costa-ricas-lethal-harvest

costa-ricas-lethal-harvest - . . . . . . . Years of...

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Unformatted text preview: . . . . . . . Years of pesticide misuse have wrapped Central America’s oldest democracy in. a toxic cloud By Bruce Sclcraig ' WEN'H' YEARS of wielding tnuchetes under lhc green canopies of Costa Rica's banana planta- lions have made Manuel Ilernandez' forearms - like lhe business end of a baseball lJlIl. Shaking hands with this genlle man. barely S-loot-S and l55 pounds. is like gripping a brick. But as he runs those ealloused hands through his raven- black hair, now fleekcd with gray. they lrelnblc inexplicably. as do his lips and jaw. Allmving for his hard file. | ligttre him to be in his raid-405. Later. l learn that his troubled lace. robbed of its youth and peace. has fooled me by about ten years. “What could you ever say." he asks. "to the person who did Ihis. Io Ihe person who ruined your lll'e'!" For two decades. l-lernandez labored to send llawless bananas to consumers in Nut-[h America. He is tmw sterile— a cruel affliction in a rural socier where children and l'an1ily are everything. Hernandez is one of more than (3th banana workers in Costa Rica who. according to doctors in that country. becmne sterilized in the '70:; after using the pesticide dihro- ” - - as 1'1. An“ Surfing nlULl‘ilorupropanLll L lhe Ituic peslicide melhnmidophns will! his hand. a worker in a [30mm field near San Jose pour: it lulu ll ctr-worker's sprayer. Nellher mun wears proleellve clothing. required for safe use in lhe Uniled Slales. III'IID L III-4h- FAX Company documents made available to attorneys representing the banana workers indicate that Dow Chemical and Shell Oil. the firms that developed DBCP. may have known as early as IQSB that in animal tests the chemical shriveled testicles. re- duced sperm couttts and caused precan- cerous lesions. Yet neither company stopped production at that time. Only after workers in California for Occidental Chemical reported DB-CP-related sterility problems did the United States Environ- mental Protection Agency. in 1979, ban the product for most domestic uses. ans-- 3: thfllflrll. Imam That didn't mean companies couldn't take their business else-where. According to attorneys for the banana workers. Dow and Shell continued their Costa Rican shipments of DBCP to the Standard Fruit Company. which markets Dole bananas. even after the EPA ruling. Howeven Dow spokesman Ken Gedaka says the company "at no time" sold a DBCP product after the ban. And In a written response to a reporter's query, officials at Shell said that company did not sell thechemical to Stan- dard Fruit after |970 and “never shipped" BBC? to Costa Rica. Whatever the case. plenty of chemical companies whose wares are restricted at home do find a ready—and legal—market overseas. According to the U.S. General Accounting Office, almost 25 percent of U.S.-made pesticides that are either banned or unregistered in the United States are sold abroad. “That means much of what we're exporting is too toxic for use here.” says Sandra Marquardt. who tracks pesticide issues for the environmen- tal group Greenpeace. “And what's too St a: Bayer 22 stayed with me for to toxic here is too toxic anywhere." On a warm afternoon in San lose. Hernandez has come 70 miles by bus from his home in San Rafael dc Guapiles to tell his story to sociologist Paula Palmer. She has interviewed hundreds of the now-sterile men for the Dallas law firm of Baron S: Budd. which is representing them in lawsuits filed in Florida and Texas against Dow. Shell. Occidental Chemical Corporation and Standard Fruit. among others. Hernandez. who quit the plan- tations last year and now farms a small plot. says the crisis has dri— ven wives from their husbands and wrecked families through al- coholism and suicide. "l'rn very fortunate.” he says. “My wife has years. But it is very hard to hear her talk about children. knowing I'll never give her one." At first. Hernandez gave little thought to Shell's liquid pesticide Nemagon. which he says he in- jected into the soil arouad ba- nana trees to kill micro5c0pie root-attacking worms called ne- matodes. Whenever the chemical splashed on him. he remembers. it slowly warmed his skin like a menthol ointment. "They never gave us any safety clothing at all.” he says. “No rubber gloves. no masks. Nothing.” (To protect themselves fully from the DBCP vapors. the workers would have needed respirators and full rubber- ized clothing—a torturous requirement in the tropics.) Then one day. says Hernandez. some Standard Fruit supervisors came to the fields to show workers how to use pesti- cides. "They came in and told us all oflthe risks. how to always wear boots. masks. hats. The crew chief even began wiping our mouths before we drank water. When we heard all of this we thought. 