Use of highly toxic pesticides and other farming chemicals in Chile is rampant, posing serious health risks and damages for the farmers who use them. In response, on Dec. 19, the Agriculture Ministry banned the import, export and sale of several of these substances that could cause cancer among other diseases. They include chlordecone, alfa-HCH, beta-HCH, pentachlorophenol , endosulfan, alachlor and aldicarb.
Since 2008, the Alliance for a Better Quality of Life, an umbrella group of social and rural organizations, has campaigned to prohibit the use of the insecticide Endosulfan, because of its high toxicity. The chemical, which has been banned in some 80 countries, can even contaminate a mother’s breast milk that is passed along to her children.
But while the ban was a major advance, there are dozens of other dangerous chemicals still on the market.
On Dec. 3, on Global No Pesticide Use Day, several organizations, including the Latin American Coordinating Group of Rural Organizations, or CLOC, the Action Network on Pesticides and Their Alternatives in Latin America, or RAP-AL, the Network for a Better Quality of Life and the nursing, medical and public health schools at the University of Chile, launched their permanent campaign against these pesticides’ use.
Alicia Muñoz, director of the National Association of Rural Women, or ANAMURI, a member of CLOC and part of the campaign, said the “idea is that we plan together, create alliances with other players like students, villagers, farmers, so that citizens learn more about the implications of pesticide use.”
The campaign aims to create a permanent committee for people in the nongovernmental, community, social, professional and academic spheres to discuss and fight the use of dangerous pesticides.
Women farmers already face high health risks for the use of insecticides, especially in large-scale for-export farming. According to the governmental Office of Agrarian Studies and Policy, even though Chilean women comprise around one-quarter of the country’s farmers compared with their male counterparts, between 1990 and 2009, the number of female farmers in the country increased by 142 percent, while it decreased by 2 percent for men.
Nowhere is the increase of women farmers more evident than in fruit farming.
According to Pamela Caro, a researcher at the nongovernmental Women’s Development Studies Center, or CEDEM, the 2007 census showed that at the height of the harvest, 400,000 farmers were employed, 66 percent of them men and 34 percent women. But in fruit farming, 43 percent were women. In fruit packing, more than three-quarters were women.
Women working in the fruit-packing industry face major health risks from these chemicals.
“The pesticides poison everything,” said María Rivera, of ANAMURI. “They kill workers, accumulating in the body, producing chronic illnesses and birth defects.”
María Elena Rozas, of RAP-AL, said that the toxic chemicals also cause tumors, damage to the reproductive, nervous and immune systems, as well as cancer, Parkinson’s disease, chronic dermatitis and others. She said women are exposed to the pesticides directly, while others indirectly by collecting and handling contaminated products or even living near where the chemical is used, washing contaminated clothes.
There have been many cases when farmers died as a result of exposure to the chemicals, campesino organizations have said. ANAMURI reported the case of worker Cecilia Ortiz, who died in January 2009 from exposure to toxic chemicals when working in a packing company. ANAMURI launched a “ethical tribunal,” which while it doesn´t carry legal weight or binding rulings, aims to bring such cases to the public´s attention.
In 2011, this court reported the death of Flor María Contreras, who suffered damages from exposure to ammonia that left her with 30 percent of her breathing capacity.
In both cases, the contracted workers denounced the situation of precariousness under which they were working and the constant dangers they faced of becoming intoxicated with these chemicals.
Fight against pesticides
Since 1993, when the Alliance for a Better Life was founded, many organizations have launched campaigns against the use of highly toxic chemicals, including those for home use and others that kill lice, said María Elena Rozas, of RAP-AL, which has worked on these issues for nearly two decades.
She said the government banned lindane in 2009, and the goal now is for it to also ban some of the most highly toxic farming chemicals under World Health Organization standards.
They fall in the organization’s categories 1a and 1b, are highly toxic and can hurt the nervous system. Health damages include trembling, nausea and lethargy in small doses, but in higher doses, they can cause paralysis and death. Additionally, the exposure to pesticides can hurt unborn children.
In 2007, the Deputies’ Chamber approved a ban on these chemicals, but the Senate rejected the bill in 2009, mainly by right-wing lawmakers, said Rozas. Nevertheless, in June 2010, Sen. Ximena Rincón revived the bill for debate.