The Global Pesticide Pushers in Latin America

March 6, 2008

In Santa Cruz, Bolivia, a booming lowland city near cattle ranches and thriving soy fields, I visit Campo Verde, a small, unassuming shop catering to small farmers at the Abasto Market. I scan the shelves and find at least a dozen of the world’s most toxic chemicals. One liter of Thodorn 600, or methamidophos, produced by Todo Agricola S.A., a Peru-based manufacturer, costs less than $10. The insecticide is banned in the United States and the European Union, as is monocrotophos, also an insecticide, going for $10 and change.

“The strongest are the most toxic,” says the shopkeeper, 21-year-old Alberto López. “They are more effective, and also cheap.” He tells me he has no formal training or much experience with the chemicals. Places like Campo Verde, where small farmers with little or no pesticides training can buy the most hazardous chemicals with ease, are widespread in Latin America. Large, medium, and small companies from industrial countries sell pesticides through local distributors, like the monocrotophos, which is manufactured in China but packaged and sold by a Bolivian company. Homegrown Latin American manufacturers also produce and sell generic versions, which are known to cause a number of serious ailments, from cancers to birth defects.

Although the United States and European Union have banned and imposed strict regulations on a long list of pesticides, they permit multinational agrochemical companies with U.S. and E.U. headquarters to sell those very chemicals in developing countries to both big corporate plantations and small farmers—which then export back pesticide-laced fruits and vegetables. In one exhaustive study of U.S. Customs records, the Los Angeles–based Foundation for Advancements in Science and Education found that between 2001 and 2003, 1.7 billion pounds of pesticide products were exported from U.S. ports; almost 28 million pounds of them were either banned, severely restricted, or unregistered in the United States.

The numbers sound alarming, but they represent a significant improvement over the foundation’s findings in past years. This does not mean, however, that U.S. pesticide manufacturers are becoming conscientious—instead, like multinationals in other industries, they are shifting their production offshore to cut costs and, in part, to avoid stricter environmental scrutiny at home. By moving production offshore and using local intermediaries, the agrochemical companies are expanding their business, with global sales surpassing $35 billion in 2006 and increasing faster in the past few years than they have in decades. Meanwhile, the pesticide industry has consolidated during the past two decades through mergers and acquisitions into six major companies—call them the Big Six—that control about 80% of the market.

These powerful corporations, with revenues often surpassing the income of the nations where they do business, are increasingly setting their sights on Latin America. In 2004, pesticide sales in the region grew by 25% over the previous year, the largest such increase in more than a decade, reaching more than $5.4 billion. One estimate puts Latin American sales at $7.5 billion by 2009. This rapid growth in Latin America’s pesticide market is driven by expanding crop areas, new disease outbreaks, and an increase in plantings of genetically modified (GM) crops. Agrochemical companies are actively entering the GM crop industry, which is growing by about 8% a year, with Latin America the largest customer of GM seeds after North America. This complements their pesticide business. Monsanto is far and away the GM industry leader, with a 90% market share. Soy, corn, cotton, rice, wheat, and other crops are increasingly of the GM variety, and are in many instances highly pesticide dependent. GM soy, for example, requires extensive use of the herbicide glyphosate, also known as Roundup, a chemical that has generated large-scale health complaints and cancer suspicions throughout popular soy-growing areas in Brazil, Argentina, and Bolivia.

Offshore production is another tactic. Bayer, Syngenta, and BASF—the top three multinationals that control more than two thirds of the Latin American pesticide market—all have production facilities around the world, including in Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico. In other cases, however, companies have sold rights to the chemicals to smaller companies. Take the Los Angeles–based Amvac Chemical Corporation. In a Los Angeles Times exposé published in April, the investigative journalist T. Christian Miller found that the company essentially specializes in buying up the rights to produce dangerous chemicals discontinued by their original manufacturers. One of the most striking examples is the insecticide mevinphos, which Amvac bought from DuPont in 1989 and now sells to Mexico and other countries, despite that the Environmental Protection Agency banned the chemical in 1994, after it became the leading cause of poisoning among California’s agricultural laborers.

But Amvac’s most insidious product has been dibromochloropropane, or DBCP, the active ingredient in Nemagon, an extremely toxic soil fumigant. Dow Chemical and Shell Oil stopped producing the chemical in 1977, when the Environmental Protection Agency suspended it after finding it could cause sterility in workers. Amvac began producing it and found a buyer in Dole Fruit, which had been using it on its Central American banana plantations since the late 1960s. It was finally banned in the United States in 1985.

