NOTE: The following report gives the background behind the court case in Argentina in which criminal charges have been brought against GM soy producers and a crop spraying pilot for exposing residents to pesticide spraying:
The report is by Renata Motta, a Berlin-based Doctoral Researcher at the Research Network on Interdependent Inequalities in Latin America. Renata travelled to Argentina to interview first-hand those involved in the case.
Renata's report includes material gathered from interviews with Sofia Gatica, one of the Mothers of Ituzango (an area of Argentina that has been heavily exposed to pesticides sprayed on GM soy) and winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize 2012. Sofia initiated the legal complaint that developed into this court case after giving birth to a child with a birth defect who died. Read more about her here:
The case against the soy producers and sprayer is now being led by a doctor, Medardo Avila.
The court is expected to issue its ruling today (21 August).
GM soy producers and crop sprayer face criminal charges
Report from Cordoba, Argentina
by Renata Motta
20 August 2012
"We do not need to study to tell our history; we make history."
"One must live it to know it."
- Sofia Gatica, Mother of Ituzango Anexo
"This is not a judgment on the agricultural activity; it is not a criminalization of it; rather it is about the use of pesticides in violation of the rules of protection and respect for the human health."
- Carlos Matheu, Public Prosecutor
Twelve years after they started to mobilize against the spraying of pesticides over their houses, the Mothers of Ituzango Anexo, a neighborhood in the suburb of the city of Cordoba, Argentina, are about to hear if justice will be made to their claims.
The neighbourhood, located at 8 km from the city centre with circa 6,000 inhabitants, is over 60 years old and had never had basic public services such as water, sewage, electricity and paved roads. This report is based on interviews and conversations with many activists from the Colectivo Paren de Fumigar Cordoba who were present at the day of final plea in the Court from Cordoba, on August 7, 2012, in particular with the Mothers of Ituzango Anexo (Sofia Gatica and Maria do Godoy), the doctor in charge of the accusation (Medardo Avila). It also draws on the judicial proceedings themselves.
A shift in grievance interpretation: from self-blame to external targets of blame
In the year 2000, a mother, Sofia Gatica, after having suffered the death of a newborn child, started to ask herself why many of her neighbours were ill. Sofia affirms that they "were used to ill people" and were not aware of what was happening. She saw kids with their mouths covered (from the treatment of leukemia), young women with cloths over their heads (signs of the effects of the cancer treatment chemotherapy) and began talking to the people about it. They started to exchange their perceptions that, when the airplanes fumigated pesticides over the soy fields that surround their houses, many suffered with immediate reactions of their skins, their breathing, headaches; Gatica comments that her son often stopped feeling his legs. Thus, they associated their health problems with the practice of spraying pesticides. Sofia denies having had a special enlightened idea to connect everything; rather, she affirms, it was the suffering of losing a child, which one does not easily accept, which prompted her to actively interpret the situation. When she heard of other cases from neighbour mothers, they started looking for the common reasons.
In retrospective, Medardo Avila identifies that, from 2000 on, there had been many accusations [about effects of pesticide spraying] from small villages and neighbourhoods (Las Malvinas in Rosario, Ituzango in Cordoba). By then, there had been many spontaneous abortions and malformations; however, people usually treat such events as intimate problems not to be made public. Moreover, it is not uncommon that people engage in self-blame, trying to find in their own behaviour the cause of the problem. The situation changed when people started to learn that many others shared their sufferings and when a lot of children appeared with cancer. As Sofia Gatica puts it, not only it is uncommon to see so many of them, but also, they are innocent, they cannot be held accountable for their diseases.
People started to mobilize against the spraying of pesticides. More specifically, it was groups of neighbours who started to protest, those living on the borders between rural and urban areas, in their roles of victims and citizens. Their demand was clear, circumscribed and immediate: they wanted the protection of their health from the practice of spraying pesticides. At the beginning, isolated as they were, such groups espoused a reaction typical of other movements of neighbours who mobilize against the contamination of their area with the installation of an industrial plant, a base for mobile phones transmission, an airport, or a nuclear plant. Since they are concerned with the solution of their immediate problem, without elaborating further on the causes of the problem, such reactions are called "NIMBY" (not in my backyard).
From diagnosis to action: mobilizing resources
With the help of some neighbours, in 2001, Sofia Gatica collected from house to house data on the health situation of the neighbourhood, counting the incidence of cancer. They consolidated the data in an epidemiological map and handed their information to the Health Ministry from the Province of Cordoba. There was no response. So they organized a protest with the slogan, "Help us, we have cancer", blocking the roads and calling the news media. As the authorities saw it on the television, they called the mothers to meetings with representatives of all areas of government, who, armed with many scientific and legal arguments, always denied their claims. The mothers left many meetings crying. So, they perceived they had to study pesticides, so as not to be humiliated and to be able to justify their claims.
