Poisoned in the Fields


“My wife washed her face with rain water the day after they fumigated farmland about three kilometers from here and she started getting rashes on her arms and her body. That was a year ago. Now she’s very affected, she’s been diagnosed with lupus and is undergoing chemotherapy.” Jorge Mérola, a farmworker from Villa del Carmen in the middle of Uruguay’s soy region, speaks from the depths of a pain that is easy to understand, but almost impossible to relay to others.

A local doctor explained that the marks on Mérola’s skin are caused by “agrochemicals” sprayed over fields from small planes. “Six of my calves died with the same symptoms. They go stiff, they have no muscular mobility, and their jaws lock. The same thing happened to some neighbors,” he explains between long pauses.

When asked why he didn’t report what happened to his wife, Mérola reveals his abysmal distrust of authorities: “I didn’t want to report this to the Ministry of Livestock because a while ago there were a lot of fish dying in the Yi river, and their response was that it was because there wasn’t enough oxygen in the water. With that kind of response, I didn’t want to report anything.”

Mérola’s testimony is one of the many included in the video Collateral Damages (Efectos Colaterales), a documentary made by Redes Amigos de la Tierra Uruguay (Friends of the Earth in Uruguay) and the Programa Uruguay Sustentable (Sustainable Uruguay Program). Reporters Ignacio Cirio and Edgardo Matiolli led the production and it will be released in early February. It can be found on Radio Mundo’s web page. It’s the first visual work that presents proof of the serious human consequences of fumigations.

Breaking the Silence

All the workers interviewed by Cirio demonstrate a keen understanding of the changes in local production: the introduction of crops like soy and fumigation with agrochemicals, the spread of monoculture farming to such an extent that “you see yourself getting closed in on,” as Isabel Olivo, from the Rural Women’s Group Network, puts it. Despite being active in grassroots organizations, Olivo admits “you feel like you have no weapons to fight it.”

Mérola’s case shows the solitude of those affected by fumigations—a solitude characterized by the distance and absence of the State and the complicity of actors like doctors who should be playing an active role. In spite of the seriousness of what happened to his wife, Mérola did only one interview, on the Sarandí del Yi radio station, which Cirio picked up and turned into the beginning of his investigation. Today his project is one of the very few to break the silence.

“Those affected don’t see the State as an entity that guarantees their rights,” he affirms, after traveling hundreds of kilometers across the areas most affected by fumigations like Florida, Flores, Durazno, Paysandú and Salto.

“Professor Elsa Gomez filed a complaint after her school was sprayed two times in a row. When public health workers interviewed her, they demanded proof that would link the health problems with agrochemicals. The State doesn’t protect them, but it makes demands of them,” concludes Cirio. Gomez teaches in a small town in the province of Durazno. In Collateral Damages she explains how the planes sprayed pesticides just meters from the school over the course of several days in 2009 without anyone showing, at least publicly, the slightest sign of concern.

“There are many things that people don’t want to come out and say, because they’re neighbors, because they rely on each other, but I know of cases that have been covered up and I see how they go out to fumigate with broken equipment,” says Luis Ferreira, who was president of the school commission in Merinos, in the province of Paysandú. His son, like other children, has stomach problems and vomits every time the planes fumigate less than 100 meters away from the school.

In his film, Cirio interviews beekeepers who have watched their hives disappear, small-scale livestock owners and farmers, village neighbors, nurses and teachers who discover the consequences of agrochemicals for their students’ bodies. He didn’t interview any doctors. When asked about the silence of those who are aware of the situation and its causes, he reflects: “Businesses make deals with schools, social clubs and hospitals. The doctors don’t say anything.”

On several occasions the team that made Collateral Damages had problems with “mosquito” (a vehicle for land fumigation) drivers who saw them filming. Some of them got out of their vehicles and wanted to know what the piece was about. “They have orders not to let themselves be filmed,” Cirio concludes.

In spite of the difficulties, he found that rural and small town inhabitants were aware of the growing problem they are facing. This is because, among other things, “they are informed, they travel, they ask questions and, for this reason, they demand that the government carry out an in-depth study of the situation.” Onelia Dominguez, a nurse’s assistant in the town of Rincón de Valentín, believes that the workers don’t demand adequate working conditions because they’re afraid they’ll lose their jobs. She agrees with Cirio that “no one has ever come to investigate.”