'My God. what was Nemagon doing to us?‘ if pesticide misuse is this bad in Central America’s oldest democracy—which has some conscientious public officials. some adequate laws and an informed medical community—what could be happening in less-developed parts of the world? Even in Costa Rica. which has shown steady prog- ress. the pesticide culture is so entrenched and so lucrative it may take generations to bring about real change. Coala Riean farmers are bombarded _daily by pesticide advertising—on T- Tf.ti\" Tm. l".ll|‘.'.li ct..tt'.ta :-cn Ft'11:.rl|.'|'t Tt Illltttztlt': rl lr.ll.'.l'llll"ll'll.l.lle‘ Ll. |D:1.tt1t:"ll'..utltt:| 11/04/2003 TUE 16:49 @00'270'04 """" " ' Uso seguro y- etic. Lca Ia eltoucla y ascgureso At medlr et Floducio. use de run: to commends. rt iralnrnlento. .Gramosone. a trade name for the polent herbicide paraqual, comes with safety guidelines (above), but many users are unable to read them. Though restricted in some wealthy nations. paraquat is sold widely throughout shirts. billboards. baseball hats. "Si cs Bayer. es Httenoi” ("if it's Bayer. it's Candi") read fliers promoting the Ger- man giant's pesticides in farm-supply stores. Banks usually lend money only to farmers who agree to use pesticides. Or- ganic farming? imagine an illiterate farmer with a half-dozen kids who works 20 acres and. under perfect conditions. us- ing pesticides. barely brooks even. Where is the incentive to abandon chemicals and risk that small margin of survival? From [97'] to 1987. the world agricul- tural chemical market doubled in size to become a St? billion-plus industry. ac- cording to the U.S. General Accounting Office. Now companies in the United States export an estimated 400 million to 600 million pounds of pesticides a yr. or git-Intch rtI'OlI'Eclurl ocu'at Ho rte-us. tart-.- m l_lll'l.' commu- ._. . rl'lII'::t.;lltJtI'l-lt'.ll.ll'l-|:IIll'l.-l.llE5L‘ minted—alumnus“ -l.'tpllt:..tr c'l tratamtcnt‘o. useln bo- IJlll.'l nuns-e1: y triple-slum entree“ Tcrmtttadu ct trntntntcnte. meme '0 EI'IIIL‘HII' Ins L‘nvnsr'r. vnctu't Gus-ctr.- Iot. er-Itlretttsu Ir.er tt.tv.~ ‘rrr ulullntunu. u Hen-yr.— - I-d_—-FILI- Semen-1.11.t.lsprll.tr1ot;t .1 LI allurzl entrants Tt'I'IIIIII-tlla t'l tr.t|-.tln't‘ttt:t trm' hrt‘l'lt‘l rntrtnn hnlulhu, p.tr.‘||tllbru_1l; the 'Ihird World. Farmers in Costa Rica are Ilsa bombarded daily will: ads [or other noxious chemicals, Including two of Buyer’s bug-killers. 'lbmaron (ten) and floytroid (right). “If it's Bayer." proclaim the fliers, “it"s Good!" about one-quarter of the world market. (Germany's Bayer is the world's largest ex- porter.) In Costa Rica. as in many coun- tries. even after the government bans a pesticide—which may be years after the US. does so—dislributors may continue to sell it until their stock is exhausted. An organization called the Pesticide Ac- tion Network has compiled a blacklist of particularly hazardous pesticides which it wants to have eliminated from tire world market. Eight of these "Dirty Dozen” chemicals are still for sale in Costa Rica. aceording to The Ties Torres. San losé's English newspaper. Six of them—chlor- dane. heptachlor. lindanc. pentachloro- phenol. ethyl and methyl parathion—re- quire at least an agronornist's approval for purchase. But the others (aldicarb and pa- llm'tt .r fl'lll'l’r Inn. {Ill-.trcrrla'. m1 raquat) can be bought like fertil- izer at hardware stores. Paraquat. the notorious herbi- eide sprayed on Mexican marl~ junna during‘a U.S.