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Latin America struggles to reduce illegal pesticide use

As agricultural exports boom, the region is slow to ban the hazardous

Farmers in the United States now face stricter controls on the pesticides they spray on fruits and vegetables.

But what about pesticides used on the hundreds of millions of dollars in grapes, apples, coffee, and other produce arriving in American grocery stores from Chile, Brazil, or Colombia?

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There are moves in Latin America to gradually restrict or at least, officially, ban the use of the most hazardous pesticides. But enforcement of pesticide use in the region is spotty at best.

Experts say that in the effort to push agricultural production to ever-higher levels, many nations here have failed to create corresponding policies and programs necessary to safeguard workers and the environment from the harmful effects of pesticides.

"For all practical purposes, we don't have any norms, there is nothing to comply with. Everything is voluntary," says Patricio del Real, who worked for 15 years advising farmworker organizations on pesticides.

Moreover, many Latin American states have reduced protection at the behest of big business.

In Colombia, the hazardous insecticide endosulfan used in the cultivation of coffee was prohibited in 1995. Despite the ban, officials say it is still widely used.

In the Dominican Republic, all of the pesticides on the infamous "Dirty Dozen" list of the world's (now 18) most hazardous pesticides were banned in 1991. But nongovernmental organizations have documented that these dangerous chemicals still can be easily purchased in rural areas.

In Brazil, which has one of the most advanced pesticide laws in Latin America, some previously prohibited pesticides are now registered for use due to heavy pressure from industry.

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Chile plans to ban

While on the positive side Chilean officials say this year they plan to phase out the use of chemicals that are on the Dirty Dozen list, there still are virtually no regulations on how pesticides are used in the country.

Maria Elena Rozas, coordinator of a coalition of social and environmental organizations in Chile called the Alliance for a Better Quality of Life, says that 40 of the chemicals on the "United Nations Consolidated List of Pesticides Prohibited or Severely Restricted by Governments" are being used in Chile.

"There is strong pressure from industry to permit the use of the most hazardous pesticides because they are cheaper and considered by them to be more effective," Mrs. Rozas says.

Imports of pesticides triple

In 1998, Chile's imports of pesticides nearly tripled from what it imported in 1984 to 16,583 tons.

Most of the nearly 1,000 types of pesticides used here are for the production of fruit and wood exports. According to Chile's Ministry of Health, more than 2.2 million persons in rural areas and some 500,000 workers are exposed to pesticides each year.

"In general, the companies are very efficient at complying with norms required for selling their products abroad, but when it comes to workers there is little attention," Mr. del Real says.

According to Manuel Parra, chief of the Environment and Working Conditions Unit for Chile's Ministry of Labor, children often work on agricultural plantations in which they sometimes illegally handle pesticides without any protective gear or training. "Children in the range of 14 and 18 are not supposed to have dangerous jobs according to our laws in Chile. But this is not the reality," Dr. Parra says.

In 1997, 34 children were affected by pesticides in their workplace, and 14 of those cases were due to children directly applying chemicals, say experts.

Margaret Reeves of the San Francisco-based Pesticide Action Network says part of Latin America's problem is rooted in the United States and other pesticide exporting countries. "Many of these exported pesticides are no longer used in the countries from which they are exported. But there is no US law to disallow exports nor to provide for adequate monitoring of exports," Ms. Reeves says.

But there may be a light at the end of tunnel says Luis Gomero, the coordinator of the Lima, Peru-based Pesticide Action Network Alternatives for Latin America, which has member groups in every nation in Central and South America.

"There are alternatives. And in the next century, there will be a confrontation between the large agrochemical businesses that are heavily using pesticides and other ecological approaches, such as biological control. We have options that are technologically competitive with the pesticide consumption," Mr. Gomero says.

Programs needed

Gomero says that Latin America countries urgently need to begin strong programs to reduce pesticide use while subsidizing an agricultural model not dependent on pesticides. "We will need at least 40 years to make the agricultural model in Latin America a sustainable one," Gomero says. "But it is better late than never."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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