Ciudad Nemagón, History of a Tragedy

Ciudad Nemagón, History of a Tragedy

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By Javier Otaola Montagne

Hundreds of people are affected by a powerful pesticide of the same name in Ciudad Nemagón, which in addition to killing banana nematodes also kills people, and was used extensively by US banana companies in Nicaragua and other countries, even after being banned. in the United States, after being proven carcinogenic

Ciudad Nemagón, History of a Tragedy
The Law of the Banana Companies

Hundreds of people are affected by a powerful pesticide of the same name in Ciudad Nemagón, which in addition to killing banana nematodes also kills people, and was used extensively by US banana companies in Nicaragua and other countries, even after being banned. in the United States, after being proven carcinogenic. The powerful transnational companies that manufactured and used it are pressing so that, within the framework of the free trade agreement between the United States and Central America, the claims of more than 20 thousand affected peasants are forgotten

"We were also affected because they did not give us masks for protection and we breathed in all the chemicals. All that happened to our children." Nimia Esperanza Regla, whose daughter was born with a malformation.

In 1984 Nicaragua took a case to the International Court of Justice in The Hague in which it denounced the constant attacks it suffered by the United States. For the Sandinistas, who had entered Managua in triumph only five years before, the triumph of the revolution did not mean the end of the war, but the beginning of new attacks financed and directed from Washington. For Nicaraguans, those were difficult years that cost the lives of more than 40,000 people.

Given the numerous evidences presented, the International Court condemned the United States in 1987 for the destruction of life and property of the Nicaraguan government and people. The ruling also ordered the payment of compensation estimated at $ 17 billion. Washington rejected the ruling and ignored the Court. Later, it forced Nicaragua to withdraw the lawsuit and vetoed two UN resolutions promoted by the Central American country in which member countries were called upon to respect international legality. For the Nicaraguans affected, justice never came.

But those 17 billion resonate once again in the courts of Nicaragua. This time they do not involve two states, but six transnational companies and some 20,000 farmers who demand the payment of that amount as compensation for having been exposed to toxic pesticides. If the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) is approved, one of its first effects would be to curb the demands of the peasants or neutralize them with the new trade laws. Those laws were carefully reviewed by the United States Chamber of Commerce, to which one of the accused companies, the Dow Chemical Company, belongs.

And while the Nicaraguan deputies deliberate on the CAFTA, some 600 people, including infants and the elderly, mostly from the department of Chinandega, have been camping for five months in front of the National Assembly building. The camp has already been baptized as Ciudad Nemagón, because there live hundreds of people affected by a powerful pesticide of the same name, which, in addition to killing banana nematodes, also kills people, and was used extensively by US banana companies in Nicaragua and in other countries of Central America, the Caribbean and Asia, even after being banned in the United States in 1979, after it was proven that it had carcinogenic effects.

Peasants and transnationals

"There are already many dead here & shy; says Paulo Martínez. The same as in Iraq. Except that nobody says anything about those who die here." Paulo is 77 years old. He is originally from Chinandega and arrived in Managua on March 2 after 12 days of walking in the so-called March of No Return. He has been sleeping on a hammock for five months, in a champa (hut) made of black plastic and cardboard that he shares with five companions. Sitting while finishing his soup, he tells that he went to work at the "María Elsa" banana farm when he was 49 years old. In the six years he was there, he had to be transferred five times to the hospital in Chinandega for having been exposed to the chemical. The poisoning was treated with a stomach wash and serum. Since then, Paulo has no appetite nor can he keep food down and confesses that it has not been easy to get used to feeding a sick stomach that can no longer hold even a piece of meat.

Paulo dedicated his entire life to the countryside. His father was also a peasant, as was his grandfather. They planted corn, beans, potatoes, and yucca. If there was something left over, they sold it in the market. It was in the sixties that the banana companies came along and things got more difficult. The growing demand for bananas on the international market encouraged production, and led to the spread of transnational farms without control, displacing the former owners and unbalancing the modes of production and the lives of the peasants. The companies dug deeper water wells and diverted the riverbeds. "Some towns were left dry & shy; adds Paulo. There was no work or money to buy food. We only had to sell the land." The companies offered jobs to the growing number of exiled and unemployed peasants, many of whom ended up working the same land that had belonged to their family.

