San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Residents Challenge Aerial Fumigation

DESPITE a five-year, five-ministry effort – or perhapsbecause of it – neighbors of the country’s banana plantationsare at risk of serious health problems from chemicalsused in aerial fumigation, environmentalists say.They are hoping the Ombudsman’s Office will decideto uphold a previous decision advising changes to theindustry.Pesticides meant to prevent the country’s number-oneagricultural export from devastation by disease are beingsprayed dangerously close to homes, schools and watersources, anti-pesticide groups maintain.A decree that went into effect at the end of last year –signed by President Abel Pacheco as well as the ministriesof Health, Environment, Transportation and Public Works,Agriculture, and Public Security – reduced the distancepesticides can be sprayed near public facilities from 100-200 meters to 30 meters.REGARDLESS of the distance, environmentalistMarco Machore alleges banana companies violate the regulations,putting plantation neighbors at risk of respiratoryproblems, skin rashes and even cancer.In an effort to halt the practice, Machore and plantationneighbors have filed injunctions before the ConstitutionalChamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV) and submittedcomplaints to the Ombudsman’s Office, the state institutionin charge of intervening in violations against the public.The Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock (MAG) saysthe minimum distances required between fumigation areasand the public are based on extensive technical researchduring the past five years. Furthermore, a joint commissionof authorities from the involved ministries inspects everyregion of the country twice a year to ensure producers arein compliance with regulations, according to MAG agriculturalengineer Emmanuel Villalobos.HOWEVER, according to Machore, who is a volunteerinspector on the Natural Resources Vigilance Committee of the Environment Ministry(COVIRENA), not only are people livingnear plantations being affected by pesticidesthrough the air they breathe, butthrough the water they drink and the foodthe eat.Pesticides are contaminating drinkingwater sources, ponds and irrigation ditchesused by campesinos, he said.The Latin American Pesticide ActionNetwork (RAP-AL) has also found cattle,fish and poultry are harmed by contaminatedgrass and water.The chemicals the network says causethe greatest concern are clorotalonil andmanzate, used to combat the fungusSigatoka in bananas.ACCORDING to a report by theRegional Institute for the Study of ToxicSubstances at Universidad Nacional(UNA), clorotalonil is a severe eye irritant,a moderate skin irritant, and has causedallergic reactions in plantation workers. Itis of extreme toxicity to fish and crustaceans.The U.S. Environmental ProtectionAgency has classified clorotalonil as a possiblecarcinogen.Universidad Nacional found manzateto cause some developmental malformationsin rats, particularly in the eyes, ears,body and central nervous system. Studiesfound manzate has a corrosive impact as aneye irritant and is also highly toxic to fishand crustaceans.The Ministry of Agriculture mustreview all pesticide formulas used by farmersin fumigation, based on a list of chemicalsapproved by the Ministry of Health.BANANA worker Miguel Mora suffersfrom chronic skin allergies and hasrashes and lesions on his chest and back.He attributes the problem to fumigations ofthe nearby Finca Bananera La Paz, ownedby Standard Fruit Company, in BananitoSur de Limón on the Caribbean Coast.Machore filed an injunction on behalfof this community’s population before theSala IV and although it has been admitted,a decision is pending. The injunctionclaims fumigation takes place inside theprohibited limits.“They are constantly fumigating, eventhough some areas are located less than 4meters (13 feet) from homes, trails andwater sources,” Machore said.He also filed an injunction on behalf ofthe population of Larga Distancia inMatina, near Limón, and next to the FincaBananera Carrandi, owned by GrupoACON.The court also accepted this injunctionand made recommendations for increasedvigilance last year. However, the newfumigation decree soon followed, on Dec.15, 2003.THE latest aerial fumigation decree,which reduced the minimum required distancefrom homes, updated laws from1984.“We worked for five years on this. Thepublic’s opinion was requested, when theproposal was published in (the officialgovernment newspaper) La Gaceta.Changes were made based on these opinions,”Villalobos said.The 99-article decree covers everyaspect of fumigation, from pilot regulationsto rules on chemical storage.The decision to reduce the minimumdistance was based on field research thatdetermined how far pesticides travel whenthey are applied by planes – which flyabout one meter above crops. Thirty meters(98 feet) was determined a safe distance ifnatural barriers such as trees and bushesare in place. Otherwise, the decree mandates100 meters (328 feet).OMBUDSMAN José ManuelEchandi has responded to the complaintfiled at his office by recommending aminimum distance of 100 meters fromwater sources.However, last month the NationalBanana Corporation (CORBANA)appealed his report. Echandi is still studyingthe appeal and was not expected tomake a decision until next week, accordingto his office.In the United States, minimumrequired distances in fumigation vary fromstate to state, but generally mandate 100feet from homes or schools. In Canada theminimum distance is 30 meters.RAP-AL supports a distance of 500meters (1,640 feet). Carlos Romero, adirector with the National Service ofUnderground Water Irrigation andDrainage, supports a limit of at least 200meters.The Libertarian Movement party originallysupported the RAP-AL movement,and threatened to file a case against thenew decree before the Sala IV. However,party members changed their minds afterdiscussion with plantation owners.“They explained to us the necessity ofusing pesticides and how they are appliedunder tight health controls. They are practicingsimilar standards on a global level,”said Libertarian congressman CarlosHerrera.THE ombudsman’s report also recommendedto the ministries of Health,Agriculture and Environment that plantationowners regularly test soils and air nearschools and homes for contamination.Authorities should ensure the public isproperly notified before fumigations happen,and they should take place after 5p.m., according to the report.“The problem is the public doesn’thave the information about their rights.They don’t know when fumigations aregoing to happen. Sometimes the pesticidesare made in stronger concentrations,because there is a strong outbreak of aplague, and these are the times the residentsknow what is going on because theyget pain in their eyes and feel sick,”Machore said.“THE banana plantations have a seriouspower over the people. And peoplereally don’t have a just access to information,”he said.According to the decree, neighborsmust be notified 24 hours in advance whenfumigation is going to take place. If theyare not notified, they should notify theministries of Health or Agriculture,Villalobos said.But, people are afraid to complain,Machore said.“Those who work on the plantationsdon’t want to lose their jobs, and they pressurethe others to not say anything,” hesaid. “There are many very strong interestshere, it takes a lot to try to make any standagainst these forces.”

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