Argentina: Chemical Warfare on Towns

In the small towns of the Argentinean Pampas, glyphosate spraying is making residents sick and poisoning life. Resistance to the model of industrial agriculture is growing day by day.

Source: ALAI

In the small towns of the Argentinean Pampas, glyphosate spraying is making residents sick and poisoning life. Resistance to the model of industrial agriculture is growing day by day.

“I’m here because I had to bury four of my relatives,” says Raquel in an almost inaudible voice. “My dad, my cousin and one of my dad’s brothers worked as sprayers, and my brother worked in a rural school.” Raquel is a teacher and lives in Elortondo, a small town of 6,000 people located 300km south of Santa Fe, where soya and the illnesses caused by spraying prevail. “80 percent of them are country people”, she adds.

Raquel is carrying a heavy folder containing the work of her 7th grade students, almost all of them 13 years old. An in-depth survey has been carried out with them in order to find out the health condition of the town’s residents. The school lies right alongside train lines and in front of the soybean drying silos. Almost everyone surveyed by the children, their neighbors and relatives, is aware of the health problems that the spraying causes.

“To get to school you have to walk closely past the silos and you can’t breathe. The children who go out on the streets while the dryer is in operation are left with white clothes, because of the dust that is emitted by the silos and spreads across the school and the entire town,” the teacher explains. The project that Raquel leads is called “We are what we breathe,” but the authorities prevented them from competing as it dealt with a “controversial” issue.

She becomes sad and speaks in more hushed tones when she recounts the indifference of the people who could get involved in defending health. In towns, the communal president, the school director and the school cooperative frequently have some kind of relationship with the soybean farmers. “I’m here because we want to form a little group in the town, to make our presence felt.” With that intention she travelled to the 17th plenary session of the Dejen de Fumigarnos (“Stop Spraying Us”) campaign in the Santa Fe province.

The small great advances

Carlos Manessi and Luis Carreras, two activists at the Cepronat Nature Protection Centre, feel that the wall of silence is being broken down due to the two pieces of news that became known in the weeks prior to the plenary session being held. To organize it they devoted many hours of “old school” work: devoting every minute possible to the cause.

The first piece of news was the World Health Organization’s (WHO) declaration on March 20 that, “There is convincing evidence that glyphosate can cause cancer in laboratory animals, and there is limited evidence of carcinogenicity in humans (non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma),” and that the herbicide itself “caused damage to the DNA and chromosomes in human cells.” The environmental journalist Darío Aranda wrote that “for more than 10 years, glyphosate has been denounced by social organizations, farmers, doctors and scientists independent from companies.” (MU, March 22, 2015)

In Argentina there are 28 million hectares of GM crops (soya, maize and cotton) which are sprayed with 300 million liters of glyphosate every year, but it is also used on fruit trees, sunflowers, pasture land, pine trees and wheat. Aranda explains that in the International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the WHO, 17 experts from 11 countries worked for a year to come to the conclusion that glyphosate is carcinogenic.

Glyphosate is the most-used herbicide in the world in products used in agriculture as well as in urban spaces and the home, and Monsanto’s product began to be widely used with the development of GM crops. 11 million liters of glyphosate were used in Argentina in 1996, the same year GM soya was approved; now, the Network of Doctors from Sprayed Towns estimates that 320 million liters are used.

Andres Carrasco, head of the Molecular Embryology Laboratory at Buenos Aires University’s Faculty of Medicine and chief researcher of the National Council for Scientific Research (Conicet), warned in 2009 that glyphosate caused deformities in amphibian embryos. As Aranda recalls that in response to his findings, “He had to face a smear campaign from companies, from some sectors of academia and from political officials.”

Carrasco embraced the cause of those affected by glyphosate and offered his unconditional support to the residents of sprayed towns, such as the Mothers of Ituzaingo, declaring that “the most telling proof of the effects of chemical pesticides is not found in laboratories, but in sprayed communities.” He died in May 2014, weeks after participating in the Zapatista escuelita school, and today is a symbol of the fight against chemical pesticides.

The second resolution that encourages Luis and Carlos was recently passed by the Ministry of Production for the Santa Fe province, prohibiting the application of the potent toxin 2,4-D across the entire province and severely limiting aerial and land application. From now on, it can only be used for aerial spraying more than 6,000m from settlements, and in land spraying more than 1,000m from communities (, March 31, 2015; in Spanish).

In June 2014, Cepronat filed a case requesting the prohibition or restriction of 2,4D, the chemical pesticide which is the second most used herbicide used agriculturally in Argentina, and the third most used in the U.S. This made the province one of the first to implement restrictions, together with the Chaco, Santiago del Estero, Entre Ríos and Córdoba provinces.

38 years of resistance

Cepronat is taking part in the Stop Spraying Us campaign, which was born in the country’s most affected provinces in September 2006. Santa Fe is, along with Córdoba and Buenos Aires, one of the three main soybean producing provinces. Only in Santa Fe does the campaign bring together organizations and people from one hundred towns that, as one of their documents points out, “saw their quality of life deteriorating, as well as changes in how people became ill and died.”