They learned a lot from searching on the Internet (by conducting simple key-word searches on each pesticide that was used in their area). In addition, as their case became known, with the aid of the media coverage, many (national and foreign) social movement organizations contacted them, providing information, offering support in varied ways. Gatica quotes especially the RALLT (Network for a GM-Free Latin America), represented by Elizabeth Bravo. That is how she recalls that they learned what a transgenic seed is and that they are developed to use more pesticides. So, concludes Maria do Godoy, they understood what was happening, because transgenic crops surround their houses.
The reactions of political authorities
In 2002, the government cut off the water supply of Ituzango and people protested. Then, they learned that the water had been cut off because it was contaminated with the pesticide endolsufan. The municipality offered to provide them with a water supply under the condition that they all signed a declaration that they would not sue the municipality for any condition of the water quality. Left without alternative and in the need of water, they signed the exemption of responsibility of the government.
This was when the local authorities started inquiring about the effects of pesticides on health. Notwithstanding the official pattern of denying their allegation that the pesticides were dangerous to health, the Mothers of Ituzango found support for their claims when one doctor from the administration confirmed the epidemiological map and told the mothers to leave the area, since it was all contaminated. Although his verdict was not accepted on a conclusive basis, as other experts where called to study the case , the local authority reacted by issuing three decrees on May 21st 2002: 1) declaring the neighbourhood as in "state of emergency" (Ordenanza 10.505); prohibiting air spraying of pesticides in the city of Cordoba (Ordenanza 10.589); and prohibiting land fumigation in Ituzango (Ordenanza 10.590).
The unfolding of events
The people from the area were afraid of being stigmatized when searching for a job and of their houses losing market value. These are the reasons, according to Maria, for which the neighbours from an adjacent area that was richer but also contaminated refused to talk about the issue. Some of those who could leave the area did . Others didn't, either because they did not share the concerns of the group of mothers or because they couldn't. At the same time, they continued fighting for improvements in their living conditions.
Local and palliative outcomes
Positive outcomes of their actions were the paved roads; the replacement of the electrical transformers that emitted PCBs (produced by Monsanto); installation of water reservoirs – although without lids (unprotected from fumigation); the construction of a local center for health provision; the provision of drugs and special food for those contaminated with pesticide in the blood (as a standing demand, partially addressed).
The health situation
The Mothers of Ituzango kept protesting and drawing attention to their demands to the authorities for an investigation of the health situation of the neighbourhood. The authorities three times conducted blood tests on the children of Ituzango. The results of 2005 showed that 90% had pesticides in their blood. That decreased slightly in 2006 and, in 2010, 80% of 144 children showed positive results, whereas a control group presented a rate of 50% . Also school teachers had pesticides in their blood.
The mobilization and the allies
They have organized themselves in the campaign "Colectivo Paren de Fumigar Cordoba". They received support from ecological organizations (CEPRONAT, GGR), doctors, and scientists. The latter two categories have joined efforts in 2010 when the University of Cordoba organized the first meeting of doctors serving sprayed people in 2010; inviting doctors from small villages, who are often persecuted for their reports. This meant a break with the prevailing official position of the medical school, by recognizing that pesticides are toxic. Medardo Avila, the main responsible for the resulting NGO Doctors of Fumigated People, explains that the reason for this change is that there was a undeniable empirical basis and all doctors knew of some case of health effects of pesticide use. In 2011 they hold another meeting, consolidating the movement.
The judicial action
In 2008, the Secretary of Health from the Municipality of Cordoba, represented by the subsecretary at the time, the doctor Medardo Avila, required that the Ministerio Publico (Public Prosecutor) launched a judicial action against three men, accused of spraying pesticides in Ituzango Anexo in violation of local laws and decrees on two occasions, March 2004 and October 2008. The accusation drew on the testimony of Sofia Gatica, material evidence (samples from water, soil, fruits and vegetables collected from the fields of the accused people had shown glyphosate and endolsufan) and evidence given by experts.
