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  Number 287 | Junio 2005
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Nicaragua

Victims of Nemagon Hit the Road

For three long months, thousands of Chinandega families affected by the pesticide “Nemagon” and other lethal chemicals as a result of their former work on banana and sugar cane plantations camped out in Managua, presenting their claims and exposing their pain. This new stage in their struggle for justice offers some valuable lessons.

Envío team

The march began in February. More than three thousand men, women, children and elderly people walked the 150 kilometers from Chinandega to the capital city, Managua. These were only the most organized of the victims, but their pain represents more than 80,000 Nicaraguans of all ages estimated to have been affected by direct or indirect exposure to the chemical poison called Nemagon.

Sociopathic transnationals
leave behind thousands of victims

Nemagon and Fumazone, the commercial names of DBCP (dibromo-chloropropane), were invented to control microscopic nematode worms that live in the roots of banana trees, affecting the plants and discoloring their fruit. The intense yellow color of bananas would appear to be an important factor related to good sales in international markets. In a world of appearances where today’s market rules like a god, organic banana farms that produce tastier fruit with less perfect skins or “containers” cannot gain a foothold.

In the 1960s, the fruit transnationals—Standard, Dole, Del Monte, United Fruit (today Chiquita Brands)—began to use Nemagon massively on Central American, Caribbean and Philippine banana plantations, as well as on sugar, pineapple and cotton plantations. Various chemical companies manufactured the pesticide: the Occidental Corporation, Dow Chemical and Shell Oil. Together, Dow and Shell exported as much as 24 million pounds of Nemagon each year during the 1970s until 1977, when the trade union at an Occidental factory in California identified the first case of male sterility due to exposure to DBCP.

In 1979, the product was banned in the United States and taken off the market due to its proven toxic effects on human chromosomes. Research reaffirmed what had already been observed for some time—as an internal Dow report noted as early as 1958—that Nemagon caused serious illnesses and had carcinogenic effects. It was also proven that it contaminated the air, soil and water, with environmental effects lasting for generations. Costa Rica prohibited the use of Nemagon in 1978, while in Nicaragua, Standard Fruit continued massive use of the chemical. During the Sandinista revolution, Standard Fruit left the country but Nemagon continued to be used on nationalized banana plantations util 1985, when it was stopped without explanation. Victorino Espinales, the tenacious and committed banana workers’ leader, says that DBCP is still present in some of the pesticides used in Nicaragua.

Why did the distribution of Nemagon continue after it had been banned in the United States? The fruit transnationals act with the same sociopathic impulses as any other corporation: lacking empathy, they are unable to put themselves in the place of others; they have neither a conscience nor remorse and they act irresponsibly. In other words, they suffer from the social disease so clearly captured by Mark Achbar, Jennifer Abbott and Joel Bakan in the brilliant Canadian documentary “The Corporation.” In 1993, over 16,000 people affected by Nemagon around the world had already been documented. At that point, Nicaragua’s victims were just being tallied for the first time, and only 195 had been identified.

Death over a slow flame

Ten years ago (April 1995), envío reported on the first lawsuit presented in Galveston, Texas, against Shell, Dow and Occidental for their production and distribution of Nemagon. More than 16,000 victims from banana plantations in Asia, Africa and Latin America accused these powerful companies of irreversible damage to their health, and demanded indemnification. Our correspondent Raquel Fernández then reported on how the pesticide was used:

“Nemagon can be used in different ways. A very frequent method is to inject it directly into the soil, as close to the roots as possible, with a sort of giant needle. This system is very efficient and economical, because almost none of the chemical is lost, but it has one drawback: when the nematocide stream hits any kind of obstacle, like entangled roots or stones—which it frequently does—the chemical spits in any direction, splattering the operator, who rarely uses protective clothing. Sometimes operators barely have clothes, using only old pants and sometimes a shirt with many holes. Even if they use adequate clothing, they cannot avoid the aggression of the nematocide; it penetrates not only skin but also the respiratory tract, causing the same devastation.