The campaign is supported by neighbourhood, cultural and union groups, such as the teachers´ union that handed over the campsite 15km away from the city in order to accommodate some 50 people that participated in the plenary session. In the round of introductions, around 20 organizations from various towns are named, some of which define themselves as “environmental refugees”,,who could number up to 250,000 across the province.

Around 10 activists (from Cepronat and other organizations that make up the Santa Fe Health and Environment Forum) prepare the meeting area, register the attendees and put up posters. Ezia, Cepronat’s “president”, ,perspires under the beating midday sun next to the barbecue where he is preparing the food. Luis is constantly on the move, with chairs, boxes and bottles, climbing up to hang banners. Carlos opens the plenary session and explains the ways of working. Together they are a team of simple people, dedicated to fighting for life.

Cepronat came into being in 1977, in the middle of the Argentine military dictatorship, two months before the first gathering of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. Every month they publish the El Ambientalista (“The Environmentalist”) newsletter, which is now up to issue number 284 and features information on towns where spraying takes place, and reports of products that are harmful to health and any initiative that damages the environment.

The Nature Protection Center “is the first non-governmental organization formed by citizens concerned about the environment in inland Argentina,” given that in 1978 it was involved in stopping spraying trucks in Santa Fe, and planted hundreds of native trees in the city. It was also one of the first organizations to oppose the IV Nuclear Plant, and to attain an ordinance that declares “Santa Fe Non-Nuclear” (El Ambientalista No. 283, March 2015).

During the 1990s it promoted the rejection of a dam on the Paraná River. Since the new agricultural model began to be implemented midway through the decade, they found themselves at a crossroads which led them to tackle the two main problems: the spraying of chemical pesticides and defending urban public spaces. They are one and the same fight, or rather resistance to a single model.

With a passion that cannot be hidden, Luis recounts one of the last battles that Cepronat was involved in: defending Alberdi Park, an emblematic green space in the heart of the city and close to the Paraná River. The city council decided to redevelop the park, home to more than 100  trees; it would create less green, more cement, and give the tender to a private company.

What generated most rejection was the decision to build 300 semi-underground car parking spaces, as it changes the appearance of the park and gives the operating profits for 30 years to the private entrepreneurs who built it, paying a fee of just over $100 per month. The community hands over to them a $15m public space, the investment for which they will get back in the first five years.

When on June 14, 2014, they started felling the trees, hundreds of neighbours occupied the park, set up stalls and slept there for a number of days. They also created the Citizen Association in Defence of the Commons, and on the 14th of each month they return to the park in groups to commemorate the date of the occupation. The privatization and speculation of public spaces is part of the same extractive model as the soybean monocultures and open pit mining.

Disease and domination

The gathering begins the debates. After the thorough introductions, Carlos reminds everyone that the Stop Spraying Us campaign has been travelling around towns for six years, carrying out three provincial plenary sessions each year. It is now accompanied by a group of doctors from Rosario University and a team of scientists from the Faculty of Exact Sciences at La Plata University, as well as one from neighbouring Paraná University.

As well as Raquel from Elortondo, the victim´s testimony of Roberto stands out from the rest. From Ceres, a city with a population of 15,000 located 260km northeast of Buenos Aires, he is 38 years old and worked for nine driving a mosquito truck spraying chemical pesticides, until he began to suffer stomach pains. He has not been able to work for several years due to losing mobility in his arms. He was prescribed psychiatric medication in hospital as they thought he was lying. Many doctors are accomplices to the model and refuse to accept the truth about the spraying.

Daniel Verzeñassi, a biochemist and member of the Paraná Ecologist Forum, warns, “We are not only being fumigated in the air, but also in polluted water.” He explains that rainwater carries the toxins down to the underground layers from which water is removed for human consumption. “The 800-1,000 metres distance required from the spraying to the place of residence is necessary but not enough. We are all sprayed towns,” he concludes.

In the gathering, someone makes a heavy comment, one of those that hit like a hammer. “When the disease prevails, we lose freedom.” Later they explain that the disease constructs itself as a dependency of the patient, nullifying their autonomy. In the three groups that came together for further debate nearly all the central issues emerged – from the fear that exists in the small towns, preventing whistle-blowing and organization, to the need for study and education in order to fight more effectively.

Someone muses “how do people change?” In the exchange there is unanimous agreement in evaluating that while they worked against the spraying and soya farming, they did not manage to shake off indifference. However, when they decided to focus on health, and the health consequences of the model, people started to report cases of cancer, leukaemia and deformities.