Today, Dole, Amvac, Dow, and Shell are facing lawsuits from many thousands of banana plantation workers in Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama. The workers claim the chemical caused widespread sterility and other health problems, ranging from miscarriages and birth defects to liver damage and cancer. In one of the lawsuits, filed on behalf of nearly 5,000 banana workers, lawyers argue that during the spraying of DBPC on banana trees, the chemical fell on workers and entered their water supply. They charge that Dole did little to protect them by, for example, giving them gloves, safety goggles, or masks. The lawsuit argues, moreover, that Dow and Amvac knew about DBCP’s role in causing sterility, which has been public knowledge since the late 1950s, but the companies “continued to market, sell, and use pesticide products containing DBCP outside of the United States.”

In 2002, a bold judge in Nicaragua made a historic ruling when he demanded that the companies pay $490 million in compensation to 583 banana workers injured by DBCP. In July, five lawsuits over the use of DBCP on Central American banana plantations began hearings in a U.S. court. And in November, the first of these cases resulted in a jury award of $3.3 million to six Nicaraguans.

Despite several scientific studies that back the workers’ case, the companies continue to deny that their use of DBCP is at fault in the worker’s health problems. In court papers, Glenn Wintemute, an owner of Amvac, said the company issued safety recommendations to Dole and that it continued to sell the chemical because “it was a product that was profitable.”


The issue is not new. In 1979, journalists from the Center for Investigative Reporting published an article in Mother Jones that later became the landmark book Circle of Poison. Their work sparked an outcry in the media and in the halls of governments. Still, more than 25 years later, the vicious circle remains. Environmental groups like the Pesticide Action Network (PAN)—formed after the publication of Circle of Poison, and today composed of groups and individuals in more than 90 countries—have wasted little time moving to tackle the issue from a variety of fronts. Their constant and vociferous pressure has helped lead to two significant UN conventions aimed at curbing the sale and use of the most hazardous pesticides.

The first, the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, signed in 2001 and since then ratified by 150 countries, calls for the elimination of 12 highly toxic chemicals that remain in the natural environment for long periods, can be easily transported across the globe, and accumulate in the body fat of humans and animals. Nine of the 12 chemicals banned by the Stockholm Convention are pesticides and were formerly part of the so-called “dirty dozen” that environmental groups have campaigned to ban since the 1980s. Ten other chemicals are being reviewed for possible inclusion to the Stockholm banned list. The second UN treaty, known as the Rotterdam Convention, implemented in 2004 and ratified by 119 nations, requires that countries importing any of 39 listed chemicals (29 of which are pesticides) be informed of any bans or severe restrictions on them in the exporting country.

Jay Vroom, president of CropLife America, the trade association for pesticide companies in the United States, says the term ban belongs to “political jargon.”

“If you look at our laws and regulations in the U.S., there is no such regulatory process as banning a pesticide chemical,” Vroom says, arguing that some pesticides have simply had their registrations canceled. “This is the exact legal term for what many people would say is a banned chemical.”

He adds: “Simply because a product is not registered for use in one country does not mean it is banned. That is a very crude term. There are a lot of good, rational drivers on why a product may not be registered in a country where it is produced but perfectly legitimate and safe to use in another country with different kinds of crop pest infestations and climate conditions.”

Erika Rosenthal, a lawyer with the Washington-based Center for International Environmental Law and an expert on pesticides in Latin America, sees a duplicitous tactic behind this argument over terminology. “Instead of allowing their products to go through the registration cancellation process—commonly known as having their products banned for use in the U.S.—many companies will voluntarily withdraw or cancel the pesticide’s registration in an effort to avoid bad publicity,” she says. In other cases, the companies withdraw some chemical ingredients from the market because governments are requiring them to seek new approval for certain pesticides through a costly re-registration process. According to Barbara Dinham, a longtime activist with PAN, about a third of the pesticide industry’s research dollars are being spent on supporting re-registration in the European Union. In the United States, according to Rosenthal, some of the pesticides that companies export are never registered to begin with.

More than 70,000 different chemicals are available on the market today. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has estimated that 1,500 new ones are introduced each year—an astounding regulatory challenge for governments. Rosenthal points out that most developing countries do not have the ability to monitor the application of “restricted use” pesticides in the field. Unlike in the United States, where many restricted-use pesticides must be applied from within a ventilated cab, or only by licensed personnel, in the South these products are routinely applied in the field by workers with no training, no protective equipment, and little or no ability to even understand warning labels.

