(IPS) – Sitting in the shade under a tree at a careful distance, Francisco Sosa watches his son prepare the land for planting by spraying the weeds with an herbicide from a tank carried on his back.
The 60-year-old Salvadoran farmer would like to help his son Saúl, 25, but on doctor’s orders, he can’t. Like many other peasant farmers in this rural community in the southeast of El Salvador, he suffers from chronic renal insufficiency.
“The doctors told me not to spray poison anymore, that it could complicate my illness further,” Sosa told IPS on his farm in Nueva Esperanza, a rural community of around 500 people that was settled in the 1990s in the Bajo Lempa region in the province of Usulután on El Salvador’s Pacific coast.
For years, local residents and the media have denounced the alarming increase in cases of kidney failure in the Bajo Lempa region, which for over a century was a cotton-growing area where pesticides and herbicides were heavily used.
Although cotton gave way to other crops in the 1970s, highly toxic agrochemicals continue to be used by the local farmers, who take no safety measures, on their corn, beans and vegetable crops.
In some communities in the Bajo Lempa region, like Ciudad Romero, over 20 percent of the population suffers from chronic kidney disease, with the proportion rising to one out of four among adult men.
This prevalence rate is alarmingly higher than those found in other countries, says a health ministry study titled Nefrolempa, which began to be carried out in 2009, when moderate left-wing President Mauricio Funes took power with the backing of the insurgency-turned-political party Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN).
The prevalence of chronic kidney disease found by similar epidemiological studies in other countries in Latin America and in other regions ranged between 1.4 and 6.3 percent, the Nefrolempa study says.
The report, whose final results were released in October, does not conclusively establish a cause-effect relationship between the wide use of pesticides and herbicides and the high incidence of renal failure. But the data it provides backs up the argument of local farmers and environmentalists that there is a link.
Among the risk factors, the study points out that 82.5 percent of local men in the area are in contact with agrochemicals.
“The disease has to do with all of the chemicals contaminating the area, especially the agricultural zone along the coast,” Health Minister María Isabel Rodríguez told IPS.
“We have appalling statistics that are not found anywhere else in the world,” she said, explaining that among those with kidney disease, “there is an occupational factor, with farmers between the ages of 18 and 60 most heavily affected.”
Environmentalist Mauricio Sermeño with the Unidad Ecológica Salvadoreña (Salvadoran Ecological Unit), a local NGO, told IPS that “When all of these people with renal insufficiency started to appear, it became clear that there was a direct link between the disease and the extensive use of chemical insecticides.”
Sermeño was referring to the heavy exposure to pesticides and herbicides in this area during the cotton boom period, when chemicals like DDT – an insecticide that has now been widely banned – were heavily used.
But other highly toxic chemicals like gramoxone or hedonal continue to be sold in El Salvador, he pointed out.
Most of the pesticides are sold by foreign companies like the Germany-based Bayer AG, which Sermeño largely blames for the high levels of toxicity in the Bajo Lempa region.
IPS received no response to repeated requests for a comment on this question from the offices of Bayer in El Salvador.
In the communities of the Bajo Lempa region, virtually everyone has a family member or friend who died of renal failure, activists and peasant farmers say.
“Just over there lived Chunguito, that’s what we called him. And Isidro also died from that, so did Lidia Sorto, and Toñón too, and Neftalí and Abrahán – so many people have died of that,” said Donato Santos, who years ago was hospitalised for pesticide poisoning after spraying his corn field.
Rosa María Colindres, a nurse in the first public health clinic for kidney patients opened in this area, told IPS that 95 percent of the graves in the Nueva Esperanza cemetery are of people who have died of renal failure.
The clinic offers treatment for patients at all five stages of kidney disease. The patients with end-stage renal disease must go to a nearby hospital to receive training in how to do hemodialysis at home, including how to insert the needles and operate a home dialysis machine.
“If I didn’t get dialysis, I would be dead by now,” Wilfredo Ordoño, another local farmer, told IPS. He remembers how, years ago, the pesticide he carried in a backpack sprayer “would run all down my back. I think that’s what did me in,” he says.
The Bajo Lempa region is a broad flood plain where the Lempa river – Central America’s longest – runs into the Pacific Ocean. Every year, the area has been hit harder and harder by floods that destroy the crops and force local residents, mainly poor farmers, to evacuate to shelters.
After El Salvador’s bloody 12-year civil war came to an end in 1992, the land in this area, which once belonged to large landholders who grew cotton and sugar cane, was parcelled out to former guerrillas and their families, to help them settle back into civilian life, as farmers.
The local population is markedly leftist, and for that reason some believe that previous governments, of the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) – which governed the country from 1989 to 2009 – were not interested in detecting or combating the epidemic or in establishing legal mechanisms to ensure that agrochemicals were properly sold and handled.
A 2004 executive order established regulations to control the use of agrochemicals. But they are not enforced.
For example, article 5 of the executive order holds crop-owners and importers, sellers and end-users of agrochemicals responsible for ensuring that those who handle pesticides and herbicides have received the necessary training, and use the safety gear recommended for each product.
But the farmers of Bajo Lempa rarely receive instructions on how to use pesticides, and very few wear gloves or masks.
Indeed, as this reporter chats with Francisco Sosa in the shade of a tree on his farm, his son Saúl is spraying pesticide wearing only a Barcelona Football Club neckerchief as a mask.