-sponsored program in t c 19?05. is so per- vasive and unregulated in the Third World it Is the poison of choice for thousands of suicides. “It is one of the world's worst poisons." says Edward Block. a University of Florida lung spe- eialisl. Of the 483 people in Costa Rica who died from pesticide poisoning between 1980 and 1989. half were killed by para- quat. says Catharina Wesseling. acting director of the Pesticide Program at the National Univer- sity of San lose. That figure is conservative. she says. for it is based solely on hoapital autop- sies. In Malaysia. some [.200 people die every year from para- qual poisoning (73 percent of them suicides). And more than [.000 people in Iapan died from the herbicide in 1935. Says Wes- seling. paraquat “should be banned absolutely." Yet only Sweden. Finland and Norway have done so. Used to kill broadleaved weeds and grasses. paraquat has vir- tttally replaced the plow for field preparation on millions of world farms. including more than l0 million acres of LLS. farmland. But when spilled on skin. inhaled or swallowed. even in amounts smaller than a teaspoonful. it can destroy the liver. kidney and lungs and cause an agonizing death. After days of vomiting and diarrhea. victims often die of suffo- cation. their luags turned to brittle. fr- brous scar tissue. Even with immediate medical attention there is no effective an- tidote. The brown liquid has been so fre- quently confused for cola drinks in acci- dental poisOnings that some countries. including Costa Rica. required its makers to change the color. Sold ttnder as many as 40 brand names. paraquat is available in ISO countries as Gramoxone. a product of Imperial Chem- ical lndtrstries “CD of England. Costa Ri- can health officials say paraquat is im- ported from England. Taiwan and an lCl Americas plant in Bayport. Tbxas. Wesseling sees no quick solution to the paraquat problem. “Whenever we ask farmers what they used before paraquat." she notes. "they always say. 'a machete.’ " The World Health Organization esti- mates that some 25 million people are poi- soned by various pesticides every year. re- sulting in at least 220.000 deaths. In some cases these chemicals return to North American consumers as residues in im- ported food. completing the so-called “cir- cle of poison." The U.S. Food and Drug Adminisrration and Department of Agri- culture are responsible for inspecting itn- ported food. but they admit they test only 1 to 2 percent of shipments at the borders and do not test for scores of pesticides. in April lBBB. some 42.000 pounds of Frets-pa llll cutltvos do: Mlnnclor us: Voor tlturs Cot ludulos Guam ups rnnssllcmluruu narrates-.. II II Phlroldtt: beef from Honduras contaminated with the banned carcinogenic pesticides hep- tachlor and chlordane entered the United States. Before the government intervened. 39.000 pounds had been shipped to a Minneapolis processor. mixed with other meat. sold and consumed. (Velsieol Chem- ical still produces both products in Mem- phis and exports them to about two dozen countries. according to Greenpeace.) The US. Congress flirted last year with closing the loo hole in export law. but in- tense lobbying y the White House and the National Agricultural Chemicals Associa— tion so weakened the bill's language'that its sponsors withdrew it. This year. Rep. Mike Synar {D-Uklahorna) and Sen. Pa- trick Leahy (D-Vennont) have sponsored a similar bill. Off a crowded avertier in San lose. a dark flight ofstairs leads to what might be_ the entrance 'to some seedy upstairs pool hall. Instead, the door opens into the grim offices of the Costa Rica Ministry of Health's toxic substances department. Finger-wide cracks running Hour to ceil- 23 . . . . . . . . .. 11/04/2003 TUE 16:50 ‘ . . ihg :tnd bare tluorcs— FAX cet'tt bulbs suggest the level of government commitment to these pesticide police. More unsettling. however. are the colorful wall calendars. desk note- pads. pens and'other office supplies bearing tlte logo of ICl—gifts frotn the world's larg- est maker of paraquat. Maybe it's just pro- tective coloring. for it seems clear that Rob. erto Castro. the ear- nest director of this mess. is beholden to no one. Castro says he is frequently invited to tottr the facilities of foreign chemical plants in lovely locales. One banana company offered him a lucra- tive consultant job at several times his $300-a-month salary. "The best way to re- sist such offers." says Castro. "is to not ever ask how mttch they're going to pay DU. y Castro. '52. is often frustrated by an in- dustry-influenced bureaucracy that he says assumes pesticides are safe until provcn otherwise and that some say is lu— bricated by official corruption. [Pesticide firms. for example. must pay government agronomists to "evaluate" a product be— fore it receives certification.) Understaf fed and underfunded. Castro chooses his fights carefully. His newest battle is against a Taiwanese firm that wants to build a paraqttat plant in Costa Rica. “it's very important that I stay here.” he says. lowering his