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Brazil, the promised land for manufacturers of banned pesticides

Brazil, the promised land for manufacturers of banned pesticides


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By Paulo Prada

This rapid growth has made Brazil an attractive market for pesticides that are banned or not used in richer countries due to the risks to health and the environment. At least four of the big pesticide manufacturers - FMC Corp of the United States, Danish Cheminova A / S, Germany's Helm AG and Swiss giant Syngenta AG - sell products in Brazil that are no longer allowed in their domestic markets, according to a Reuters review of registered pesticides. Among these is paraquat, considered "extremely poisonous" by US regulators.

Syngenta and Helm are licensed to sell it in Brazil. The Brazilian regulators themselves warn that the Government does not have the capacity to guarantee the safe use of pesticides, as herbicides, insecticides and fungicides are known.

In 2013, an airplane sprayed a school in central Brazil with insecticide. The incident, which sent more than 30 schoolchildren and teachers to the hospital, is still under investigation. "We cannot keep up," said Ana María Vekic, chief of toxicology at the National Sanitary Surveillance Agency (Anvisa), in charge of evaluating the risks of pesticides to health. FMC, Cheminova and Syngenta said the products they sell are safe if used properly.

The firms argue that a ban in one country does not necessarily mean that a pesticide has to be banned everywhere because each market has different needs for its crops, pests, diseases and climates. Hamburg-based Helm did not respond to requests for comment. "You cannot compare Brazil to a temperate climate," said Eduardo Daher, CEO of Andef, a Brazilian pesticide trade association.

"We have more pests, more insects, more crops," he said. Brazilian public health specialists reject that argument. "So what if the needs of crops or soils in Brazil are different?" Said Víctor Pelaez, a food engineer and economist at the Federal University of Paraná, in the south of the country.

"What is toxic in one place is toxic everywhere, including Brazil," he added.

EXTENDED VIOLATIONS

Controls by federal regulators show that much of the food grown and sold in Brazil violates national standards. Last year, Anvisa completed its most recent analysis of pesticide residues in food across the country.

Of the 1,665 samples taken, from rice and carrots to apples and peppers, 29 percent showed residues that exceeded permitted levels or contained unapproved pesticides.

Since 2007, when the Brazilian Ministry of Health began keeping records, the number of cases of pesticide poisoning of people more than doubled, from 2,178 that year to 4,537 in 2013. The annual number of deaths related to pesticide poisoning it rose to 206 from 132. Public health specialists say current numbers are higher but the follow-up process is incomplete.

The pressures are clear in Limoeiro do Norte, a town in the state of Ceará, in the arid northeast of the country. Since the 1990s, Brazil built a system of irrigation canals in the area and agriculture flourished. Hence, also the use of pesticides.

In November, a federal court upheld a ruling that requires Fresh Del Monte Produce, the global fruit giant, to compensate the widow of a worker who suffered liver failure after handling pesticides for three years.

In Limoeiro do Norte, a state court is reviewing charges against a landowner accused by police of ordering the death of an anti-pesticide activist.

"This is a giant laboratory for the worst in industrial-scale agriculture," said Raquel Rigotto, a doctor and sociologist at the Federal University of Ceará in Fortaleza, the state capital. Rigotto says his team of researchers found traces of many pesticides in water taps in the area and a higher rate of cancer deaths at the site than in nearby towns with little agriculture.

There is great global interest in the Brazilian food boom. An increase of almost 30 percent of the planet's population is projected in the next three decades: another 2 billion mouths to feed.

The growing Brazilian agricultural sector will be a key source of food. But with its equatorial sun, stable temperatures, and year-round harvests, the South American giant is also a fertile place for insects, fungi, and herbs. To keep them under control, farmers are applying more and more pesticides.

A POWERFUL INFLUENCE

In 2013, the latest year for which figures are available, Brazilian buyers bought pesticides worth $ 10 billion, or 20 percent of the global market. Since 2008, Brazilian demand increased 11 percent per year, more than double the global rate.

One factor hampering the stronger implementation of pesticide guarantees in Brazil is an increasingly powerful agricultural "lobby".

In last year's presidential elections, donations from agricultural companies for Dilma Rousseff's reelection campaign were surpassed only by contributions from the construction industry.

Brazil's food and agricultural companies accounted for about a quarter of the money the president received from large donors, or 89.5 million reais, according to election documents.

The figure is supported by an analysis of the 118 largest donations to Rousseff's campaign, of one million reais ($ 300,000) or more.

