Stories Of A Wounded Land

Photographs by Alvaro Ybarra Zavala

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Fumigations in the agricultural fields of Argentina are being denounced as the cause of the increasing number of children born with malformations, and the number of cases of cancer in the neighbouring rural populations. In the past ten years, the agricultural border has been extended practically as far as the front doors of people’s homes, and entire villages are being exposed to agrochemicals, supplies of which are necessary for intensive farming of crops to produce high yields, and are which being used without the control of the state. These are the stories of families who survive as best they can, under the effects of what they call “poisons”.

On the evening of November 29th, at midnight, Pedro Morales arrived at the local 4 de Junio hospital in the city of Saenz Peña, in Chaco, a province in the northernmost part of Argentina, with a critical document for his son. “He has my name”, he repeated twice, as if to calm himself. He stood in a room whose green walls glowed in the light of the institutional fluorescent lighting.

In an oversized bed, his son Gonzalo was breathing with the help of an oxygen mask. A wooden door separated him from the hallway. A large cardboard box hid from his view a sink full of garbage and two dead cockroaches on the floor. A sign on the wall said that children’s visiting hours were on Sundays between 10:30-11:30. A bronze plaque commemorated the donation of the hospitals rooms by the Bunge & Borne Foundation. Nearby, various other patients were cared for in the hallway. In another hallway a man slept in a deckchair in front of intensive care. There were also two dogs mulling about a family resting on the floor, preparing themselves for the evening.

Gonzalo’s most recent diagnosis said: “riesgo inminente de obito”, or “imminent risk of demise”, an uncomfortable medical euphemism. The child aged 2 months and 27 days could die at any moment. Among the dizzying terms in his medical report the term “encephalitis” stood out clearly. Statistics show that he was one of a handful per thousand born who have the condition, but his father thinks differently.

Gonzalo was conceived in one of the many towns of Argentina exposed to agrochemicals. Official statistics report that the cases of birth defects are more numerous in these areas, but that they are lost in the overall averages.

Pedro Mores lives on the outskirts of the blocks that constitute the urban settlement of Gancedo on the border of the northern provinces of Chaco and Santiago del Estero. “The planes are constantly dusting the crops, as are the tractors called ‘mosquitoes’. They circle over the houses. In town there are more cases like Gonzalo’s, and it is a small town of just 7000 people. The poisoning began in the 1990’s and it keeps increasing. I don’t know what they are spraying. I just know that we have fruit trees that have completely dried up. The fruit doesn’t grow anymore.”

A report from The National Ministry of Health from May 2012, conducted in the Chaco province, confirms Pedro Mores’ suspicions. In populations exposed to fumigations with agrochemicals, from the air or land, there are 30% more cancer cases in comparison to families surveyed in lands where there are no fumigations, where cancer would typically affect around just 5% of the population. The rates of birth defects in fumigated areas are also higher, and have quadrupled over the past ten years.

The complaints against the use of agrochemical fumigation, which is fundamental to the current agricultural model used in these areas to generate high yields, tend to be lost in debates with the large agricultural corporations. They deny the toxic effects of fumigation which is used to keep pests at bay, although the genetically modified seeds are largely resistant to these pests anyway. The corporations deny the dangerous toxicity of their pesticides, whilst at the same time requesting ‘responsible use’ of what is colloquially referred to as ‘poison’.

In this tense debate there are an abundance of arguments and counterarguments from each side, a lack of control by the state, as well as a lack of serious studies to determine if there is or is not a direct relationship between the exposure to agrochemicals and health problems. Visiting homes in the affected areas reveals lives in suffering. It is a wounded land and its people have been forgotten.

Argentina is one of the agricultural powerhouses of the world. After the United States and Brazil it is the world’s third largest producer of soybeans. This year it will produce 55 million tons. To do so, local environmental groups estimate that 300 million litres of agrochemicals are being sprayed over the soy fields. This affects 12 million people of Argentina’s overall population of 40 million, who are in contact with this poison in their homes, schools, water supplies, workplaces, on their playing fields, throughout their daily lives.

According to critics, the origin of this problem was the expansion of agricultural lands, which has been accelerating over the past ten years. The health consequences began to be denounced publically around 2005 in provinces such as Cordoba, Entre Rios, Chaco, Santa Fe, Misiones, Santa Fe and Buenos Aires. The land used for agriculture expanded, surrounding towns and schools barely separated from it by wire fences and narrow dirt roads. Critical patient cases from the interior of the country began arriving at the Garraham Children’s Hospital in Buenos Aires. According the parents of the affected children, the doctors said that this type of pathology was recurrent in places where agrochemicals were being used. Nevertheless, in their formal reports these opinions were not recorded and therefore there was always an ambiguity from an official point of view.

The office of Hugo Gómez Demaio is located on the second floor of the Provincial Children’s Surgical Hospital in Posadas, the capital of Misiones province in the northeast of Argentina. It is a small room that looks out onto a small courtyard. Demaio always welcomes his visitors with a drink called mate, the typical infusion of the area. You arrive in his office after passing through a room where doctors leave their robes and gloves after surgery. Demaio is in charge of the hospital, and in the past ten years has noticed a rise in the number of patients with birth defects. First, he began to mark the origin of the cases of myelomeningocele, a birth defect in which the backbone and spinal canal do not close before birth. The condition is a type of Spina Bifida. In most cases it is irreversible.

“We saw that the majority of cases were conceived in areas where there is a massive use of agricultural chemicals. That is when we decided to begin to study the phenomenon. What we saw was that even in the unexposed population, like in Posadas, there are at least 15 agrichemicals circulating in the blood of the local population, whose combined effects we don’t know.” He added, “Because I know how glyphostate acts, but I don’t know how it acts in combination with herbicide 2.4D. What I do know is that this is one of the components of Agent Orange that the US used in Vietnam, and that there are more patients with birth defects in this area.”

In Argentina, there is no national law regulating herbicides. There is a general standard that protects the environment, and in the majority of the 24 provinces there are local laws which attempt to legislate the use of herbicides and insecticides. In 2009, in response to reiterated complaints about its health risks, the president of Argentina, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner created, the National Commission to Investigate Agrochemicals. The commission consists of various public health organisations, and is led by the Ministry of Health. Following an investigation the commission denounced an “inappropriate use of phytosanitary products, in part due to the non-compliance with current legislation.” According to the government, there exists a lack of checks and controls. To that end it created a Federal Program for the Strengthening of Local Control Systems, whose lack of results can be seen in a tour of the affected areas.

Avia Terai, in Chaco, is an example. At seven in the morning, three men leading horse drawn carts wait in line in front of a public well. They draw water until nine, which later they will sell to the houses of this town of ten thousand inhabitants. Two women riding bicycles also wait their turn to use the well. Each bike has two drums hanging from the handlebars. The drums are marked with the name “Roundup”, the brand of glyphoste produced by a company called Monsanto. There is no indication on the containers that they should not be reused, nor that they should especially not be reused for carrying drinking water.

Avia Terai is surrounded by sown fields. The soy and sunflowers grow all the way up to the very borders of the town. The other border of the field is a landing strip from which crop dusting planes take off to the protest of the local citizens. The neighbourhood is called Padre Mujica and consists of community housing built by the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo Foundation with the support of the national government. There live 108 families, each one with at least one member with a disability. The majority of the population is under adult age.

Nadia Leguizamón, 12, has not been able to walk for two years. “They never told me what the diagnosis was, she always had trouble walking,” explains Viviana Pérez while she helps her daughter sit in a wheelchair to go for a stroll. Ramon, Nadia’s father, still works in his fields during the week while his wife attempts to secure an appointment with the traumatologist. His daughter, he explains, “is getting worse and worse.” “What can be done with the crop dusting company right here next to us?” asks Ramon.

Katherina Pardo, 21, explains that each time that the plane passed overhead when she was a student at the local school, a few blocks from Nadia’s home, the children would pass out. “We just took it as something normal, at a certain time of the year, at the time of the fumigations. People would begin to feel sick; there would be headaches and fainting. I always blamed the drinking water.”

When she and a classmate did a project for the science fair about local health issues, they realized that a local law prohibited the type of crop dusting taking place in their town, and it was illegal. Now she is fighting against the fumigations. Part of her activism consists of asking for a special school to be opened for children with special needs, “since there are more and more children who cannot attend classes.”

Gabriela is a teacher in charge of thirteen special students in a classroom set aside in the school of Avai Terai. She also states that there are too many children born with birth defects in the area, “It’s too small a town for so many cases.” She has a waiting list for students to study in her classroom.

According to Ramón Carrillo of The Popular Health Network of Chaco, “The lack of state control in the enforcement of agrochemical practices extends to the fact that after the population is affected there is no support for them, for treatment and improvement of their situation.”

According to that same organization, there are registers of the use of herbicides such as glyphoste and 2.4D, one of the components of Agent Orange. Its airborne use in the area is prohibited, as is its land use between March and August. “Nevertheless people acknowledge that they are used mixed” protests the organization. Furthermore in use are an endosulfan compound, an insecticide banned in more than 50 countries; methamidophos, another insecticide that has just been banned in Brazil; chlorpyrifos, an insecticide banned for domestic use since 2008 by AMNAT in the US; and atrazine, a herbicide.

“There is no system of state control that guarantees knowing what is being applied, so this generates more illness,” explains the Popular Health Network lawyer Alejandra Gómez. This protest has been repeated in various provinces of Argentina by groups such as The Network of Doctors of Fumigated Towns, and Stop Fumigating. “There are doctors who warned us twenty years ago that the abuse of these chemicals would bring dire health consequences for future generations,” says Gómez. “Unfortunately we are travelling the country and confirming these warnings.”

The uncontrolled fumigations have provoked the local populations to protest via other channels. In La Leonesa and Las Palmas, 70 kilometres from the capital of Chaco province, the inhabitants went to the courts in an attempt to stop the fumigations that enveloped their homes from the neighbouring rice fields. The judge agreed with their complaints. This past August, the Department Justice of Cordoba province condemned, for the first time, a farmer and fumigator for having sprayed poison over the neighbourhood of Ituzaingó. The judgment is being appealed, and the Department of Justice has not determined if a relationship exists between the use of agrochemicals and the increase of illnesses. This case could change environmental history in Latin America, in regards to fumigations.

But in the towns in Cordoba, the damage has been done. Agrochemical contamination has been detected in 114 of 142 children examined in an official study. In this case two agrochemicals were identified, which are also used in Chaco and the rest of the country: endosulfan and glyphosate. Endosulfan is the most used insecticide in Argentina. Overall, 5.5 million litres per year are used for the production of cotton, corn and soy, amongst other crops. This insecticide has already been banned in 74 countries, and in June of 2011 it was included in the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants.

Glyphosate is sold under a dozen commercial brands. The producers of soy acknowledge using at least ten litres of glyphosate per acre. In the 2011 season, the production of soy encompassed 19 million acres. In just one year, Argentine fields were sprayed with 190 million litres of herbicide.

In San Jorge, in the province of Santa Fe, a judge also ordered to cease the fumigation near populated areas.

In La Leonesa and Las Palmas, after 10 years of protests, the local government ordered a survey of the hospitals. In 2010, for the first time official statistics were created which confirmed the suspicions of the local population. The cases of cancer in children tripled, and birth defects increased 400% in just one decade. The report speaks of the “multiple causes” of the cancer but indicates that “This increase in case studies coincides with the spread of the agricultural border… endangering the health of the population, due to the farming practices, include air spraying areas with herbicides, whose principle agents are glyphosate and other agritoxins.”

The study was criticized by the country’s epidemiology centre; nevertheless they never submitted alternative explanation or study. Neither did they carry out what the committee sent by the national government had suggested. In March 2009, the committee visited the different regions of the country and recommended performing epidemiological studies. All the recommendations seem to have been disregarded, while the so called agricultural border keeps on extending and expanding.

In Santiago del Estero, in the center of Argentina, the progress of this border can be seen. In Quimilí, in the northeast of the province, the yellow plane ends its third pass over the sunflower plants that surround the low pink house bearing a sign that reads: School 146 ‘La Pampa’. A guard with a dog alerts that someone is coming and the plane disappears. The 110 families living in the area known as Lot 4 grew weary of denouncing the fumigations that dried their fruit trees and that made their children’s eyes burn, after each pass of the plane. There are 24 students in total, but Chiqui - one of the women of the native community of Guaicurú - thinks that there will be fewer students soon. “They surround us, and many of them get tired and in the end, they leave”, she says. Some meters away, a ‘mosquito’ passes over a field sown with soy. Then, in a pickup truck, one of the ‘new owners’ of the land appears. The man assures that he does not know what they are spraying, because he has just arrived. After so many complaints, the plane, Chiqui explains, flies over the sown fields at night. “They think that as we can’t see them, that we don’t realize they are fumigating”, says the woman, who remembers that, where today there are crops, before there was a low woodland that has almost disappeared.

In some of the 13,000 acres, there are spots of what was the typical scene of the area. Nearby, about 18 kilometres away, a yellow bulldozer fights against the dry and thorny branches of the original woodland. A group of the Movement of Peasants from Santiago del Estero tries to stop it. The agricultural border is a piece of arid land under overwhelming sunlight.

Juan Carlos Soroka gave up growing tobacco a short time after his second daughter was born with a malformation. Talía had transposition of the great blood vessels, a congenital heart defect. The family left their farm to live closer to the town of San Vicente, in the centre of the province of Misiones. The house is a small farm with seedlings, where lettuce grows without the need of insecticides or herbicides, and without agrochemicals. There, Talía started to walk 12 years after birth, and after several operations.

“In this area of five square kilometres, there are more than ten cases, which we know of. There are some parents that hide their children, they do not send them to school”, says Soroka. His wife Anita, 38, assures that most parents of her age amongst her friends, “almost all have a disabled child”.

“How could this be? We live in the middle of the forest. Why don’t the companies that manufacture these chemicals do something? They just say that they are not toxic. Of course they don’t have children with problems. Thank god our daughter is with us. There are many children who died and nobody said anything. They gave no explanations. Why do they poison us? The tobacco companies come and give you seeds, the poison, and they never told us that this could happen. If they want to eat food made with pesticides that’s their business, but the animals are not dumb. They don’t eat what kills them, but apparently people do. I say the world needs to eat, not to be poisoned.”

San Vicente is part of what Sergio Páez calls the tobacco triangle, an area of production for this crop, in which soy also grows. A geography teacher, his thesis is about the perception of the agrochemical use by the settlers - as the people who live in the farms are called - who in general are of German descent. “They live a sad reality”, he says while he describes them as “slaves of this activity”. It is estimated that in Misiones, there are 12,000 small producers and that 67,000 are exposed to agrochemicals. Páez carried out fieldwork in which he interviewed 300 families of the area. “I met children who cannot walk, workers with skin irritations, with their hands and feet destroyed... Many of the poisons they use for their activity are forbidden in Europe or the United States, but they are used in Argentina and Brazil”.

“The logics of tobacco production may be described as pre-capitalist, the free market does not work”, explains Páez. The settlers receive the seeds and the agrochemicals from the cooperatives. The cost of these is later discounted from the sale of the crops. The price will be fixed during the harvest, and many of them complain that, when they sell the leaves, they lower the price due to quality. “It’s a perverse system, they keep on growing to be able to access the social health service they need because they have problems caused by the products they use. The cooperatives defend themselves saying that the raw materials are poorly used by the farmers. They provide special suits to handle the agrichemicals and special warehouses to store them - which they later charge for - but most farmers cannot use them because local temperatures go above 40 degrees Celsius.” Despite numerous tries, the tobacco cooperatives would not answer these criticisms for this investigation.

“Tobacco is a very badly-paid product, compared to the price of cigarettes, but it eventually yields a profit. This year, 12,000 plants may provide you about 18,000 pesos net (around USD $3,000) if it grows well, but that is not happening. I had given up growing it, but I came back for his problem. My plan is to buy a car to help us move.” ‘His’ refers to Agustín, who was born 5 years ago with cerebral palsy, and is the second child of Víctor and Celeste Maidana. Celeste has an enormous smile, and a sad gaze. Her left arm is almost permanently surrounding Agustín and carries him tight to her body, to walk the almost two kilometres that separate her house from the dirt road... a road that crosses her flowered rose garden.

“Sometimes I move without him, and it feels as if something is missing”, she says. The Maidanas live in a wooden house on the outskirts of Pueblo Illia, with a population or barely 300, which can be reached via an endless dirt road more than 50 kilometres long. A library and a school are the references to understand that you have reached the village, which ends within two more blocks. There, they had to open a ‘special classroom’ due to the large number of children with disabilities living among the scarce population of the area. Katerine Barbosa is the teacher of the group, which last year was made up of 36 students. To there and back from home, she has to hitchhike. Sometimes, it is a three and a half hour round trip. As she is assigned to another town school, she collects 3,000 pesos (about USD $500), without the acknowledgment of her position as rural teacher.

Two years ago, she and a group of parents asked the government to open a school to be able to meet the demands of all the children. She also thinks that there are many cases, and that the exposure to so many agrochemicals, plus maternal malnutrition, may be the causes of so many cases of birth defects and mental disabilities. Concerning the school, they have not yet received an answer.

