By Marcela Valente
BUENOS AIRES, Mar 4 (IPS) - Once a serene refuge from urban pollution and chaos, the Argentine countryside has now become a place fraught with risks for many local residents. The massive use of pesticides on fields of soy, the country's top export, is creating a "health catastrophe" in the rural sector, environmentalists warn.
A report by the Rural Reflection Group (GRR), a local environmental organisation, points to an increase in health problems in the countryside, such as cases of cancer at early ages, birth defects, lupus, kidney problems, respiratory ailments and dermatitis, based on the accounts of rural doctors, experts and the residents of dozens of farming towns.
The GRR has been carrying out a campaign since 2006 to identify towns affected by the spraying of glyphosate, the herbicide tolerated by the genetically modified (GM) soybeans planted in Argentina, which kills all plants other than the crop itself.
When glyphosate is sprayed from planes, the most efficient means of application, it drifts onto nearby populated areas, says the report "Stop the Spraying".
Fifty percent of Argentina's farmland is planted in soy – a proportion that rises above 80 percent in the central province of Córdoba, for example.
This South American country exports around 48 million tons of soy a year to China and India. And according to official figures, some 200 million litres of glyphosate a year are used on the crop.
Because it is easy to grow, and due to the rising demand in the Asian markets, soy has expanded in Argentina since the mid-1990s at the expense of other crops, livestock and forests.
But apparently not only agricultural diversity has been lost.
Soybean fields have replaced the protective green belts that traditionally surrounded rural towns, consisting of family gardens, dairy and small livestock farms, and fruit orchards, leaving local populations exposed to the damages of aerial spraying, says the study.
Glyphosate is the active ingredient in Roundup, a weedicide patented by U.S. biotech giant Monsanto and sold along with its Roundup Ready GM soy.
The company denies that Roundup, if properly used, is harmful to human health.
Glyphosate is also the product used in aerial fumigation of illegal coca plantations in Colombia. Damages to agriculture and local residents caused by spraying along the Ecuadorian border have been protested by that country.
Weed and pest control is mainly carried out with glyphosate and the pesticide endosulfan. People living in the neighbourhood of Ituzaingó Anexo, in the suburbs of the capital of the province of Córdoba, have been demanding a halt to the spraying since 2000.
After several lawsuits and health studies, the courts ordered that the spraying be temporarily suspended in areas near the neighbourhood in late 2008.
As part of its "Stop the Spraying" campaign, the GRR has backed complaints and legal action brought by local residents and gathered testimonies and medical histories of people affected by the spraying. The final study was presented this year to the federal courts and to Argentine President Cristina Fernández.
GRR lawyer Osvaldo Fornari told IPS that the federal courts were asked to investigate the approval process for herbicides and pesticides. He said that based on the "precautionary principle," a cautionary measure should be taken, such as the suspension of the sale and use of products suspected of polluting the countryside and causing health damages.
The group's goal is to get the suspension of spraying in Ituzaingó Anexo to be adopted at a national level, as a preventive curb on the use of the more toxic agrochemicals. The environmentalists argue that provincial authorities have a hard time curtailing the use of the chemicals, whose use was authorised by national officials in the 1990s.
The activists also asked the president to declare an environmental emergency in connection with the problem.
Fernández ordered the creation of a committee, coordinated by the Health Ministry, to investigate causes and effects related to the chemicals, work in the area of prevention, and provide "assistance and treatment" to people who have been affected by herbicides and pesticides.
The presidential decree also ordered the adoption of guidelines for the rational use of agrochemicals, and, if necessary, their "elimination."
Agronomist Alida Gallardo, an organic farmer in the Buenos Aires province town of Trenque Lauquen, said the problem in that area is "extremely serious."
"We live on the outskirts of town. Next to us are fields of sprayed soybeans. Three years ago they burned our crops, but now it is more under control," she told IPS.
"Soybeans brought with them the use of these toxic chemicals, and now they are being applied to other products, like wheat. People have to understand that the pollution is not only limited to the countryside, but affects urban food consumers as well," she said.
Another farmer, Omar Barzeta, who belongs to the Agrarian Federation in the northeastern province of Santa Fe, told IPS that "toxic chemicals can be used with caution, because it is necessary to fight weeds and insects. But the drift must always be controlled.
"There is a law that bans spraying in populated areas, but it is true that it is not really respected. The municipal government should make sure that it is enforced, but with the consensus of everyone – farmers and local residents alike," he added.
In Fornari's view, pollution with glyphosate is a consequence of the "agro-export model" based on the intensive cultivation of soy. "The essence of the model of soybean production is a deserted countryside, without farmers; it is a model that foments the depopulation of rural areas."
The GRR report notes that soybeans fields reach all the way up to the outer streets in some towns. Farm machinery and containers used in spraying are washed and stored in urban areas, and soybeans covered in toxic substances are stored in silos located in the midst of homes, schools and other buildings.
The personal accounts compiled in the report come from people in dozens of towns in the provinces of Buenos Aires, Córdoba, Entre Ríos and Santa Fe, the heart of the country's breadbasket, where locals are demanding buffer zones around populated areas, which would be off-limits to fumigation planes.
Thirty years ago, living in the countryside was synonymous with healthy living, but now "it is suicidal," said Mario Córcora from Junín, a city in the northern part of Buenos Aires province, which has been heavily affected by glyphosate spraying.
In Santa Fe, people from the Malvinas neighbourhood in the city of Rosario successfully fought for the relocation of eight grain silo facilities from urban areas, complaining that they were causing damages to the health of local residents.
A study by the Italiano Garibaldi Hospital in Rosario showed that in six towns in the region, the incidence of testicular and gastric cancer in males was three times higher than the national average; the incidence of liver cancer was 10 times higher; and the number of cases of pancreas and lung cancer was two times higher.
The Córdoba province town of Alta Gracia, where the family of legendary Argentine-Cuban revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara – an asthmatic boy at the time - moved in the 1930s, is now one of the places affected by crop spraying.
Today, someone like Che Guevara would find it impossible to live in Alta Gracia, once known as a retreat for people with respiratory ailments, for its dry climate and fresh air.
In Basavilbaso, in the northeastern province of Entre Ríos, 43-year-old Fabián Tomasi, who used to work spraying crops, has lost muscle mass and suffers from infections in the joints, skin problems, and digestive and respiratory ailments that force him to sleep sitting up. None of his health problems have been traced to any factor other than exposure to toxic agrochemicals.
Another case that has been studied in the same province is that of the Portillo family in the village of Costa Las Masitas. The father, Walter, is in a wheelchair because of nerve damage. One of his sons died at the age of eight after suffering fever, vomiting and headaches. Two of the boy's young cousins also died.
The justice system is investigating whether the river that runs through the area is polluted. Machinery from nearby farms is washed in the river, where the children swam and which serves as a source of water for the family and their livestock. (END/2009)