Costa Rican Banana Workers Protest Pesticide Poisoning

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The Costa Rican agricultural workers union, Conatrab (Consejo Nacional de Trabajadores, National Workers Council), has launched an appeal to trade unions and environmentalists in the United States for help in its campaign against the U.S. chemical and fruit companies responsible for the large-scale use of a harmful pesticide.

The pesticide in question has the generic name DBCP, and is marketed under various commercial names, such as Meagon, Fumazone, and Amvac. It began to be produced commercially in the 1950s by Dow Chemical, Occidental Chemical, and Shell. In the 1970s, it began also to be produced by the Israeli company Dead Sea Bromine.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has indicated that DBCP is a carcinogen, particularly conducive to cancer of the testicles and stomach. Its most dramatic effect is atrophy of the testicles and sterility in men.

In the context of the traditional society of Costa Rica, the chemical castration of many thousands of men at the peak of their reproductive lives has had a chain-reaction of social and psychological effects.

The history of the use of DBCP is, moreover, an illustration of the response of big capitalist companies confronted with a choice between profit and endangering human beings.

In the 1950s, Shell hired Dr. Charles Hines of the University of California School of Medicine in San Francisco to test the pesticide. Hines found that small amounts of DBCP, five units per million, caused retarded growth in rats, as well as damaging organs, and in particular causing atrophy of the male sexual organs.

In 1961, Hines was contracted by Dow, as well as Shell. He recommended that the Food and Drug Administration approve the sale of DBCP but that it be kept in concentrations of under one to 1 million and that anyone in contact with it should wear protective clothing. However, Shell’s specialist in FDA approvals dismissed these recommendations as impractical.

In 1964, a report in Dow Chemicals archives dismissed the earlier findings about the dangers of DBCP. In fact, as subsequent experience showed, they were swept under the rug. In that year, the pesticide was approved for use by the Environmental Protection Agency. In 1969, it began to be marketed extensively throughout the world.

In 1975, the effects of DBCP began to show up in ways that could not be ignored or dismissed. In 1975, the EPA found DBCP to be a carcinogen. In 1977, it was found that out of 114 employees at an Occidental plant producing the substance, 33 had become sterile. The EPA banned the use of DBCP for nearly all its uses in Hawaii.

Dow informed Standard (the distributor) that it preferred to halt production of the chemical until further tests were completed. But Standard threatened Dow with a breach of contract suit if it failed to supply it and offered to indemnify Dow against any claims resulting from use of the pesticide.

In 1979, when Costa Rica banned the importation of DBCP, Standard simply shifted its stores of the product to Honduras. It continued to sell it also in Nicaragua and the Philippines.

At the end of 1978, Costa Rican doctors were reporting numerous cases of sterility apparently caused by DBCP. But representatives of Standard met with the Costa Rican minister of health and got his agreement not to publicize these reports.

In February 1979, the Costa Rican national insurance agency (INS) started paying its first compensation to workers injured by DBCP.

In 1982, suits for compensating Costa Rican workers were brought in U.S. courts. In October 1992, the first out-of-court settlement was made by U.S. chemical companies, with some workers getting as much as $22,000. But the workers were made to sign agreements in English, which they did not understand. Some 6500 suits by workers remain pending.

In 1995, the chemical companies were forced to pay $21 million compensation to the city of Fresno, Calif., and agree to financing a water purification works until the year 2035, which would cost $100 million.

The extent of these compensation payments is some indication of the damage caused by DBCP. But they are a small portion of the material costs, which were probably discounted by the companies at the beginning when they decided to ignore the results of the tests showing the harmful effects of the chemical. Moreover, the human costs are incalculable.

In 1997, Conatrab issued a statement estimating the number of persons harmed by DBCP in Costa Rica at 25,000. The Central American Human Rights Commission (COHEHUCA) and the Costa Rican Human Rights Commission (CODEHU), as well as trade unions, dismissed the companies’ offers of compensation as a “mockery.”

Conatrab’s struggle has continued both against the attempts by some companies to get rid of the problem by minimum compensation and by others to deny it altogether. In February of this year, it organized demonstrations around the presidential palace and called for a campaign of road blocks. It is seeking support for this campaign in the United States.

Conatrab can be contacted through its general secretary, Orlando Barrantes, Apartado Postal 7-0330-1000, San Jose, Costa Rica; fax (00506) 273-4674; telephone (00506) 273-3390; e-mail <allenc@cariari.ucr.ac.cr>. The union’s documents in Spanish are available from Socialist Action.

-GERRY FOLEY

Socialist Action News

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