Rosenthal says the EPA’s pesticide export policy is downright naive. “The U.S. pesticide export policy assumes that the importing government is the best suited to make pesticide import decisions. But the problem with this convenient justification is that agricultural companies have enormous influence in these countries—in some countries there is a rotating door between the head of the national CropLife group and the ministry of agriculture. Many governments in developing countries lack the professional staff, analytic capacity, and regulatory infrastructure necessary to even evaluate pesticide risks. This is no secret; developing country governments have made it clear in their national implementation plans for the Stockholm Convention, for example. In some countries, the registration process is not more than an administrative rubber stamp.”

But the Rotterdam and Stockholm conventions pertain only to a few of the chemicals used in agriculture. And although the FAO revised its International Code of Conduct on the Distribution and Use of Pesticides in 2002—urging that the most dangerous pesticides, including those on the World Health Organization (WHO) list of hazardous chemicals, not be used in developing countries unless control measures “can ensure that the product can be used with acceptable risk to the user”—the code is strictly voluntary.

Most everyone I speak to agrees that the UN conventions are important contributions to curtailing the trade in the most hazardous pesticides. But many pesticide experts in Latin American countries say that, in their current incarnations, these UN treaties do not address the main pesticide problems facing the region. Desiree Elizondo, former director of the Nicaragua environmental ministry and a consultant on regional pesticide issues, says few of the chemicals that are actually used in Latin America are named by the conventions. “We need a much more radical change at the international level,” she says.

The Latin American Pesticide Action Network (Red de Acción en Plaguicidas y Sus Alternativas para América Latina, or RAP-AL), a regionwide network of groups, has been pressing for just such a change: the complete ban on the use of all pesticides found on the World Health Organization’s list of extremely hazardous (1A) and hazardous (1B) chemicals, the vast majority of which are not mentioned in the UN conventions. Elsa Nivia, an agronomist from Colombia and coordinator of RAP-AL, says those chemicals are a disproportionate cause of deaths and poisonings in the region. “The present ecological, social and cultural conditions of the region make it impossible to have safe or appropriate management of such pesticides,” she says.

“Progress has been slow,” concedes Gero Vaagt, head of the FAO’s pesticide management program, who agrees that the present UN treaties don’t go far enough.

Vroom of CropLife, on the contrary, says the treaties have been a success. “We think that there has been a lot of progress in the implementation of these international conventions,” Vroom says, “and a lot of capacity building around the world in almost any country that needs to be a sovereign entity with regard to the regulation of these complex products.”

Beyond the strengths and weaknesses of the existing multilateral agreements in controlling hazardous pesticides, the international trade system—from the WTO to regional and bilateral trade deals—is also undermining national pesticide laws and weakening the ability of Latin American governments to restrict dangerous chemicals. This is especially so in the case of the WTO’s demand for “harmonization,” also referred to as “concurrence” and “equivalence,” which means setting minimum common standards for pesticides and food between countries.

For example, if a country wants to enact a stricter standard on pesticides than the WTO’s, it could face the risk of being challenged as a “technical barrier to trade” and receiving millions of dollars in trade sanctions. Using the investor rights provisions in Chapter 11 of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), a U.S. pesticide maker, the Chemtura Corporation (formerly the Crompton Corporation), has sued Canada for $100 million stating that country’s ban of the chemical lindane on canola crops was tantamount to an expropriation of its investment. Even though lindane is also banned in the United States, the company argues that there was no “conclusive scientific evidence” to support such a ban. The Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) and several bilateral trade deals are largely patterned on NAFTA and include similar investor rights clauses.

According to Fernando Bejarano, coordinator of the Mexico group Pesticide and Alternatives Network, the downward harmonization imposed by the WTO on standards has already been at work in Central America, where several pesticides that are classified by the WHO as “extremely or very dangerous” have been downgraded to “dangerous” or “slightly toxic.” In the Central American Common Market, the labels on some formulations of paraquat, which has been banned or severely restricted in a host of European countries, has been downgraded to a blue or “slightly toxic” label.

The WTO’s binding, global standards on the acceptable pesticide residues in food are decided by the UN Codex Alimentarius Commission. The Rome-based commission’s workings and decisions are dominated by food and chemical industry lobbyists, says Mary Bottari, director of the Harmonization Project for Public Citizen, who has attended some of the Codex meetings held in the United States. “When the U.S. officials go abroad to these Codex meetings, they typically bring with them a lobbying team of 10 or 15 industry representatives to decide what the global rule is going to be on the various pesticides,” she says. “You basically have U.S. agency officials in these harmonization bodies agreeing to rules that are weaker than those of the U.S. What is happening is a race to the bottom in regulatory standards.”


