A Sea of Poison

September 25, 2007

Now we’re close to León. Liberated territory.
A burning reddish-orange light, like the red-hot tip
of a cigar.
the powerful lights of the docks flickering on the sea.
And now at last the beach at Poneloya and the plane
coming in to land
the string of foam along the coast gleaming
in the moonlight.
The plane coming down. A smell of insecticide
And Sergio tells me: “The smell of Nicaragua!…”
Ernesto Cardenal[1]

While the “first wave” of economic development in Central America during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries transformed the rich oak-pine forests of the interior highlands into vast coffee estates and impoverished peasant plots, and large pockets of the Atlantic lowland rainforests into large banana plantations, the Pacific littoral escaped relatively unscathed. There, pristine coastal mangroves and vast tracts of virgin dry and moist tropical forests, interspersed with open grassland, flourished among isolated cattle haciendas and the plots of their resident tenant families.

One traveler through the Pacific lowlands of El Salvador in the early twentieth century remarked how he rode, “mile upon mile through magnificent timber-tree lands,” where stands of ebony, cedar, mahogany and granadilla stood “so close together that daylight seldom enters, and sunlight never.”[2] These forests and fields teemed with an abundance of animal life: howler and spider monkeys, ocelots, anteaters, grey fox, white-tailed deer, puma and other large cats

Today, the protective canopy of dense forests is gone. In the now dusty and eroded agricultural fields of Central America’s Pacific coastal plain, tens of thousands of poor seasonal workers travel from distant highland farms and nearby urban barrios to toil in the hot tropical sun harvesting cotton, “white gold.” Added to the burden of long hours, back-breaking work and some of the lowest wages in Latin America is the familiar roar of crop duster planes flying overhead, symbol of the worst toxic threat to the environment and people: pesticides.

Of the many export commodities produced in Central America, cotton is the most ecologically destructive, rivaled perhaps only by cattle. Introduced at the end of World War II, cotton was part of a larger scheme promoted by the United States to modernize, diversify, and expand export-agriculture in the region. Guarded by a long chain of majestic volcanoes and the steep slopes of the western highlands, the hot, dry climate and rich volcanic soils of the Pacific coastal plain extending from Mexico down through Panama were ideal for growing the puffy white balls. Spurred by a number of international agencies––U.S. Agency for International Development (AID), World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank (IADB), as well as the Pan American Health Organization and World Health Organization ––the forests of the Pacific lowlands were “opened up” for development during the 1950s, and later under the Alliance for Progress.[3]

Ancient forests, wildlife habitats, and peasant communities alike were “cleared” to make way for the roads and fields.[4] Virtually all of the remaining humid hardwood forests were destroyed, including stands of old-growth ebony, cedar, mahogany, and passionflower (granadilla), quebrado, laurel, balsam, olive, and jiote. Coastal savannas, evergreen forests, and large areas of coastal mangroves were also cleared in the onslaught. Even gallery forests of ceiba (kapok), donacaste, fig, and volador found along the edges of rivers were eliminated.[5] With their habitats destroyed, many species of animals, including howler monkeys, anteaters, and white-lipped peccaries were rendered extinct. Numerous other mammals of the deciduous forest were also exterminated or greatly reduced, including the nine-banded armadillo, agouti, coyote, grey fox, badger, puma, and white-tailed deer, as well as large birds such as the omate hawk-eagle, scarlet macaw, yellow-headed parrot, Muscovy duck, crested guan, and great curasow.[6]

Peasants were evicted from their traditional landholdings, often by brutal military force. Along Nicaragua’s entire Pacific plain, cotton land expanded 400% between 1952 and 1967, while peasant lands devoted to corn, beans, sorghum, and other food grains dropped over 50%.[7] In Guatemala, some 221,312 acres of the Pacific lowlands were in cotton by 1972, almost completely displacing the area’s poor campesinos. In fact, the largest 3.7% of farms along Guatemala’s Pacific coast monopolized 80.3% of the land, according to some estimates, reportedly the highest degree of land concentration in all Latin America.[8] Excluded peasant farmers often moved onto unfertile land ecologically unsuitable for slash-and-burn (or swidden) agriculture, particularly the steep hillsides of the Pacific mountains and rugged interior highlands, and the nutrient-poor rain forest soils of the Caribbean lowlands. In El Salvador, for instance, 40% of the land designated as ecologically unsuitable for agriculture was occupied by peasant cultivators during the 1970s.[9] The result: rampant deforestation, declining fallow cycles, severe soil erosion and land degradation, watershed destruction, critical fish, wildlife, and wood fuel shortages, declining food production and increased poverty––all evidence that the resource base for much of Central America’s peasantry has reached a point of ecological collapse.[10]