Overcoming the Solitude

Although the indifference of both the government and the university is the main cause for the silence among the victims, this is also a population with little opportunity to make itself heard.

In March of 2001, the Uruguayan Ministry of Livestock, Agriculture and Fishing prohibited aerial spraying closer than 500 meters from schools and land spraying closer than 300 meters “to diminish the risk of exposure to intrinsically dangerous substances.” But to comply with the rules, someone must control or report abuses. Isabel Cárcamo, from the Red de Acción en Plaguicidas (RAP-AL), said, “We have had the experience of working with communities that find it very difficult to denounce the impact of fumigations, either because they have relatives working in crop-dusting or because it’s their livelihood, or because they live in small towns where everyone knows everyone and the business even ‘helps’ the community.”

It’s the same problem that the anthropologist Carlos Santos detected. Beekeepers, for example, “confront the dilemma of not reporting the death rate of the bees so they don’t get kicked off the place where they’ve been allowed to set up their hives or lose whatever space they have,” because filing a complaint causes trouble for the landowner who rents the land used for growing soy.

Dr. María Elena Curbelo pointed out that in the vicinity of Bella Unión, an agroindustrial city where she’s been working for 16 years, rice and sugar cane plantations are sprayed with pesticides. This has led to congenital deformities in newborns and year-round respiratory problems.

She affirmed that there are various cases of pediatric leukemia in the region. She recognized that “while there were fumigations on the edge of town and one part of the population wanted to complain, the workers preferred to not risk their jobs and the people opted to remain silent.”

Most people affected by fumigation live in small towns, where everyone knows each other and there exists a persistent “cultura de esperar”–a culture of expecting someone else to solve their problems. People look to rural bosses (caudillos), landowners, and now businessmen or the government. In Uruguay, they are small towns with between 400 and two thousand inhabitants.

The rural population is systematically declining throughout Latin America. Uruguay is perhaps the most alarming case– only five percent of Uruguayans live in rural areas. Adults between the ages of 50 to 65 represent 42% of the rural population. It’s not hard to conclude that the population is in a slow process of extinction. The model of production with its disastrous health effects adds to out-migration by making rural life inhospitable.

“The Ministry of Public Health can’t recruit doctors who want to live in these places. Under such conditions,” Cirio says, “there’s an awareness of the seriousness, but there are only a few isolated efforts made with little support from organizations or professional associations.”

Cárcamo insists that powerful interests are behind the silence surrounding the effects of agrochemicals. “There is no political interest. If there were, it would be necessary to question the country’s so-called production model and the use of biofuel, among other things. The issue will really only be exposed when a political decision is made. One example is the contrast between the aggressive campaign against tobacco, while nothing is said about the impacts of the daily ingestion of agrochemicals through food and water. And the worst thing is that smoking is something you can choose, but eating and drinking water aren’t.”

Brazil, World Champion in Agrochemicals

According to a recent report by the Movimento Sem Terra (MST), Brazilian society is more and more aware of the health problems caused by agrochemical contamination. “Toxins are one of the pillars that sustain the agribusiness production model,” the organization affirms. It defines the model as export-oriented and characterized by the expulsion of families from the countryside.

Since 2008, Brazil holds first place in world rankings of agrochemical use, even though it is not the largest agricultural producer. Billions of liters are poured onto crops, and this is a practice that even the MST has not escaped. In 2010, a national campaign against agrochemicals was born and created official entities like the National Cancer Institute (INCA), Fiocruz and the Sanitary Vigilance Agency. Specialists have no doubt that agrochemicals are related to cancer. According to the INCA, in the next two years one million Brazilians will be diagnosed with cancer and only six out of every ten of those affected will recover. Furthermore, there will be consequences for millions of people who experience a number of afflictions every year. In a recent conference in Rio de Janeiro, Joâo Pedro Stédile, MST coordinator, complained that in the movement’s settlements “there are instances of breast cancer in 13 and 14 year-old girls” (Carta Maior, December 20).