Brief history of a country and a pesticide

Chinandega's hot climate is excellent for crops such as cotton, banana or cane. The productive capacity of this department located in the northwest of the country was noticed since the 19th century by the railroad companies. In 1863, three years after an American filibuster named William Walker was shot after attempting to create an "independent Republic," the country awarded the first contract for the construction of a railroad, and in 1866 the Nicaraguan Railway Company was founded. Since then the train tracks began to spread throughout the territory. The first section to be built communicated the port of Corinto with Chinandega, which in 1880 saw a steam locomotive arrive for the first time. In six years the railroad connected Chinandega with the cities of León, Managua, Masaya and Granada, and the peasants were integrated, more by force than by pleasure, to the dynamics of the international market. That would mark the first moment of the banana boom and the rise of the cotton plantations. Later, in the second half of the 20th century, two conditions favored a second and more important boom in the banana industry: the construction of new roads and the emergence of the so-called "green revolution", with which the large chemical laboratories and Agricultural companies promised new and better pesticides that would wipe out pests, increase production, and end hunger.

One of these products is Nemagón, the trade name for 1,2-dibromo-3-chloropropane (DCBP), which was created in the laboratories of Dow Chemical and Shell to combat the nematodes that attack the banana plant. These microscopic worms discolor the fruit making it less attractive, which causes a serious problem for the international market, so obsessed with appearances. The pesticide, used massively since the sixties, also helps the plant to grow faster and give larger clusters, but it is a slowly decomposing toxic chemical that can remain in the subsoil for hundreds of years, causing damage to beings living and the environment.

An internal Dow report from 1958 noted that DBCP caused sterility and other serious conditions in laboratory rats. But it was not until 1975 when the United States Environmental Protection Agency determined that Nemagón had carcinogenic properties. By then, hundreds of millions of liters had been watered and watered in banana plantations around the world. Two years later, studies showed that a third of the workers who manufactured DBCP in the laboratories of the Occidental Chemical Corporation had been sterile.

The use of Nemagón was banned in the United States in 1979, but the story was different in the so-called Banana Republics. Standard Fruit, which had already bought enough Nemagón for several more years, threatened the Dow with a multi-million dollar lawsuit if it did not continue to supply the pesticide. Thus, the banana companies considered that the chemical was prohibited only in the United States but not in other countries, where it could continue to be used with total impunity. In Nicaragua, the Nemagón continued to be used until the transnationals left the country in 1982, and until 1985 in some farms nationalized by the revolutionary state.

The consequences

The banana movement began in the early 1990s, when the first chemical-related deaths occurred and when the number of people affected multiplied. In those days the Chinandega hospitals began to receive many cases of women who lost their children during pregnancy or who had children with physical malformations. In 1997, a study by the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua (UNAN), carried out on 154 mothers at the Chinandega hospital, showed that 153 of them had high levels of chemicals. Traces were mainly found in breast milk, blood, and the umbilical cord. Two years later, another UNAN study indicated that one out of every eight wells from which water samples were taken was contaminated. In the rural areas of Chinandega, only 4% of the homes have potable water from pipes, the rest is supplied in wells, rivers or springs, where most of the containers containing the pesticide were thrown.

"We came to the hospitals and they only told us: come the next month, and the next month they told us the same thing, that we had to renew the appointment until there was room. Between renewal and renewal I visited hospitals in Chinandega, León, Matagalpa and Trinidad. " Worthy Emerita Jirón.
Saturnino Martínez, 62, worked seven years on the Paraíso farm. Neither his wife nor his seven children were directly involved with the banana plantations, but they all show some kind of illness. "When that poison was spread it reached all the people & shy; says Saturnino. We lived there and drank the water and went to the bathroom and washed our clothes with that water." His wife suffers from kidneys. Her children suffer from migraines and her last child was born raw as a result of the poison. "Until he was 16 months old, he began to hide. There was the poor mother with her diapers all full of blood. Today she is 22 years old, her skin is still abused and she has not yet put hair on her head."

Ducks shooting at shotguns

Saturnino sums up the history of the movement in this way: "We have marched to Managua on four occasions. The first time was in 1999 and the last this year, but before that people were organizing. At first nobody paid any attention to us. We presented several proposals but the government ignored them. The political parties turned their backs on us. So we had to pressure with hunger strikes and other actions until in January 2001 the National Assembly approved Law 364. " Said law, called the Special Law for the Processing of Trials Promoted by People Affected by the Use of Pesticides Manufactured on the Basis of DBCP, is today the only hope that farmers have of being compensated, since it allows them to have the support economic and legal support from the State to initiate lawsuits against transnational companies.