By the late 1970s, some 1,004,796 acres of cotton fields had been carved from the ancient tropical forests; cotton employed half a million workers. Central America was producing over a million bales annually, which ranked the region third in sales on the world market, behind the United States and Egypt. Only 2% of the original forests remained.[11]

The capitalization of the Pacific lowlands was seldom accompanied by land conservation investments in soil cover, drainage systems, wind barriers, etc. Many growers were tenant speculators operating on short-term credit. In a highly competitive world market, these cotton farmers who rented tracts from large landlords, had little economic interest in protecting the long-term viability of the land. In fact, just the opposite was the case. As one study points out, there were “seldom regulatory clauses in the contract against maltreatment of the land, or payments to the tenant for improvements made by him.” Thus, the tenant was “encouraged in his inclination to maximize his profits regardless of the costs in terms of soil deterioration.”[12]

The cultivation methods utilized also worked against soil conservation. Trees necessary to protect the fields from wind erosion were removed to facilitate cheaper fornis of pesticide application by aircraft. Rather than practicing crop rotation, weeds and protective ground cover which prevent erosion were eliminated as well, since they could host potential cotton pests between plantings. The soil was prepared at the beginning of the rainy season, plowed to a fine tilth, and left unprotected for several months before being planted. The exposed soil readily eroded under the heavy rains and high winds.[13] An estimated 16 to 20 tons of topsoil were being washed and blown from the cotton fields each year, leading to the severe clogging and sedimentation of nearby waterways, causing dangerous flooding in the rainy season, and damaging drought in the dry season.[14] In Nicaragua, for instance, heavy flooding in May 1982 caused by such erosion and sedimentation combined with heavy rains, destroyed almost all of the bridges in the León and Chinandega areas, costing the Nicaraguan government some $20 million.[15] In many areas of the Pacific lowlands, there was ample evidence of sheet erosion, often in severe form. As described by the Guatemalan author Mario Payeras, “By the second half of the twentieth century, with the expansion of the cotton industry, the Costa Grande ceased to exist as rainforest ... the Pacific rains ran unchecked through the verdant waterways, filling the rivers with volcanic sands; and the extinction of the broad-leaved forest transformed the area into a desert environment which is intermittently flooded.”[16]

Deforestation was devastating, but perhaps the most ecologically destructive practice involved the abuse of pesticides. Insect pest problems are inherent in large-scale monocultures, which destroy the natural balance that would keep them in check. Chemicals that poison the insect population appear to offer a “quickfix” to the problem, but they stimulate the emergence of resistant pests. Pesticide use itself thus leads to its own propagation: ever greater quantities, at higher toxicity, and in greater frequency.

Due to lax environmental regulations, Nicaragua became a laboratory for pesticide experimentation in the early 1950s. The German multinational Bayer tested methyl parathion, a derivative of a nerve gas developed by the Nazis during World War II, in the area around León. Over 12 million pounds of this deadly chemical were applied in 1951, causing dozens of deaths and hundreds of illnesses among Nicaraguan field workers and their families. The following year, the Ministry of Agriculture banned methyl parathion, only to have Somoza reverse its decision in 1954 under pressure from cotton growers, who praised its effectiveness in killing the boll weevil and other costly cotton pests.[17]

From that time on pesticide use expanded exponentially. Transnational chemical corporations such as Bayer, Ciba-Geigy, Chevron, Shell, Stauffer, and Hooker flooded the Central American market with extremely toxic organophosphates and environmentally persistent organochlorines. By the mid-1960s and through the 1970s, a whopping 40% of all U.S. pesticide exports went to Central America, making the region the world’s highest per capita consumer of pesticides.[18] Although less toxic than organophosphate pesticides, which breakdown relatively quickly once introduced into the environment, organochlorines such as methyl parathion, DDT, heptachlor, and chlordane posed a particular threat. These pesticides accumulate in agricultural soils, pond and river bottoms, animal tissue, and elsewhere, to be taken up later by plants or released by soil organisms to poison further. For example, the half-life of the organochlorme pesticide toxaphene is 15 years in soil, meaning that 15 years after application, one-half of the pesticide remains in the soil as poison.