Brazil’s 2011 Human Rights report, released in December by the Social Network of Justice and Human Rights explains that each year 5,600 people are poisoned with agrochemicals while only half the cases are reported. Based on reports from the Ministry of Health, the report concludes that every year there are 2,300 “suicide attempts” made with agrochemicals. The southern region prides itself on agribusiness, but at the same time this model explains 75 percent of deaths there. This surprising revelation led various scientists to undertake field studies.

One study published in the Revista Brasileira de Saúde Ocupacional by the Ministry of Labor notes the connection between suicides and the massive use of agrochemicals because organophosphates, among other things, produce psychological disorders. “Scientific evidence shows that exposure to pesticides can cause irrevocable health damages. For example, advanced neuropathy is a result of overexposure to organophosphates. Indeed, exposure is associated with a long list of symptoms and with significant deficits in neurobehavioral performance and abnormalities in nervous system functions.

The journal of the Brazilian Association of Postgraduates in Public Health also published case studies based on a survey of 102 rural workers from Nova Friburgo. They concluded that there is a direct relationship between emotional and psychological disturbances and exposure to agrochemicals.

Argentina: Doctors in Fumigated Towns

In the agricultural cycle of 1990, the Argentine countryside received 35 million pounds of pesticides. In 2010, agribusinesses used more than 300 million liters of toxins. The numbers continue to grow. In 1996, when fumigation with glyphosate began, about two liters were used per hectare. By 2010, the figure had increased to more than ten liters, and there is some land fumigated with more than twenty liters per hectare.

This data was presented during the First National Conference of Doctors in Fumigated Towns, in August 2010 in Córdoba, Argentina. The conference was held by the Department of Medical Sciences of the National University of Cordoba. A hundred and sixty doctors from ten provinces and dozens of towns attended.

The conference led to the creation of the University Environment and Health Network, committed to following up on health problems created by agrotoxins.

The event’s final report states, “The doctors pointed out that, generally speaking, they have served the same populations for more than 25 years, but they find that recent years have been completely different, and they link the differences directly to systematic fumigation with pesticides.” Rodolfo Páramo, pediatric and neonatal doctor at the Malabrigo hospital in the Norte de Santa Fe reported the disturbing rate of twelve deformations of 200 births in 2006.

The neonatal service at the Perrando Hospital in Resistencia, Chaco, released its own statistics: in 1997, there were 19.5 deformities in every 10,000 newborns. In 2008, the number tripled to 85.3. In the same period, the land area planted in soybeans in the province quadrupled.

The final conference report took into account the many testimonies and reports presented and concluded, “It’s important to point out that official epidemiological reports are scant. According to what the doctors say —relying on their own figures acquired through observation— public health officials haven’t heeded the alarm from health groups and reports from the general population.” The Chaco report is “one of the only such reports generated publicly with interjurisdictional participation.”

Medardo Ávila Vázquez, coordinator of the medical network, stated that despite the scientific evidence presented, authorities from national and health care sectors are unwilling to accept reality and, in particular, unwilling to acknowledge the pathological changes in the rural population.

He decided to work with groups like the Mothers of Ituzaingó, a neighborhood group in Córdoba surrounded by soy where 300 out of 5,000 inhabitants have cancer, or the Stop Fumigating Collective that opted to protest instead of dying in silence. This group insists that “there is no controllable or safe fumigation,” which is why all fumigation should be stopped.

The Ituzaingó case shows that fumigations affect the poorest of the poor. Without organization and public protest, nothing will be gained. Back in 2002 the Mothers condemned “endosulfan and heavy metals in water tanks in people’s homes,” but to this day their children keep dying of leukemia and suffering from deformities.

Avila’s data is deeply disturbing. “There are more than 12 million people affected by fumigation in the country. In these areas, the rate of birth defects is four times higher than in the cities. Cancer is responsible for 33% of deaths in Barrio Ituzaingó—the leading cause of death— while in big cities the primary causes are cardiovascular problems, which accounts for 27% of the deaths, followed by cancer at 19%.”

Raul Zibechi is an international political analyst from the weekly Brecha de Montevideo, a professor and researcher on grassroots movements at the Multiversidad Franciscana de América Latina, and adviser to many grassroots groups He writes the monthly “Zibechi Report” for the Americas Program http://www.cipamericas.org

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