“Nemagon is also applied by adding it to irrigation water released by aspersion towers. A worker explains that the product is applied this way when the soil is dry and there is no wind. Under these two conditions, the plantation is irrigated with water for half an hour, another half hour with the Nemagon, and another hour with only water to guarantee penetration. ‘But when we apply Nemagon this way,’ he notes, ‘the smell travels for two leagues [some 11 kilometers].’

“When this procedure is used to apply the pesticide, workers are not always on the plantation, because irrigation makes it harder to work. The irrigation usually takes place at the end of the day so that the roots are affected throughout the night. But very early the next day, dozens of semi-naked and barefoot workers once again enter the plantations. When the sun rises and heats up the earth, the farms become cauldrons of venomous vapor that, over the years, slowly pickles the workers to death. The long, wide and intercrossed banana leaves form an almost impenetrable roof hindering ventilation.”

This hell on earth was created on banana plantations in the Philippines in Asia, in Burkina Faso and the Ivory Coast in Africa, in Central America, Latin America and the Caribbean. The fact that the pesticides came from the North American paradise meant that nobody mistrusted them.

“As if you were on fire inside”

Nobody explained the risks to Nicaragua’s banana workers. Nor to their wives, although they didn’t collect the bananas but rather washed, handled and packaged the poison-covered fruit, preparing some ten thousand or more boxes every day, depending on the season.

The warning signal went off in the early 1990s in Chinandega and other northwestern communities. Children were born with strange deformities; women were having miscarriage after miscarriage; couples inexplicably couldn’t conceive; men’s bodies became encrusted with sores that never healed; and more and more people were afflicted by a strange skin itch, “making you sweat all day long, as if you had a fire inside, as if you were burning up.”

Some thought it was “God’s punishment” for some individual or collective sin nobody could actually identify. But others though the punishment wasn’t divine—it never is—but rather human. They thought somebody was responsible, that the sinners were the fruit companies that had spread Nemagon and other toxic chemicals in Chinandega’s fertile lands for so many years.

A 1999 document by the Water Resource Research Center (CIRA) of Nicaragua’s National Autonomous University (UNAN) titled “A Study of Pesticide Contamination of the León-Chinandega Aquifer and Soils,” indicated that so many pesticides were used in northwestern Nicaragua that samples of well water found contamination in one out of eight wells. Contaminants included organochlorine compounds and large concentrations of toxaphene, DDT and DDE—substances that have been banned internationally due to their high toxicity.

Two years earlier, another UNAN study had revealed high concentrations of DDT and DDE in the breast milk, abdominal fat, blood and umbilical cords of 99% of 154 women who gave birth in the Chinandega Hospital and other health centers in the same region. Other studies have confirmed these findings: pesticide concentrations 10 times higher than acceptable levels were found in the breast milk of nursing women in Chinandega.

Nemagon on trial

In September 1992, Álvaro Ramírez, president of the Nicaraguan Association of Democratic Attorneys, was invited to take part in the First Seminar on Grassroots Legal Services, Human Rights and the Administration of Justice in San José, Costa Rica. There he first learned of the lawsuit that Costa Rican banana workers had brought against Standard Fruit for damages and injuries caused by Nemagon. When he returned to Nicaragua, Ramírez placed the Attorney’s Association at the service of this just cause, and made initial contacts with the Banana Federation of the Farm Worker’s Association (ATC). Contacts were also sought with different US law firms to sue Shell for irregularities related to the production, transport, sale and use of Nemagon after it had been banned in the United States.

It was the first time any legal action was taken in Nicaragua, although Nemagon’s legal history began in the 1980s in other parts of the world. Since then, there have been numerous lawsuits, groups of lawyers, periods of silence, different tricks… It’s been a long struggle, and it’s not over.

In Nicaragua’s case, Dow Chemical reportedly paid no less than $22 million to US attorneys contacted by Marcelino García, today a legislative representative for the FSLN, as compensation to 812 former Nicaraguan banana workers affected by Nemagon. Only $143,300 was distributed to those workers however; all the rest of that huge settlement remained in the law firm’s hands.

