO) list of extremely hazardous (category 1A ) and hazardous (1B) chemicals, the vast majority of which are not found on either the PIC or POPs lists.
In 2002, the FAO revised its International Code of Conduct on the Distribution and Use of Pesticides to better account for developing-country needs. The new code recommends that the most hazardous chemicals, such as those in the WHO hazardous lists, not be used in developing countries unless control measures “can ensure that the product can be used with acceptable risk to the user.”
Elsa Nivia, a Colombian agronomist and coordinator of RAP-AL, says those chemicals are a disproportionate cause of poisonings in the region. “The present ecological, social and cultural conditions of the region make it impossible to have safe or appropriate management of such pesticides,” Nivia says.
Trade pressures blamed
Some critics contend that beyond the strengths and weaknesses of the existing multilateral agreements in controlling hazardous pesticides, the international trade system—from the WTO to regional and bilateral trade deals—also is undermining national pesticide laws and weakening the ability of Latin American governments to set up safeguards.
One example they cite is the WTO’s call for harmonization, aimed at encouraging countries to set minimum common standards for pesticides and food wherever possible. If a country wants to go beyond these minimum standards, critics say, they risk being accused of erecting a “technical barrier to trade,” which could result in costly sanctions.
Complicating matters is a shortage of research into possible connections between pesticide exposures and specific health problems. In Rancagua, located in the principal fruit-growing Central Valley region where most of Chile’s pesticides are used, a 1999 study by the Hospital of Rancagua found an unusually high incidence of miscarriage and babies born with defects in the region. The study suggested the chances of having children born with birth defects are 40% greater for people living in the area due to their higher exposure to pesticides.
Even though the study used rigorous statistical models and other research in Chile has yielded similar results, the hospital’s lead investigator was abruptly forced to halt her work in 2000 because of complaints she was damaging the nation’s image.
Nevertheless, experts believe the Rancagua study was on the right track.
“It would be reasonable to find such effects because we have enough experimental data to support such a hypothesis,” says Manolis Kogevinas, an international expert on occupational epidemiology. “What is bizarre is that we haven’t got enough studies of humans.”
- James Langman