voice. Across town. sounds of Tchaikovsky drift through the modern. airy offices of Formulaciones Quiniicas. where Danilo llolafios. the placid plant manager of Costa Rica's largest domestic pesticide producer, ponders the question of risk. "it is a matter of perception. this talk of risk." he says in English acquired during a year of high school in Olney. Maryland. "I'm not telling you pesticides are not a prob- lem. [lot there are ntore risks from natural carcinogens. If you removed pesticides front the world. you would not effectively reduce your health t'lSlCE." Should any pesticides be banned com- pletely? llolat'tos pauses while Tchaikovsky plays. "No. not really," he says. Seriously? Not even DBCP’? None of the Dirty Citizen}I “Well. perhaps DDT." he allows. “liut 24 A store clerk in Gas ilea stands near shelves loaded mth easily available pesticides. some of which are banned or restricted where they are produced. I think even DBCP [the chemical sus- pected of sterilizing the banana workers] can be safely applied here in Costa Rica." in almost the same breath Bolai'ios ac- knowledges a salient point about the prob- lems of exporting pesticides to the Third World. "Go to a farm and try to find a single person who can read the label [on a pesticide product],” he says. "They can't understand a thing that's Written. 1 think most people do not have adequate knewl- edge to handle pesticides." He may be right. And. ironically, the best evidence may come not from the most egregious cases. such as sterilized banana workers. but from small farming towns like Tierra Blanca de Cartago. In this community of 3.900 some 45 miles southeast of San lose where tiny 5- and ID-acre plots sit atop eons of rich vol— canic ash. researchers from the National University of San lose have spent the last five years educating farmers about the per- ils of pesticide misuse. They've put up pes- ticide safety signs along roads, given train- ing seminars and preached the gospel of alternative soil and pest management. ' They might as well try selling sand in the desert. Roadside ditches are littered with bags and bottles of used pesticide. Men wearing shorts work in fields without gloves or masks. spraying their crops with motorized backpack sprayers that often leak onto their clothing. There's very little crop rotatlon. and rivers of topsoil wash . . . . . . . . .. away each year from the unterraeed hills sides. “i don't think we will ever achieve safe pesticide use here." says researcher Silvia Mara. Billboards promot- ing Cirarnoxone. Decis and Tbmaron compete with the splendid backdrop of the Tala- manca Mountains. Five years ago. 'says Luis Aeuiia. an agron- omist for the town's farm cooperative, . there was a tremen- dous drop in crop prices. followed by heavy rains and a po- tato bug that killed off almost 100 percent of the crop. "That convinced them all the more to use pesticides." says Acufia. "They're be- tween the wall and the sword: if they don't use pesticides. their fields turn brown. if they do. they still have problems but they don’t lose everything." As we drive down the road. Aeufia sees a friend with a backpack sprayer method- ically walking the rows of a hillside potato farm. The man is applying Tamaron. an extremely hazardous organophosphate in- secticide. Spring mountain winds blow tlte toxic mist back over him. but he works quickly. unconcerned. We stop to watch him mix bottles of Tamaron in a large plas- tic drum. I fear he'll reach in the drum with his bare hands and stir the mixture. as is customary in the fields. Instead. he carefully lowers a bucket into the milky liquid. then fills the tank of his sprayer. Unfortunately. our friend is not wearing a mask,_ or rubber gloves. or rubber boots~ a routine sight in Costa Rica. One might expect that. after live years of pesticide education in Tierra Blanca. Acur‘ta would despair at such a scene. llut he remains hopeful. for he knows the mes sage is getting through. The worker is wearing plastic splash guards below his knees. And. as I found out later. he simply left his mask at home. _ “He's a good tnan." says Acut‘ia. aware that progress comes not in waves but in drops. “I know him. He is much more careful titan the others." til A former investigator for the U.S. Senate. tine-e Selt'ruig has contributed to The New York Titties and The Washington Post. This is his first article for International Wildlife. ...
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