In Congress, nearly half of the 594 legislators identify with the "rural bancada," a group of parliamentarians who have relaxed laws banning genetically modified crops, as well as rules on logging in the Amazon and other forested lands.

The congressmen also proposed laws to streamline the approval process for pesticide regulations under a single agency, replacing current regulations involving Anvisa and the ministries of Agriculture and Environment.

Rousseff's press office declined to comment and referred inquiries to the Ministry of Agriculture.

Décio Coutinho, a senior Ministry official, said in an email that the use of pesticides follows "rigorous laws" in Brazil and is supervised by technicians, scientists and public officials who "have the respect and total trust of the scientific community. local and international and Brazilian consumers. "

The relationship between agribusinesses and the government, including campaign contributions, is "ethical and transparent," he said.

There is nothing inappropriate about the opinion of the sector in Congress, he added, arguing that representation "is defined by the free and sovereign vote of the electorate."

Industry influence and tight budgets for regulators limit Brazil's ability to enforce pesticide laws.

"FARMERS LOVE IT"

By law, Anvisa has to analyze a pesticide that a manufacturer proposes to sell in Brazil in no more than 120 days. But the agency can take years. With a team of fewer than 50 scientists, compared to hundreds of similar entities in the United States or Europe, it currently has a waiting list for the review of more than 1,000 chemicals.

And it can take years to get dangerous chemicals off the market, too.An effort to reevaluate 14 controversial pesticides used in Brazil, most banned in other countries, is now entering its seventh year, delayed by complaints from manufacturers and opposition from many lawmakers. . "If it is not a judicial complaint, it is a hearing in Congress," complained Vekic, Anvisa's chief of toxicology.

So far, the review has achieved a ban on just four pesticides. In December, Anvisa announced that it would ban methyl parathion, an insecticide banned in the United States and Europe.

But the agency has yet to say when or how it will. As a result, Cheminova, the Danish company that sells it, "has not changed its plans regarding the business with this product," said Lars-Erik Pedersen, a spokesman for the firm. He added that demand is currently high due to the weevil that attacks cotton. "Farmers love it," he added. According to farmers and pesticide companies, Anvisa's delay forces it to continue using older, potentially more harmful chemicals because more efficient and safer products are still waiting for approval.

"We have new products, but there is a delay in bringing them to market," said Antonio Zem, president of the Latin American affiliate of FMC, the US manufacturer of the insecticide Furadan. The product is made from carbofuran, a compound of which the US Environmental Protection Agency, after a review that began in 2006, "concluded that the food, labor and ecological risks are unacceptable for all uses."

FMC says it has tried to limit sales of the potent chemical to large farms and sectors, such as sugarcane, where machines can be used for its application.

THE DEATH OF A PEASANT

Furadan is just one of many pesticides used on farms along the Chapada do Apodi, a fertile plateau in eastern Ceará.

In that region, thanks to the 40 kilometers of canals that flow with water pumped from the nearby Jaguaribe River, more than 4,500 people work in 324 properties. The farms have brought jobs and some prosperity to a previously helpless region. Before, the town of Limoeiro do Norte was known as "the land of bicycles" because residents could not afford cars, but today the area bustles with the heavy passing of trucks and sport utility vehicles.

But other public infrastructure works behind the canals are scarce. As a result, many of the residents get their water from the same open channels that irrigate the land. Problems on the plateau emerged as early as 2008. Farm workers and farm residents began to complain to church officials and local labor organizations that they suffered from rashes after showering and that their animals were getting sick.

In July of that year, Vanderlei Matos da Silva, 31, an employee of Fresh Del Monte, complained of headaches, fever, stomach bloating and yellow eyes. He had worked for the previous three years at a company pesticide depot on their pineapple plantation on the plateau.

Among his tasks, according to documents and testimonies from other workers presented in federal labor court, Silva was supposed to mix chemicals and prepare portable dispensers for the people who sprayed them.

The worker also cleaned the warehouse and many times stored the chemicals that had not been used in open containers, according to the testimony of his colleagues.

The vapors made him and his colleagues dizzy. "The dust from the pesticides stayed in the air," said José Anaildo Silva da Costa, another of the workers. Another employee, Francisco Ricardo Nobre, testified that plantation managers ordered workers to hide certain pesticides when they learned of an upcoming inspection. Fresh Del Monte, which is based in Coral Gables, Florida, declined to comment.

A RECIPE FOR PARAQUAT

According to worker testimony, one of the pesticides was paraquat, a herbicide that was used for decades but is now banned in the European Union and restricted for most uses in the United States. In Brazil, Syngenta, Helm and three other companies are licensed to sell it.