Meanwhile, pesticide use led to the emergence of increasingly resistant pests. Scientists found the cotton bullworm in Nicaragua, for example, to be 45 times more resistant to methyl parathion than any previously known pest population in the world.[19] In contrast, the chemicals decimated the populations of economically beneficial insect predators and parasites which attacked potential cotton pests. As a result, relatively benign cotton pests once controlled by natural predators emerged in the 1960s as new malignant cotton pests. To kill the explosion of pests and restore yields, growers increased not only the number of pesticide applications but the toxicity and variety of pesticides as well. In the mid-1950s, growers applied five main chemicals, five to ten times annually. By the late 1960s, increasing pest resistance compelled growers to use over 70 chemicals (or chemical cocktails) 28 to 35 times a year. However, the more insecticides they applied, the more they needed to combat increasingly resistant pests. In some cases, pesticides alone accounted for more than 50% of total production costs in cotton cultivation.[20]

This “pesticide treadmill,” combined with a contracted world market, brought the cotton boom to a halt in the mid-1960s. However, the crisis was only temporary. New, more toxic insecticides such as endrin, dieldrin, and lindane, many of which were restricted or banned in their country of origin, brought cotton back a few years later. Growers also dramatically increased applications of older insecticides (often in combination with newer varieties) at much higher doses and much shorter intervals. Some growers were making up to 56 applications a season using 50-odd pesticide combinations.[21] In 1975 alone, tiny El Salvador consumed 20% of the world’s entire parathion production––an average of 4.5 pounds of this deadly chemical for each acre of crop land in the country, or 2,400 pounds of insecticides for every square mile of cotton land.[22] Regionwide, growers applied an average of 3,380 pounds of pesticide every year to every square mile of cotton land––4.4 pounds for every man, woman, and child in Central America.[23]

Drwning the Pacific coastal plains in a sea of poison led to the long-term contamination of the land surface, water table, and food chain. Of the chemicals applied by crop dusters, 50% to 75% never reach the target crop. Instead they drift widely, contaminating local ecosystems, including groundwater sources, rivers and estuaries, fish and wildlife, nearby villages and towns food crops, and adjacent cattle herds.[24] Some planes empty their tanks at the end of the day by dumping “excess” pesticides in lakes and bays.[25] Airborne pesticide residues from the cotton fields of Central America have even been found as far away as Michigan.[26]

Wildlife is suffering the brunt of this ecological assault, as deforestation and chemical drenching disrupt animal reproduction and kill off prey for birds. Broad-winged hawks, crested forest-eagles, pelicans and all insect-eating birds have diminished dramatically in recent years.[27] Many of the chemicals (like DDT) banned in the United States because of their devastating impact on wildlife continue to harm North American bird species which make Central America their winter home. About one-third of the 53 North American bird species which winter in Central America have suffered significant population declines.[28] In Costa Rica, pesticides have also all but exterminated armadillos, fish, and crocodiles along the Guanacaste River. In Guatemala, pesticides have blown from lowland areas up mountainsides, killing the bark beetle’s natural predators and causing the worst beetle attack in that country’s recorded history. Other beneficial and productive insects, like honeybees, have almost completely disappeared. The biologically impoverished Pacific coastal plain is quickly becoming a real example of Rachel Carson’s “silent spring.”