In January 2001, thanks to the ongoing struggle and lawsuits brought by affected banana workers, Nicaragua’s National Assembly passed Law 364, which backs the lawsuits being brought by Nicaraguan victims against Dole, Dow and Shell in US courts of law. In December of the next year, the three corporations were ordered to pay $490 million to 583 of these workers. All of the companies refused to comply, alleging irregularities in the lawsuits. The struggle continued. And continues. This year’s march and “camp-in” in Managua represent one more chapter in the desperate yet hopeful efforts of the victims and survivors of this terrible injustice. Meanwhile, the Central American Free Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA) threatens to nullify the effects of such lawsuits.

Panamanian sociologist Raúl Leis recalls the best-known maneuver by the companies responsible for this tragedy. It took place in 1997, “when thousands of workers around the world affected by the chemical were induced by their attorneys and corrupt politicians to accept a miserable $100 indemnification. When they accepted, they signed an agreement stating that they renounced any future claims or lawsuits. Only those who didn’t swallow the bait can still fight today for a fairer settlement. In Nicaragua, following the passage of Law 364 and aware of the progress of organized workers, the corporations along with both the Nicaraguan and US governments have repeatedly tried to impede the lawsuits of those affected by Nemagon.”

The Pesticides Action Network (PAN) has worked for years throughout the world on a “Campaign against the Dirty Dozen,” warning about the risks of indiscriminate use of 12 pesticides considered highly dangerous. The list includes Nemagon, or Fumazone, as well as DDT and Paraquat or Gramoxone.

The long marches
from Chinandega to Managua

The first march and camp-out in Managua of Nemagon victims took place in 1999, during the administration of Arnoldo Alemán. Hundreds of former banana workers came to the capital to deliver a letter to then US Ambassador Oliver Garza, requesting support in their lawsuits against companies from his country. They obviously didn’t get it, but they began to make themselves heard.

The next year, with Alemán still heading the government, many more walked from Chinandega to Managua again to pressure the government, demanding the creation of legal procedures for responding to their demands. For two weeks, they organized a range of actions and hunger strikes, and successfully lobbied the National Assembly to pass Law 364.

By August 2003, the former banana workers had already organized ASOTRAEXDAN, and they held new protests in Managua, where they accused the Ojeda, Gutiérrez, Espinoza and Associates law firm of boycotting the legal process against US companies and attempting to defraud the workers. They also accused Nicaragua’s Prosecutor General Julio Centeno and Adjunct Prosecutor María Lourdes Bolaños of the same.

Months later, in January 2004, some 5,000 members of ASOTRAEXDAN began their third long journey on foot from Chinandega to Managua, to set up a protest encampment on a vast empty area left by the 1972 earthquate, directly across the street from the National Assembly and presidential office buildings, now planted only with a few trees. On Sunday, March 21, 2004, after almost two months of camping out in the sun and dust, protected only by sheets of plastic, and in the company of those who came to show their solidarity, President Bolaños agreed to meet with a delegation of various victims’ groups.

The outcome of this meeting was the so-called “El Raizón Agreements.” The first of these refers to the unity of different workers’ groups; the second ratifies and certifies the agreement reached with the Bolaños government in November 2002, in which it promises to provide victims with legal assistance in the United States, via the Nicaraguan Embassy in Washington; and the third enabled the human rights ombudsman, Benjamín Pérez, to formally present Nicaragua’s Nemagon case to the International Human Rights Commission in Geneva. The fourth agreement, however, was the most important: if the peasants would abandon their encampment, Bolaños would agree to refrain from reforming Law 364. The peasants ended their protest and returned to Chinandega. But their case remained bogged down. Was it due to negligence? Complications? A lack of commitment, and if so whose? The struggle continued.

“A legitimate and civic struggle”

The march that began in February of this year was also massive. The outpouring of support was due to fears that Law 364 would be reformed by the National Assembly, where PLC and FSLN representatives—interested in constitutional reforms that would reduce the President’s powers and mete out government positions according to the terms of the Alemán-Ortega pact—had turned their backs on the victims.

Victorino Espinales led this march, as he had the three previous ones. As the Nemagon victims’ spokesperson and representative, Espinales estimates that some 2,000 Nicaraguans have already died because of this deadly pesticide. This year, they came to Managua to demand US$17 billion in indemnification and backing from their government to counteract the legal maneuvers employed by Shell, Dole and Dow to avoid responsibility.