This case presents an important departure from previous judicial rulings on pesticide use, in that this is characterized as a criminal act and not an administrative failure. The Prosecution goes beyond the accusation of violation of the Pesticides Act from the Province of Cordoba (Lei 9164 art. 58 establishing protection of areas for air and terrestrial spraying) and the local decrees. Based on the National Bill on Dangerous Residues (Lei Nacional de Residuos Peligrosos), the Public Prosecutors claim it is a crime of environmental contamination. Challenging the often-invoked argument that the use of pesticides is a safe and legal activity guaranteed by SENASA (part of the Argentine Ministry of Agriculture), the Prosecutors draw on article 4 of the Environmental Act (Law 2565), which foresees the precautionary principle. They argue that the authorization of pesticides cannot be invoked when there is contamination of soil, water, air or environment and there is evidence of damage to human health and the environment. Their argumentation follows thus three steps.
First, they search for a legal basis in the absence of Law on Pesticides. This is found in the mentioned National Bill on Dangerous Residues, which includes phytosanitary products in its annexes. The Public Prosecutors build on the precedent of the Camara Federal de La Plata, which ruled, regarding an event of oil leakage in 2002, that although oil is not a residue in itself, on that occasion it could be considered as such. This interpretation was the basis for the Public Prosecutor to state that pesticides, depending on their use, can be transformed into dangerous residues.
The second step of the argument was to prove the existence of contamination. This was achieved with the hearing of experts and the collected evidence of the dissipation of agrochemicals in the air, the soil, the water and the atmosphere. The third and last step of the argument was to prove that such contamination was dangerous to human health. Since 2002 there has existed a local decree declaring that the area of Ituzango is under a public health emergency due to contamination of pesticides. Therefore, both acts of fumigation violated the local decrees. Nevertheless, the Prosecutors went on to evaluate if the pesticides sprayed were dangerous to human health.
Beyond their inclusion in the Annexes from the National Bill on Dangerous Residues, each pesticide found in the area was described in the proceedings (glyphosate, endolsufan, 2-4D, Chlorpyrifos). Although some of them, in particular glyphosate, are classified by SENASA in the lowest classes of toxicity, any pesticide may provoke damage depending on the degree of exposure. Using data from Casafe (industry association for pesticide and fertilizer manufacturers), the Public Prosecutor mentioned that in Argentina 300 million litres of pesticides were used in 2010 on 22 million hectares, so affecting 12 million people living in these areas. As evidence of damage to human health, they referred to the Report from Doctors of Fumigated People and to the health survey conducted in 2010 in Ituzango. Special emphasis was given to the figure that 33% of death causes in the area were attributed to cancer, much higher than the national average, as well as the high number of spontaneous abor
Concluding, the Public Prosecutors made recommendations to the public authorities, evoking the Precautionary Principle. On the national level, the first authority to be addressed was the Ministry of Health. It should take up a reform, through the National Congress, to establish a National Bill of Pesticides. This should include the irrevocable prohibition of aerial spraying in Argentina, independent of the class of toxicity of the product – as did the European Parliament by the Resolution 128/2009 and the Pesticides Act from the Province of Misiones. Moreover, it should establish a minimum distance for terrestrial spraying of 1000 m from populated areas, schools and water courses.
The second national authority called to action was SENASA. It should act in its regulatory capacity to reclassify all toxicological products taking into account not only acute but also chronic intoxication. Meanwhile, only products from the lower classes of toxicity (3 and 4) should be permitted. In addition, SENASA should bring forward the date of prohibition of endosulfan from July 1, 2013 to today or "yesterday" – as did the US EPA and in consonance with the inclusion of such substance in the Stockholm Convention. Last but not least, SENASA should modify the procedural manual from the Phytosanitary Register so that the analytical toxicological studies are conducted by an official State laboratory or by a Federal University in order to assure an objective assessment of health risks – as for today, not only in Argentina, but in all regulatory systems for pesticides, the data on health and environmental effects are produced by industry.
The local authority in Cordoba was also addressed, in the form of the Ministry of Health. This ministry should modify the Act 9164 on Agrochemicals so that, until the promulgation of the National Law on Pesticides, air sprayings are prohibited as well as terrestrial fumigations within 1000 meters of villages. In addition, the health authority should create two types of campaigns: one targeted at producers and those who apply pesticides to raise their awareness about the risks of their activities; the other designed to enforce the law.
Finally, the Public Prosecutors suggested penal sanctions for two of the accused men (imprisonment for 3 years for the airplane pilot and 4 years for the producer) and absolved the third, a producer, for lack of evidence. They stressed the fact that although the concrete damage of their activities cannot be proven, not only did the men know of its potential damage or risks to human health, but also they were aware of the health situation in Ituzango. Also, based on art. 25 of the Penal Code, they proposed that the three accused are to offer community services free of charge in health facilities, including in the Hospital of Oncology, for 4 years.