Paraquat is "extremely poisonous," according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which maintains that among other diseases, paraquat causes kidney, heart and liver failure. A portion of the paraquat that was sold to the Fresh Del Monte operation while Silva worked there came from Syngenta, according to a 2007 receipt for 25,840 reais ($ 8,160). Reuters reviewed an invoice that prosecutors obtained.

Syngenta declined to comment. By August 2008, Silva could no longer work.

In October, he was admitted to a health center in Limoeiro and three weeks later to a hospital in Fortaleza. Silva died a month later, leaving behind a one-year-old son and his wife, who began years-long litigation for Fresh del Monte to compensate her for damages and back wages. The official cause of the worker's death was recorded as liver failure and gastrointestinal bleeding.

In court, Fresh del Monte's lawyers said Silva had been diagnosed with a viral form of hepatitis that was not linked to his employment, but the judge rejected the company's argument. Near that area, José María Filho, a small producer on the plateau, had started to complain to local authorities about skin irritation and illnesses in his animals. Filho accused large landowners of pesticide abuse, in particular for aerial spraying that sprayed chemicals on canals and other areas adjacent to farmland.

"YOU'RE MESSING WITH FAT FISHES"

"He talked too much," recalls Luiz Girão, a local rancher and former congressman, with influence among farmers in the area.

Filho got scientists led by Rigotto to analyze the water on the plateau. A study they conducted in late 2008 investigated samples taken at 25 points along canals and at household water taps. The study looked for the presence of 22 different pesticides.

In each sample, the researchers found residues of at least three of the compounds and up to 12 compounds. Farmers in the area downplayed the study, saying the research didn't determine the specific concentration of each chemical in the water, so it didn't test anything about toxicity. During 2009, Filho continued to make complaints. He ran at municipal councils in Limoeiro and, despite opposition from large landowners, by November he had convinced enough council members to pass a ban against aerial spraying.

"They were furious," recalls Reginaldo Araújo, a local teacher and activist for labor rights in the area. But some farmers kept spraying. In early 2010, Filho began taking photos and videos of a spray plane taking off from a local airfield.

He told people in Limoeiro that he was gathering evidence on violations of the pesticide restriction. And he also started receiving threats. According to a detailed police investigation in a complaint that Reuters reviewed, an unidentified person called Filho and told him that he was being followed. The person told Filho that he was followed when he traveled local roads on a motorcycle, often with his young son.

"You are a coward because you never travel alone," he told her. At the airfield, according to a police report filed by Filho, a security guard had warned him: "You're messing with big shots. It's dangerous."

BRIDGED

On April 21, while riding a motorcycle through the banana plantations, Filho was shot 25 times with a 40-caliber pistol. His body was left on the road. A month later, the council revoked the ban on the use of aerial sprayers.

After a two-year investigation, the police charged João Teixeira, a local owner, farmer and businessman who coordinated the application of aerial sprayers on the plateau, of ordering the murder. The ballistic and cell phone records reviewed by the police led them to link the phone calls between the Teixeira foreman and two other people from the town and a gunman, who was later killed in a shootout.

Teixeira, the foreman, and the other two individuals from the town were charged with Filho's death.

In a Reuters telephone conversation with Teixeira, he said: "We had nothing to do with the matter."

But he did not want to speak further on the subject. A judge in Limoeiro is scheduled to decide in the coming months whether the case will go to trial.

Meanwhile, two courts ruled in favor of Gerlene Santos, Silva's widow, the Fresh Del Monte worker. In 2013, a court in Limoeiro ordered the company to pay about 350,000 reais, or about $ 110,000, in damages.

A higher court upheld the sentence. On the plateau, tensions continue. A local plantation that exports bananas to Europe, Tropical Nordeste SA, recently won an award for excellence from an association of foreign buyers.

In October, a worker posted photos on Facebook of a tank leaking pesticide from a warehouse. Diego Oliveira da Silva, a 25-year-old "chemist," as the workers who spray pesticides in the area are called, said in an interview that the foremen at the ranch also told him and his colleagues to exhaust all the Furadan, the FMC chemist, in the days leading up to an inspection.

Two other workers, who spoke on condition of anonymity, made the same claim. Da Silva was fired for uploading the photos.

Hugo Carrillo, the plantation manager, said the tank leak was a temporary problem caused by a broken tap and that it was fixed the same day. On the accusations that he covered up the use of dangerous pesticides, Carrillo said: "Why would he hide Furadan? If Furadan is not banned in Brazil."

Routers


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