Thanks to this law, in March 2001 the first lawsuits were filed against the Shell Oil Company, Dow Chemical Company, Occidental Chemical Corporation, Standard Fruit Company, Dole Food Company and Chiquita Brands International. A year later, a Nicaraguan court ruled in favor of some 600 peasants, ordering the multinationals to pay 490 million dollars, but none of the companies recognized the ruling and the lawsuits are at a standstill. That same could be the destination of the new resolution issued earlier this month by Judge Socorro Toruño, of Chinandega, who ordered the payment of 97 million dollars in favor of 150 workers after having proven the serious physical and moral damages that suffered.

The amount of money at stake is enormous. The total amount of compensation is estimated to be about $ 17 billion. This amount has attracted many opportunists who are looking for a piece of the pie, among law firms and some leaders who claim to represent the interests of "the legitimate affected", while accusing each other of accepting into their ranks people "who in their lives have peeled a banana ". This argument has served the transnationals to denounce that the number of those affected has been fraudulently inflated. This is intended to delegitimize their fight and delay the trials. Some media have echoed these accusations and there is no shortage of Nicaraguans who distrust the peasants.

On this Saturnino Martínez points out: "There are people who believe that we are lazy, as if we would like to have been here for almost five months, cooking from the heat, going hungry. Someone dies here almost every week and the newspapers do not say anything. " And he adds: "We are the ones who should be countering the lawsuit. Imagine that the companies argued that our ailments were a common disease. No! A common cold and cough that have existed all along. But a disease that began to give you from 1997 for here, it cannot be common. Because before there were people who died of kidney failure or cancer, but there were cases of one in a thousand. And as of today, more than two thousand fellow banana growers and as many sugarcane growers have died. "

Family tragedy

I visited Digna Emerita Jirón and her husband José de Jesús Rayo three times. Digna worked for eight years at the Mercedes farm packing the banana. He was 17 when he started working and by 25 he was already showing some of the typical complaints, such as burning in the body and migraines. His sister died of cancer and his brother returned to Chinandega at the end of June because his belly had grown disproportionately in a matter of days.

"The truth is that now we no longer serve. With what is happening to us, if we come to a farm to ask for work, they no longer give us because those who pass 50 years do not get work." Julio Francisco Meneses.

Digna remembers that until a couple of years ago she was thin. To prove it, he looks in a bag that he keeps under his hammock and takes a photograph. "I was like that. Now I have thrown away my teeth. I have undergone surgery three times. They took out my womb and a tumor that I had under my ovaries. Later they took out my ovaries and in that last operation the web broke and it stood out. hernia of the navel. " Digna continues her story: "I have been with this for several years and you think you get used to it but then the pains come worse. Sometimes the medicine half lifts you, but they don't give us the appropriate medicine, only Diclofenax or pills. for fever. "

Her husband José, 56, is the group leader and is in charge of about 58 people. In the five months that he has been camping in front of the National Assembly, two companions have died and two more were sent back to Chinandega in serious condition. José became a First Lieutenant in the Sandinista Popular Army and, like him, many of those affected and almost all of the leaders were Front combatants. Their political experience is clearly reflected in their organizational capacity, which has allowed them to overcome with better luck the legal and economic difficulties of the trials, as well as the internal divisions and the apathy of the people. But its Sandinista past has also brought costs. The former political militancy of those affected was the perfect match for the authorities, who for years ignored their demands with the excuse that they were at the service of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN). For its part, the times the Front has approached them has been to take advantage of their organization. A few months ago, the FSLN brought a truck full of pineapples to the National Assembly. This humanitarian gesture concealed other intentions that were exposed without any dissimulation: if the peasants supported the Front in taking over trucks and closing the streets, the party promised to supply them with products from Sandinista mayors.

As José says, "the people we fight side by side in the revolution are the same people we fight today. That is why we seek to separate ourselves from any political flag, because we know that we are not fighting for a position in the Assembly. , but because we are guaranteed medical care and a dignified death. "

Children, women and transnationals

Sandra Elisa is the youngest of Digna and José's daughters. He is 11 years old and has hepatitis. Like her, there are about 70 more children living in Ciudad Nemagón, playing two meters from the avenue, amid the waste generated by the camp itself and the apathetic gaze of passersby and motorists. There they grow up, enduring the same hunger as their parents, getting wet like them when it rains and suffering from the heat that is generated under the black plastic roofs of the champas. They all live there, the healthy and those who inherited diseases from their parents, such as the daughter of Nimia Regla, who was born with a malformation in her left leg. Nimia spent two years packing bananas in La Candelaria, now she has abrasions on her skin and her back and chest are covered in spots. Her husband died of cancer several months ago. She is one of the hundreds of widows who have lost their partners to causes related to Nemagón. One more of the mothers who must seek expensive medical treatments to take care of their own health and that of their children. And one more of the thousands of women hired by the banana companies to work in terrible conditions, in exchange for a paltry salary.

"We are junk & shy; she says. At 53 years old, with a bad little girl and with so much suffering it is impossible to get a job. If you want to work, the first thing they ask you is to take tests. If you leave with the affectation of chemicals, you will not do it anymore. If you go to another company, they ask you for your health exam. Anyone who goes to look for work and finds out that his creatinine is high or that he has Nemagon in his blood, they reject it. If we don't die from the disease we're going to starve. "

Children and women are a sensitive subject for public opinion. When a transnational corporation affects any of these groups, considered vulnerable, it is almost certain that the news coverage will generate an opinion matrix adverse to the company. This is why companies pay millionaire sums to clean up their image through advertising campaigns designed to present a more attractive, ecologically conscious, socially committed and labor-responsible face. And while this lie is being fed to the public, millions of more dollars are being spent on lawyers who all they know how to do is delay lawsuits forever, and instead of compensating the damage done to people and the environment, companies use their power to annul the only law that protects Nicaraguan peasants.

The Dow Chemical exerts enormous pressure from the United States Chamber of Commerce for the elimination of Law 364. Thanks to its power, the Dow introduced an addendum to the Fourth Amendment of the CAFTA, which allows investors to initiate compensation lawsuits in against the Contracting States if they consider that a law of the country or a ruling issued by local judges violates the principle of "fair and equitable treatment". As Gustavo Antonio López recently pointed out in the Nicaraguan daily La Prensa, "although the letter of the treaty does not specifically refer to Law 364, once ratified by the National Assembly, some regulations governing foreign investment will allow the neutralization of said law."

"The most affected were those who watered because they were the ones who handled that product and prepared it to water it through pipes. Many of them have already lost the color of their skin or tissues. Some have already died and others are hospitalized. " Modesto Torres Ruiz

This "fair and equitable" treatment requested by transnational corporations seems like a mockery when the plaintiffs are poor peasants. The Nicaraguan state's ability to exert pressure in the CAFTA negotiations is almost nil. What could the second poorest country in Latin America offer other than cheap labor and investment facilities. Meanwhile, Dole Foods offered this year to reinvest in Nicaragua if the government dropped lawsuits against it for the use of pesticides. These types of offers and extrajudicial settlements cause anger among those affected who observe how they try to make a clean sweep of their lives.

In search of human misery

Once again the peasants find themselves in the eye of the hurricane, forcibly inserted into the logic of capitalism and globalization, albeit from the less privileged extreme. His only sin was being born poor on lands that were suitable for mass production of bananas. In a society like that of Nicaragua, highly polarized, mired in poverty and disillusioned by years of corruption and political opportunism, the changes that are being demanded from below seem more distant today than ever.

It's seven at night in Ciudad Nemagón and the sun is beginning to fall. A boy with the appearance of a foreigner approaches the camp and takes some photos. Nimia calls me and tells me that in Chinandega there are the most affected people, those who cannot come because they hardly walk. Some journalists and onlookers want to take home a crooked memory of the human misery that lives in Nicaragua and only come to see if it is true that the Nemagón turned the peasants into monsters. But Nimia tells me, "to those who come camera in hand and go directly to Chinandega, I tell them not to go so far, that human misery can also be found in Managua, within the National Assembly, or in the United States , where those responsible for our tragedy walk calmly down the street. " Indeed, those who poisoned thousands of workers and polluted the environment with impunity enjoy their freedom there. There are those responsible for the abortions and the children who were born with deformities. There are those who condemned thousands of peasants to slow death. "So tell me & shy; asks Nimia & shy; if it is really necessary to go to Chinandega to know human misery?"

* Masiosare, August 2005

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