Chemicals such as DDT also permeate food and water sources. Average DDT levels in cow’s milk in Guatemala are 90 times higher than allowed by U.S. standards.[29] Scientists are worried that pesticide contamination in the 9,000 square kilometers of mangrove forests on Central America’s Pacific coast is causing a decline in fish catches. In the Gulf of Fonseca, shared by El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua, high levels of DDT and organophosphates are reported in fish and shrimp, a leading export. In the region’s coastal bays and estuaries along the cotton belt, massive fish kills occur twice a year. The first casualties come with the rainy season when downpours wash chemicals from the soil. The second kill comes at the beginning of the dry season when aerial spraying of cotton begins and pesticides drift into the mangroves.

One Pan-American Health Organization study reported 19,000 poisonings between 1971 and 1976; Honduras and Nicaragua were world leaders in per capita illness and deaths from pesticide poisonings during the 1960s and 1970s. In 1987 more than 50 children died of pesticide poisoning in just one San Salvador city hospital. More than 1,000 people receive medical treatment for exposure to pesticides in Guatemala each year. Mothers in the cotton regions have been found to have as much as 45 to 185 times more DDT in their breast milk than deemed “safe” by the World Health Organization (WHO).

Although highly toxic organophosphates cause an estimated 80% of Central America’s acute pesticide poisonings, this family of pesticides breaks down rather quickly once released into the environment. However, organoeblorines such as DDT do not. Throughout the 1970s, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and El Salvador were among the world’s leading users of DDT and other organochlorines banned in the United States but still produced here for export. These compounds may, in the long term, create even more serious health problems in the region. Today, the 700,000 people living in Central America’s cotton region have more DDT in their body fat than any other population of human beings in the world. Since 19 of the 25 most commonly used organochlorines prove carcinogenic in laboratory tests, the future may reveal high cancer rates among poor Central Americans. No one knows how many will die.

Cotton growers externalize the social and ecological costs of production onto the larger society in the form of human health problems, livestock and crop contarnination, and ecological pollution.[30] In fact, the case of cotton is symptomatic of the larger social, economic, and ecological disaster that export-agriculture has created in Central America since World War II. For instance, more than 1,000 male workers from the Atlantic banana-growing region of Costa Rica have been rendered infertile through overexposure to the nernaticide DBCP, while another 5,000 exposed workers are considered at risk. In addition to massive fish, lobster, and shrimp kills, thousands of hectares of former banana lands have been rendered irreversibly damaged by excessive chemical contamination.[31] The pesticide treadmill has also reappeared in the wave of non-traditional crops currently being promoted in the region by AID. The Food and Drug Administration reports that in 1989, 45 shipments of cantaloupe and snow peas from Guatemala were rejected for entry into the U.S. due to pesticide contamination.[32]

The dynamics of the pesticide treadmill, combined with declining world market prices, have once again damaged the profitability of cotton. Some 90% of Costa Rica’s cotton growers, for instance, have gone bankrupt since the mid-1980s.[33] Such repeated ecological crises represent a classic example of the manner in which agribusiness in Latin America is increasingly destroying the material foundations of its own existence. As such, the ecological crisis cotton has wrought in Central America is the logical outcome of 500 years of imperialist domination over the people and environment of Latin America. Only when these bonds of domination are broken can the process of ecological destruction be reversed.

Daniel Faber teaches sociology at Northeastern University and is a co-founding editor of Capitalism, Nature, Socialism: A Journal of Socialist Ecology.