Interpreting the judicial case and next steps
In a meeting after hearing the final plea, the members of Colectivo Paren de Fumigar exchanged their perceptions on the judicial procedure and coordinated the strategies to continue their mobilization. Regarding the former, there were divergent visions regarding the possible result of the court rulings. For the Mothers of Ituzango, after 12 years of fight, not to have the accused condemned as a crime would mean a loss.
Such evaluation, however, is not shared by all in the Colectivo Paren de Fumigar: for some, settling the issue of pesticide spraying in the public agenda and raising public awareness about it can already be considered positive outcomes. Concerning the next steps, the movement is organizing a big protest event on 17 August, before the rulings, which will be heard on Tuesday 21 August. Many expressed the opinion that their fight should be framed in terms of human rights and, accordingly, that the judicial case at hand means a crime against the humanity. Indeed, references to crimes committed by the Nazi regime – including health experiments – achieved some currency among the people who were following the judicial proceedings, having been mentioned by one of the Judges.
Medardo Avila emphasizes the symbolic change achieved by this case. He interprets it to be a conflict between, on the one side, the right to health and to a safe environment and, on the other, agribusiness, as an economic activity. The cultural and historical legitimacy of "the farmer" in Argentina, espousing a social identity of hard worker and thus morally charged with a strong symbolism, has been an obstacle to the debate on the negative effects of the agricultural activity. How can they be criminalized? Thus, for Medardo Avila, this was the first time that a legitimate activity was considered to be a crime (delicto).
Beyond the judicial rulings: identifying solutions, strategies and responsibilities
Notwithstanding the importance attributed to the case, Medardo Avila does not believe that the solution will be found there. Rather, he argues that the fight must achieve more volume (what is an ongoing process, as recently they achieved 10.000 people in a protest event) in order to influence public opinion and make the judiciary sensitive to the issue. But he insists, this is a political issue; the judiciary alone cannot solve it.
Sofia Gatica, although demanding that justice be done in the particular case at hand, is well aware that the three accused people have only a very limited responsibility. For her, the ultimate responsibility lies with the Government and the multinationals. She recalls that public authorities also are owners of soy fields; moreover, she denies that the "campo" (the rural areas) can be blamed altogether, since it includes peasants and activities of agroecology. She envisages two types of solution: to leave a strip of land without GM crops in which people would plant organic vegetables (a circumscribed solution); but also the more widespread suggestions such as the conversion to agroecology; a moratoria on GMOs and for the multinationals to leave the country. She poses the question: If in Europe people have rejected the GMO multinationals, why accept them here? Why does the President from Argentina invite Monsanto to settle in Argentina? Although the State is hold accountable, Sofia does not believe that change will come from there. "If the State is absent, you have to do it"; so the affected people are the ones who go on and fight. To her, the only way to achieve changes is by raising people's awareness and involving them in the fight.
Nevertheless, both interviewees share the evaluation that the political structures pose many constraints for public mobilization. On the one hand, they consider that, due to schemes of social security, it is not easy for people who receive money transfers from the State to mobilize against it. On the other hand, they identify the political system and the State as among those who are most profiting from the large-scale cultivation of GM soy resistant to pesticides. Medardo Avila sums up the diagnosis that progressive politics in Latin America is conducive to a neoextractivism [the centering of economies around the intensive extraction and export of raw materials, such as minerals, fossil fuels and agricultural commodities] in which the State is a partner of multinationals and pursues politics of social distribution [payments of money] to de-mobilize people.
Some unresolved issues
It is not clear what accounts for the change in attitude on the part of the Ministry of Health from Cordoba. In other words, why did they choose to enter with a judicial action in the way they did, and precisely in 2008 and not before? Also, there are disagreements regarding the adequacy of the choice of Medardo Avila to enter as the main and sole proponent of the judicial action in lieu of other possibilities such as the Mothers of Ituzango as co-proponents if not main and sole challenger.
Moreover, why did the University of Cordoba's Faculty of Medicine only officially recognize the use of pesticides to be a health issue in 2010? Even more puzzling is to see that such recognition did not lead to a major change in their practices, such as establishing new curricula or conducting their own toxicological and epidemiological studies, as the region is among the most affected by the use of pesticides.
This is an attempt to disseminate the history made by the Mothers of Ituzango Anexo, which may be similar to other people suffering from contamination of pesticides, in the hope that no more people need to live it in order to know what it is. In other words, this is act of faith in our capacity to learn from the suffering of others, so that history must not be replicated in the same experiment elsewhere.
Verdict expected on GM soy producers charged over pesticide spraying
NOTE: The following report gives the background behind the court case in Argentina in which criminal charges have been brought against GM soy producers and a crop spraying pilot for exposing residents to pesticide spraying: