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Poison in the air
Marcelo Ameri
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Farmers blame health problems on agricultural chemicals sprayed on GM soy.

Surrounded by hundreds of hectares of soybeans, Pirapey 35 looks like an island in the middle of a green ocean. The village, 100 kilometers north of Encarnación, the capital of the southern state of Itapúa, was the home of Silvino Talavera, 11, who died on Jan. 7 in the Encarnación Regional Hospital after suffering convulsions for several days.

"He went out to run an errand and when he was returning, he crossed the path of the sprayers," his father recalls. "The rest of my children were having a siesta under the trees, and a breeze came up and started blowing the poison this way. My wife and I ran to take the children into the house."

According to Justo Amarilla, director of Educational Area No. 5, which includes the northeastern part of the state, Silvino was not the first child to die as a result of pesticide spraying in the area. "Several children have died. The problem is that the real cause was never diagnosed," he said.

An initial autopsy found the herbicide glyphosate in Silvino’s blood, as well as other compounds commonly used in agricultural chemicals. In March, under pressure from rural women’s groups, indigenous organizations, environmentalists and human rights groups, the courts ordered that the body be exhumed and tissue samples taken. Results of those analyses have not yet been released.

"You don’t know what life is like for us here," said Ana María Santa Cruz, principal of the 400-student Lt. Aniceto López School 2340, which sits between two large soybean farms in Pirapey 35. "The children are always fainting and no one at the health center knows what to do."

When Silvino died, blood samples were taken from his four siblings. All showed the presence of glyphosate, the active ingredient in the herbicide Roundup, which is manufactured by the US chemical giant Monsanto. The broad-spectrum, non-specific herbicide is widely used in Paraguay for weed control.

According to agricultural engineer Andrés Wehrle, director of the non-governmental Center for Campesino Education, Training and Technology (CECTEC), which does organic farming research and training, Paraguay’s soy farmers use several herbicides that are prohibited in the United States, Europe and Japan.

"Use of Paraquat and Gramoxone, as well as Roundup, is prohibited or restricted in industrialized countries, but our legislation is very porous," Wehrle said. Increased use of agricultural chemicals on Paraguay’s vast expanses of farmland not only poses a health hazard, he said, but also "affects the soil, the air and other plant species, with unforeseeable consequences (LP, Feb. 19, 2001)."

The National Coordinating Group of Rural and Indigenous Women (CONAMURI) and the Coordinating Group of Rural and Indigenous Women of Itapúa (COMURI) have called for the government to stop the spraying of agricultural chemicals on fields near rural communities.

Itapúa is not alone. Similar problems have occurred in the southern departments of Alto Paraná and Canindeyú, the country’s other large soy-producing areas. All three departments have seen an increase in health problems blamed on chemical poisoning from agricultural herbicides and pesticides, especially those used on soybeans.

Soy is Paraguay’s main export product, generating annual revenues of US$700 million. Most of the more than 1.6 million hectares of land planted with soybeans is in the hands of Brazilian, European and Japanese owners, while Paraguayan campesinos mainly practice subsistence agriculture. Impoverished in recent years by bad cotton harvests, campesinos have less and less access to land (LP, Jan. 28, 2002).

Silvino Talavera’s death has also focused attention on the cultivation of genetically modified crops, whose production and sales are prohibited by a Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock resolution. Genetically modified seeds often have greater yield than conventional seeds, but critics say their effects on the environment and human health are unknown (LP, July 12, 1999).

According to CECTEC, 90 percent of Paraguay’s soy is grown from genetically modified seeds brought into the country illegally from Argentina (LP, March 13, 2000).

"We demand that the government enforce the law prohibiting genetically modified soy," said Julia Franco, head of CONAMURI.

Although officials are aware of the widespread cultivation of genetically modified crops, the government has turned a blind eye to the origin of the seeds.

"It’s not good to publicize this, because it could close off the country’s markets," said Cantalicio Paredes, agriculture secretary for Itapúa. "I’m opposed to genetically modified crops, but I don’t believe we can jeopardize the national economy." Paredes said his departmental office is not responsible for enforcing the prohibition on genetically modified crops, and all he can do is resign himself to their widespread use.

Government officials in Itapúa, the area most seriously affected, also see a relationship between the use of genetically modified seeds and agricultural chemicals.

"This is a problem inherent in the model of production, which is extremely profitable economically but not environmentally sustainable," said Roque Bogado, the department’s environmental secretary. He added that the best response to the cases of chemical poisoning would be to "reorient production toward a more organic type of farming."

While the use of agricultural chemicals continues and the protests by affected campesinos increase, grain and vegetable oil exporters, large agricultural cooperatives and government officials expect the current harvest, which began in April, to be the largest in five years, with a yield of 5 million tons of grain.




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