Dr. Damián Verzeñassi reminded that of the 100,000 products released into the environment since the end of the Second World War, “only two or three thousand were evaluated from a carcinogenic perspective.” He holds a controversial theory, but one that we must consider: that food is part of a geopolitical project to control the world’s population. Is that an exaggeration? In the days following the campaign’s plenary session, two Mexican scientists from the Ecological Institute of the National Autonomous University of Mexico reminded that “Monsanto and the U.S. government have been aware of the toxicity of glyphosate since 1981.” (La Jornada, April 17th 2015)

As for the AMSAFE teacher’s union, they highlighted the fact that in the whole province there are 800 schools in rural areas and the outskirts of cities, where 2,000 teachers work. The union receives many reports from teachers who suffer from cancer, and of schools that close on days when there is spraying. Many school directors are afraid to blow the whistle, and in order to raise awareness of situation the convening of a Provincial Congress of Sprayed Schools has been proposed.

Health camps

The Faculty of Medical Sciences in Rosario, the largest city in the province and third largest in the country, experienced a political about-turn in 2007 with a movement that made root and branch changes to the degree course. One such change was the introduction of “health camps,” which are a “mechanism created in 2010 as the final integrative assessment of the final practice period of the Medical degree, which consists of evaluation, research, teaching and extension,” as defined by Damián Verzeñassi, the academic responsible for the subject.

He maintains that the camps are a tool for the epidemiological analysis of the communities, and that no student should finish their studies without having an experience that makes it clear that they graduated not just because of personal merits, but thanks to the contribution of the whole population. The camps last for five days and between 90 and 150 students of the same cohort take part, for which reason the camps take place every three months.

The faculty signs an agreement with the municipality, which must have less than 10,000 inhabitants. The camps are attended by between 10 and 15 professors; the faculty takes care of transport and equipment, while the municipality handles the accommodation (they sleep on mattresses on sports center and school floors) and food. In the three months before the students prepare the camp, they already know which town they will be going to and everything they will have to do over the five days they will be there.

Each student is allocated a block, and on the Monday and the Tuesday they visit every house and survey every resident. The survey seeks to define the socio-economic level of the family, as well as the main health problems they have suffered in the last year and also the last 15 years. “We managed to cover 76 percent of the population in the 21 camps held,” Verzeñassi explains.

On the Wednesday they build up the community’s health profile. “We professors evaluate the students’ work, their ability to interview, to create empathy with the subject, to construct a diagnostic hypothesis and to identify the factors that determine the family’s health situation. They also convert the schools into huge field hospitals, where they carry out physical exams and health checks on the children, monitoring growth, development and potential diseases.

On the Thursday they run workshops on health promotion and disease prevention in primary and secondary schools, but also in public squares and social centres, “because doctors have to be able to share their knowledge with the community in order to build healthier communities. In this way we can evaluate students in actual practice with people, which is what they are going to do when they are working as doctors.”

On the Friday the professors evaluate the students, and in the afternoon they call the whole town together to give out the results. Later in the faculty they compare the results from the different communities over the years they have been holding the camps, focusing their attention on the evolution of diseases in the last 15 years.

“We have proven that there has been a growth in rates of cancer that fluctuates between four and a half and seven times greater than in the first five-year period. When we began to see that the 21 towns gave us similar growths in cancer rates, miscarriages and birth defects, we asked ourselves what they have in common, and the answer is that they are in the middle of agro-industrial production areas where chemical pesticides are used,” he points out in disgust.

Chemical warfare

In Argentina, there were 206 cases of cancer per 100,000 people in 2008. In some towns up to 2,000 cases have been found, almost 10 times as many. Rates of birth defects can total up to six children in towns of 4,000 inhabitants, when the prevalence is one case per million. But what most caught their attention is that the same type of cancer that existed before is not increasing, but rather that new ones are appearing: lymphomas, leukaemia and thyroid, pancreas and breast cancer.

One study that came out during the Stop Spraying Us plenary session, carried out by La Plata University at the request of the Monte Maiz authorities (an agricultural town with 8,200 inhabitants in the province of Córdoba), found that cancer rates are three times higher than the national average. Up to 9.9 percent of pregnant women suffer miscarriages, compared to a national average of 3 percent.

The theory of “chemical warfare” that seeks control of towns gains strength, if we bear it in mind that multinational companies and the authorities were perfectly aware of the expected results when they released the pesticides.

Nevertheless, some things are changing, as shown by the meeting of the Stop Spraying Us campaign. In the towns there is clear awareness of what is happening, as Raquel in Elortondo’s school survey demonstrates. To get from there to getting organized, there is one step: losing fear. But more and more people are taking that step, in more and more places.

The second is that there have been changes in academia. Verzeñassi reminds us that when the camps started there was great resistance between professors and students who said that they “didn’t want to work for free.” However, six of the last seven camps were held at the request of town doctors who were graduates who had taken part in the camps.” This change in doctors and professors – key figures in rural towns-  could tip the balance against the model of industrial agriculture.

The situation is undoubtedly far removed from that which existed in 2006 when the campaign began. The campaign against spraying never pauses. In June, the 3rd Environmental Health Congress and 1st Conference of Scientists Committed to Latin American Society will take place in Rosario. They get underway on June 16, the birthday of Andrés Carrasco, a symbol of that commitment.