In Bolivia, I talk to Guido Con­darco of Plagbol, an independent group that advises the Bolivian government on pesticide issues. He says the group found that four of the 14 pesticides that are officially banned in Bolivia—Aldrin, DDT, Folidol and Endrin—continue to be sold in the country. Bolivia has the highest rate of growth in pesticide imports in the region, more than doubling its imports over the past five years, 30% of which is contraband.

“The farmers do not understand the risks involved [with these chemicals], nor even that they are prohibited,” Condarco says. “There is also little control by authorities.”

It’s an all too common story throughout Latin America. Pesticide use is increasing each year in the region, which is scrambling to boost its agricultural exports in a globalized economy.

But the millions of farm workers across the region are still largely untrained and ill-prepared to handle the chemicals safely, and government regulations, where they exist, are usually unenforced. That, says health researchers, is also leading to an increased chance of birth defects and developmental problems among the children of farm workers as well as an increased likelihood of skin disease, miscarriages, sterility, and cancer among workers. According to the FAO, while developing countries worldwide use only about 20% of the pesticides used each year, its farm workers suffer 99% of pesticide poisonings. This amounts to about 70,000 yearly poisoning cases, which can lead to death and a far greater number of serious, long-term illnesses, according to the International Labor Organization.

Take Eugenia Mejías, one of Chile’s thousands of temporeros, the seasonal farm workers who help Chilean exporters get their crops to port from October to February each year. Mejías never thought working on a farm—near the medium-sized agricultural city Rancagua, located in the Central Valley, Chile’s principal fruit-growing region where most of the pesticides in the country are used—would result in a mother’s nightmare.

But in 1989, her daughter Evelyn was born with congenital malformations, or birth defects. Confined to a wheel chair for life, the child grew at an infinitesimally slow pace; before she died at age 14 in 2003, her body was the size of a three-year-old’s. Her back was twisted with her spine exposed, her legs were paralyzed and crooked, and a small device had to be implanted in her skull to continually rid her brain of excess water.

During her pregnancy, Mejías lived just yards away from an apple orchard regularly fumigated by planes. No appropriate precautions were taken to protect nearby workers and residents. Mejías and her family say they remember smelling and breathing the chemicals in their home and enduring headaches, stomachaches, diarrhea, and vomiting. Evelyn became a national symbol in Chile, representing that country’s many children born with malformations stemming from the misuse of hazardous pesticides. “We want to speak out because this must stop,” Mejías says.

Evelyn’s tale continues to be repeated many times over, says Alicia Muñoz, secretary-general of the Chilean group National Association of Rural and Indigenous Women. Muñoz says agricultural businesses in Chile are mostly careless when it comes to the health of their workers. “They are not informing their people, for example, telling them when they can safely return to the fields after aerial spraying.”

In 1999 the Hospital of Rancagua produced a study that found an unusually high incidence of miscarriage and babies born with defects in the Central Valley. The study used statistical models showing that because of pesticide use, the chances of children being born with birth defects is 40% greater for people living in the region than elsewhere in Chile. Other studies in the country have racked up similar results. Manolis Kogevinas, an expert on occupational epidemiology based in Barcelona, says of the Rancagua study, “It would be reasonable to find such effects, because we have enough experimental data to support such a hypothesis.”

Constanza Cerda, a Chilean grandmother, founded a group in 2001, after jumping through bureaucratic hoop after hoop in the country’s public health care system for the sake of her grandson Rodrigo, now six years old, who suffers from a plethora of birth defects. The group, called Help Rodrigo, includes 34 women from her town, Melipilla, who all have children suffering from birth defects linked to pesticides. But their demands for cheaper access to adequate medical attention for those suffering the hidden costs of Chile’s agricultural export boom has so far fallen on mostly deaf ears.

As Cerda looks at Rodrigo, who after 15 operations still shows outward signs of problems, including a cleft lip and an abnormally sized head due to hydrocephalus, she sees a boy as energetic and curious and fun-loving as any other. But because of exposure to pesticides, he’s likely to need medical attention for the rest of his life.

“Why do we keep allowing companies and governments to continue doing this?” she says. “What’s missing is a fundamental respect for all life.”

Jimmy Langman is a freelance journalist based in Chile and Bolivia. He has written about Latin American issues for Newsweek,The Nation, the London Guardian, and The Miami Herald.

Tags: agriculture, pesticides, multinationals, agrochemical industry, offshore production

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