Candi does not know Celeste, but uses the same method to carry her son Fabián, 6, who cannot walk. His diagnosis at birth was macrocephaly, and in spite of the valve he has in his head to prevent it, it doesn’t stop growing. Fabián is the second of the five children she is raising in a wooden house without glass in the windows. The shutters are useful to isolate the light and the heat of Misiones.

Candi is the nickname for Cándida Rodríguez, 26, who remembers Fabian’s first days with desperation. “I had no help. I was alone, hungry, cold, in hospital. I didn’t understand anything, I wanted to run and take care of my baby”. She also says that when she was pregnant her husband worked in the tobacco plantation. “The poison was strong. I helped him. Some doctors tell you that it is related, and others say they don’t know. I don’t know if it was the agrochemicals. In the end, you are left in doubt. What I do know, is that the smoke or the smell of poison makes him ill. He can’t even smell it.”

Candi’s house stands on kilometre 1008 of the National Road 14 that leads to the Brazilian border. In less than 8 kilometres, there are four children with problems, in the few houses that are by the roadside. Some kilometres ahead, live the Kosinskis. Silvia and Juan are two of the three children of Haydée and José. Both have wheel chairs. Before, they had lived in the country, but life there was difficult. Sometimes, when it rained, they had to take them out in an ox-drawn cart. Silvia is 24, and wanted to study. For that reason, they moved near the road. Finally, she graduated as a secretary. She did her internship opposite her house, in an agrochemical storage plant, but she did not want to apply for a job there, after. She is suspicious, and sometimes thinks that not being able to walk is related to having been exposed to chemicals. She applied for a job at Acción Social de San Vicente, but she was told that if she was given the job, she would lose the disability pension she was receiving. “We are told to integrate with others, but finally, they never integrate us”, she complains.

San Vicente, in the centre of Misiones province, is one of the tips of the tobacco industry triangle, explains Professor Páez. It is one of the points where the most cases are recorded, and a lawsuit is going ahead at the United States Courts, led by two law offices that do not let the supposed victims speak. Fear works as a silencing element. A contract, not signed by the lawyers, and which is just a series of 17 items, sets forth that in case they win the complaint, they will keep 45% of the fees obtained, plus other management disbursements. The complaint started two years ago. The attorneys’ calls and the fear of speaking out and lose the social health service as a part of the punishment cloud this town’s atmosphere, which is apparently quiet.

There, in a house with a tropical garden, Roberto Da Silva assists his patients. He is a physical therapist that devotes his Wednesdays to assisting children with congenital neurological damage. That day, the waiting room is full of smiles, and each step is an achievement. Da Silva affirms that the number of cases of minors with malformations is “abnormal” in the area of San Vicente. After treating so many of these patients, he has a developed a method based on the stimulation of the body starting at the head. Talía Soroka is an example that the method works. The embrace when she sees Da Silva confirms it.

The Texeiras live in another corner of the tobacco production triangle, in Colonia Alicia Baja, in Argentina’s northeast, where the Uruguay River turns a bend. From the wooden house, there is a view of the river, and tobacco and soy plantations that have been spreading on the red soil of the area, where there was forest, making it almost disappear.

Rosana Texeira walked for almost one hour along the narrow dust road that led her home. Some days ago, she had run out of cream for Lucas, and went to ask the mayor for some. Lucas is her younger son. He is 1 year and 10 months old, and cannot be exposed to sunlight, let alone to this sunlight, which gets to 36 degrees by midday. Lucas suffers from severe ichthyosis, what is commonly called ‘alligator skin disease’. In fact, he is a funny baby, who likes refreshing in the water that floods the back yard of the house, and who cries when he is told he needs a bath. Lucas’ skin undergoes an accelerated process; it quickly flakes, the skin of his feet soles crack and get hurt even quicker, and his eyelids get full of scabs inside. It seems that Lucas cries blood. But this is in his worst crises. This afternoon he is sitting with his cream just opened, and spreads it on his skin, in a game that relieves him. Sitting on a plastic chair, he drinks tereré, a cold infusion of yerba mate, a traditional crop of the region. He has a new diaper on and eats the rice that Gabriel, one of his brothers, is giving to him.

“Doctors say it is a strange case. One day, they came and told us that it had to do with so many agrochemicals present in the environment. But nobody could finally confirm it. I gave up growing tobacco due to so much poison,” says Arnoldo Texeira, Lucas’ father. He suspects that is the case... as does Pedro Mores, near the bed of his newborn baby Gonzalo, while he waits, hoping that the diagnosis of the child’s imminent death does not come true.