Finally, on May 13, after long, hot, hungry days and tremendous tenacity, the Nemagon victims reached a 21-point “preliminary agreement” with the government. During both the march and these negotiations, other Nemagon victims accompanied the banana workers, such as sugarcane workers from the San Antonio sugar refinery, also in Chinandega, who suffer from chronic renal insufficiency. The negotiations were based on a review of the El Raizón Agreement. In the document it produced, the government highlighted “the constructive spirit demonstrated by the leaders of the Nemagon victims,” and recognized that “the struggle of these victims is legitimate and civic in nature. ”

Consultations and coffins

The May 2005 agreements are a new and significant achievement for the Nemagon victims. Although they specify some immediate measures, all parties involved realize that more medium- and long-term solutions are going to be needed.

The government agreed to continue providing free medical care for the victims’ multiple health problems through Ministry of Health programs and they will be considered “a priority care group.” The Ministry of Health will need to seek national and international resources to cover such treatment in the 2006 budget. Local and national volunteer monitors named by the victims will keep tabs to make sure these services are actually provided.

When the accords were signed, the Ministry delivered 3,883 identification cards to the victims, to obtain care in health units throughout the country. By that time, the Ministry of Health had already provided 5,580 medical consultations to victims, each with its corresponding clinical record—which the US corporations being sued are already calling into question. An additional 848 specialized treatments out of 1,230 programmed have also been provided.

The government also decided to cover the costs of up to 300 coffins and funerals annually. And it also agreed to provide assistance through housing programs to the extent possible, contingent upon public investment plans.

For the water, land and forests

The government agreed not to attempt to reform or repeal Law 364, the “Special law for processing lawsuits by people affected by the use of pesticides fabricated with DBCP.” This helped dispel fears among the former banana workers that President Bolaños, in his obsequiousness to US interests in Nicaragua, would annul this legal instrument or dilute its impact.

The government also agreed to maintain a 2001 agreement prohibiting the importation of 17 toxic pesticides into Nicaragua. It further agreed to present the National Pesticides Commission’s evaluation of the new “dirty dozen” and recommendation that their permits be cancelled due to damage to human health and the environment.

Other significant commitments were made from the ecological viewpoint. The National Integrated Pest Management Commission agreed to develop a manual on integrated management of pests affecting sugar cane, bananas and other crops. This commission and the National Pesticides Commission also jointly decided to design an educational campaign to promote healthier and more environment-friendly productive options. The first radio messages of this campaign hit Nicaragua’s airwaves in June.

The quality of water in watersheds, rivers and wells in the zones affected by this poison will also be evaluated; life in the communities where the victims are concentrated will be studied; and proposals for organic farming will be formulated. Commitments were also made to launch reforestation projects in León and Chinandega, and in zones where cotton was extensively farmed. It was agreed that 80 people would be trained to work as grassroots environmental promoters in the poisoned zones, through the Special Attorney’s Office on the Environment.

“To die with dignity”

With the signing of these agreements, thousands of victims returned to Chinandega while three hundred more remained in Managua. How long will they all survive? During the camp-in—which some international correspondents nicknamed Nemagon Citadel—dozens of foreign journalists visited Nicaragua to cover this story.

One of them was Vicente Boix Bornay from Catalonia: “We visited many homes in the communities of Chinandega, with many victims, many misfortunes, but Lebster’s case is particularly noteworthy. His physical deficiency contrasted with his amazing psychic strength. His body was spectacularly deformed, above all his extremities. When we visited, he was lying in bed, suffering from strong stomach pains, which are insufferable. Sometimes, coincidence leads us into situations that we never would have wanted to witness. His mother was with him, sorrowfully crying, impotent, as she stroked her son’s stomach. She could not even pay the ten córdobas for a taxi ride to the hospital… Two weeks after our first visit to Chinandega, Lebster died. The suffering of a boy, and the martyrdom of his mother, Angela, had come to an end. Who will be the next? Perhaps it’s a cynical question, but common around here.