The author would like to thank Douglas Murray, Sean Swezey, Josh Karliner, James O’Connor, Bill Hall, Dave Henson, and Florence Gardner for their helpful comments and criticisms on this topic.
1. From Ernesto Cardenal, “Lights,” in Zero Hour and Other Documentary Poems (New York: New Directions Publishing, 1980), an account of his return from exile in Costa Rica on the eve of the July 19, 1979 revolution.
2. Cited in David Browning, ,El Salvador: Landscape and Society (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971), p.227-8.
3. Tropical diseases such as malaria were a major barrier to the development of the Pacific coastal plain. Therefore, health programs were an essential part of the project. Interestingly, the international health agencies proposed solutions that required pesticides produced by transnational corporations, despite the availability of more effective but less “purifitable” solutions. See Georgeanne Chapin and Robert Wasserstrom, “Pesticide Use and Malaria Resurgence in Central America and India,” The Ecologist, Vol. 13, No. 4 (1983), pp. 115-117.
4. During the 1950-1960s, the high differential rent potential of the Pacific littoral created a frenzy of land speculation, hence deforestation as a means of claiming title. These favorable ecological conditions oftiroduction (in Marxist economic terms, differential rent I) were not accessible because of inadequate infrastructure. The all-weather highway system, malaria eradications, programs, ports and warehouses, etc., not only unlocked this potential, but also raised land values (differential rent II, or increased land values stemming from investments of labor into the land). In other words, systems which promoted the efficient circulation of capital and labor raised the financial value of the land, which in turn resulted in the destruction of the lowland habitats. See Robert G. Williams, Export Agriculture and the Crisis in Central America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1986).
5. See U.S.AID-El Salvador I, Environmental Profile of El Salvador, compiled for U.S.AID by Steven Hilty (Tucson: Arid Lands Information Center, University of Arizona 1982), pp, 55-57; and U.S.AID-Guatemala Ib, (1981), pp. 5-19.
6. See Howard Daugherty, “Man-Induced Ecological Change in El Salvador,” (Ph.D. Dissertation, University of California, 1969), p. 202; Howard Daugherty, Charles A. Jeannert-Grosjean, and H.F. Fletcher, Ecodevelopment and International Cooperation: Potential Applications for El Salvador (Ottawa, Canada: CIDA and Advanced Concepts Center of the Environment, 1979), pp. 32-34; Ernesto López Zepeda, “The Ecological Impact of Cotton Cultivation in El Salvador: The Example of Jiquilisco,” (M.A. Thesis, Ontario, Canada: York University, 1977), pp. 40-42; and U.S.AID-Nicaragua I, Environmental Profile of Nicaragua, prepared by Steven L. Hilty (Tucson: Arid Lands Information Center, University of Arizona, 1981), p. 5.
7. See Peter Dorner and Rodolfo Quiros, “Institutional Dualism in Central America’s Agricultural Development,” Revolution in Central America, Stanford Central America Action Network, eds., (Boulder: Westview Press, 1983), p. 228.
8. See Leo Caltagirone, Merlin Allen, Walter Kaiser, Jr., and Joseph Orsenigo, The Crop Protection Situation in Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, and Guyana, prepared by AID, (University of California at Berkeley, 1972), p. 13; and Charles Brackett, Land, Power, and Poverty: Agrarian Transformation and Political Conflict in Central America (Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1988), p. 70.
9. See Monica Ewert, “Human Impact on the Auquatic Ecosystem of the Rio Lempet, El Salvador,” (M.A. Thesis in Environmental Studies, Ottawa: York University, 1978), p. 77. In 1954, a Salvadoran government study on soil conservation recommended that 50% of the national area under subsistence cultivation be returned to forest in order to avoid excessive use and erosion of the soil. Since land reform was politically impossible, the report suggested making the fertile coastal lowlands accessible to the peasantry. The government instead promoted the capitalization of the coast by large-scale estates owned by the oligarchy. The result was the virtually complete dispossession of the country’s peasantry from lands ecologically suitable for agriculture. See Browning, El Salvador, p. 234.
10. See Daniel Faber, “Imperialism and the Crisis of Nature in Central America,” Capitalism, Nature, Socialism: A Journal of Socialist Ecology, No. 1, (Fall 1988), pp. 39-46; and Daniel Faber, with Joshua Karliner and Robert Rice, “Central America: Roots of Environmental Destruction,” Green Paper No.2 (San Francisco: EPOCA, 1986). For a more sophisticated theoretical discussion, sea Daniel Faber, “Revolution, Imperialism, and the Ecological Crisis of Central America,” Latin American Perspectives (forthcoming), (Winter 1992).
11. See Tensie Whelan, “Rebuilding A Tropical Forest,” Environmental Action (November/December 1987), p. 16.
12. See Browning, El Salvador, pp. 246-247.
13. See López Zepeda, The Ecological Impact, p. 55.
14. See ICAITI, An Environmental, p. 187.
15. See Joshua Karliner, “The Ecological Destabilization of Central America,” World Policy Journal (Fall 1989), pp. 787-810.
16. Translated from Mario Payeras, Latitud de la Flor y el Granizo (Mexico: Joan Boldó y Climent, 1998), p. 50; cited in Florence Gardner, with Yaakov Garb and Marta Williams, “Guatemala: A Political Ecology,” Green Paper No.5 (San Francisco: EPOCA, Oct. 1990).
17. See Sean L. Swezey, Douglas L. Murray, and Rainer G. Daxyl, “Nicaragua’s Revolution in Pesticide Policy,” Environment, Vol. 28, No. 1 (January/February 1986), p. 9; and Sean Swezey and Daniel Faber, “Disarticulated Accumulation, Agroexport, and Ecological Crisis in Nicaragua: The Case of Cotton,” Capitalism, Nature, Socialism: A Journal of Socialist Ecology, No. 1 (Fall 1988), pp, 47-68.
18. See Swezey, et. al., “Nicaragua’s Revolution”; and Daniel Faber, at al, “Central America”.
19. Despite large doses of insecticides, Nicaragua’s cotton yields plummeted 30% between 1965-69. See M. Vaughn and G. Leon, “Pesticide Management in a Major Crop with Severe Resistance Problems,” (Proceedings of the XV International Congress of Entomology, Washington, DC., 1977), pp. 812-815.
20. See López Zepeda, The Ecological Impact, p. 34; and U.S.AID Guatemala I, Draft Environmental Profile on Guatemala (Athens: Institute of Ecology, University of Georgia, May 1981), p. 24.
21. See Howard Daugherty, et. al., Ecodevelopment, p. 30; and López Zepeda, The Ecological Impact, p. 33.
22. See David Weir and Mark Schapiro, “The Circle of Poison,” The Ecologist, Vol. 11, No.3 (1981), p. 123.; and Jeffrey Leonard, Natural Resources and Economic Development in Central America: A Regional Environmental Profile (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1987), p. 145.
23. See Martin Woltearding, “The Poisoning of Central America,” Sierra (September-October 1981), p. 64.
24. See ICAITI, An Environmental and Ecological Study, pp. 64-190.
25. See Wolterding, “The Poisoning,” p. 64.
26. UPI and AP wire stories, March 1988.
27. See Daugherty, et. al., Ecodevelopment, p. 39; and López Zepeda, The Ecological Impact, p. 44.
28. See Leonard, Natural Resources, pp. 157-158; and J. Millington, The Effect of Land Use Changes in Central America on the Population of Some Migratory Bird Species (Washington, D.C.: The Nature Conservancy, 1984).
29. See Weir and Schapiro, Circle of Poison (San Francisco: Institute for Food and Development Policy, 1981), p. 13.
30. A 1977 United Nations report on Nicaragua estimated that insecticide caused environmental and social damage had a total yearly economic cost of $200 million, while foreign exchange earned from cotton amounted to a maximum of $141 million, See L.A. Falcon and Rainer G. Daxl, “Informe al Gobiento de Nicaragua sabre Control Integrado de Plagas de. Algodonero,” (Managua: FAO/PNUD, 1977).
31. See Lori Ann Thrupp, “The Political Ecology and Pesticide Use in Developing Countries: Dilemmas in the Banana Sector of Costa Rica,” (Ph.D. Dissertation, Univ. of Sussex, 1988), pp. 157-263.
32. For a discussion of the ecological impact of non-traditional crops in Guatemala, see Gardner, Guatemala: A Political Ecology, pp. 8-11. See also, Shelley A. Hearne, Harvest of Unknowns: Pesticide Contamination in Imported Foods (New York: Natural Resource, Defense Council, 1984), p. 21; and Ruth Norris, Pills, Pesticides, and Profits (New York: North River Press, 1982), p. 27.
33. See Thrupp, “The Political Ecology,” p. 199. In Guatemala, cotton acreage has plunged by nearly 79% since the late 1970s. See James Painter, Guatemala: False Hope, False Freedom (London: Latin America Bureau, 1987), p. 22.

Tags: cotton, Agroindustry, pesticides, environmental destruction, colonialism

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