“Wherever the legal struggle of the banana workers leads, the damage has already been done. As Victorino Espinales says, a victory in court will enable the victims to ‘die with dignity.’ A strange ambition in a world so… globalized? No, brother, if it were like that, the whole world would dream of a dignified death. I don’t know, but as a friend of mine said as he read this text: ‘It’s a strange world we live in, where some people die on banana plantations from contact with chemicals produced by others so we can eat our bananas and then die of too much cholesterol.’”

“The shook us out of our lethargy
and mobilized our conscience”

envío spoke with Nicaraguan theologian and poet Michelle Najlis, who visited the Nemagon victims with ecumenical Christian groups numerous times during this fourth mass protest in Managua. She sees the seeds of hope in the lessons learned from these men and women:

“Despite the social immobility that afflicts Nicaragua, the ongoing encampment of Nemagon victims in the capital has been a blessing, a cumulative lesson. The first lesson is that despite the terrible damage to their bodies caused by poisoning, these countrymen have not succumbed to impotence. They have even found strength from the death that constantly surrounds them and has already taken so many lives. They have taught us not to succumb to the idea that nothing can be done about the dire situation in Nicaragua, or in the world. With their ailing bodies, they have called on us to challenge impotence and renounce our comfort. Each of their lean-tos—in this city that they have all built from sticks, hammocks and black plastic—has been a prophetic cry, screaming out to Nicaragua to change. We can quote Isaiah, who said, ‘by your wounds, we were healed’ of our selfishness.

“Another lesson is that over many years of struggle and long periods of silence and setbacks, these peasants have known how to create and consolidate a strong and disciplined organization. This explains the tenacity with which thousands of them have remained here, for almost three months, living under very difficult conditions—baking under the sun, thirsty, deluged first by dust and then by rain—in an empty lot in front of the National Assembly.

“Their struggle has also shown that nonviolence is a form of struggle, and that it does not mean impotence. To the contrary, a nonviolent struggle requires more awareness, organization, resoluteness and perseverance than violent struggle. In Nicaragua, it means even more: challenging this entire culture of violence that has crisscrossed our history and is frequently cited as the only option capable of achieving victories.

“Finally, a broad slice of civil society—including ecumenical Christian groups—has mobilized to accompany the ‘Nemagoners.’ We visit them to help them pass the time, talking with them, playing with their children, to learn about their struggle, to be with them, giving them our support with clothing and food, celebrating mass and prayer, with movies, parties and music concerts… Are we ourselves mobilizing? They have mobilized our consciences. They figured out how to earn the respect of Nicaraguan society, not only because of the legitimacy of their demands, but also because of their exemplary attitudes and strategies. They have helped awaken civil society. Their actions should be the first steps on a new road in Nicaraguan society.”

“Faith that can move mountains”

Michelle Najlis, clearly inspired by the experience, continued: “In Nicaragua, we often see that religion operates in such a way as to extend resignation and amplify feelings of impotence and submission, as if it were the ‘the will of God’ that two-thirds of Nicaraguans live in misery and oppression, suffering illnesses and abuse, resigned to so many calamities in order to obtain a prize in the hereafter. These men and women have shown no such resignation. Their faith in God was the root of their struggle and their hope, the source of the resoluteness of their non-violent struggle. They have shown us a faith that is able to move mountains.

“It was also beautiful to see how the victims of these many poisons included not only their own legitimate claims in their lawsuits and agreements, but also demands for all of us, and for Mother Nature: reforestation, safeguards against the future use of all pesticides, and protection of water as a resource belonging to us all.

“Another great lesson is that the agreements they signed before returning to Chinandega have not led the protesters to fall into triumphal irresponsibility. They are remaining watchful and alert, keeping their eyes fixed on the National Assembly representatives who showed so little sympathy with their cause, and on the government. I would also stress the goodwill of the negotiating commission members, both the peasant representatives and the governmental officials. Health Minister Margarita Gurdián, who headed the government delegation, deserves special mention for the responsible and sensitive role she played.”

And in this way, those accompanying the “Nemagoners” for three months in Managua said goodbye, happy for their victory, committed to remaining ever watchful so that the agreements will be fulfilled, and with tears of gratitude for the lessons—like seeds—that they left planted in Managua.

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