Although agrochemical products, pesticides and genetically modified crops are today part of everyday life for those who live in the countryside, they are relatively new in Argentina. Very few people, apart from enviromental activists, question their use. Yet the consequences — in both the short and the long term — of their impact on the health of those living near lands fumigated daily, with products that are forbidden in many countries around the world, are already beginning to emerge.

After years of spralling, obsessive and sometimes overwhelming investigation, journalist Fernanda Sández — in her recent book, La Argentina fumigada — lays bare the links that tie that food industry and agrochemical use to pollution, via insufficient state control, and the increasing numbers of deaths from new diseases as a result of using pesticides.

By Agustina Larrea

Conducting her research, Sández visited what she calls “the sprayed small towns” in agricultural provinces such as Entre Ríos, Santa Fe, Chaco and Córdoba, where she listened to alarming testimonies from people struggling in a battle that, as she says, “seems to already be lost but is still worth fighting for.”

During your research you inverviewed many of those who have made accusations, have complained about the use of agrochemicals and have protested. Most of them are women. Why do you think they are frequently labelled as “irrational” or “mad” people?

It’s very shocking. But some experts say that the enviromental struggle is a women’s one, as most of those battles regarding life and death are. We have the Mothers and Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo as an example of that.

Regarding enviromental issues, it’s frequently women who organise groups, who complain, who led the protests. Women are the ones that see their kids suffer when they have the first symptoms of diseases. Something similar happens with teachers, especially in rural schools. One of the neighbours I saw in a small town near Córdoba city told me: “We are the ones seeing our kids get sick.”

At the same time, those who fight for all this are seen as mad because the idea of fumigation as being something dangerous to human health is seen as something unlikely, ridiculous and even anti-scientific. But those “allegedly mad” were the ones who proved many things. In San Salvador, Entre Ríos, the so-called “Loca Kloster” ended up proving that the number of people dying of cancer grew as a consequence of the use of agrochemicals.

It must be difficult to open people’s eyes about these issues in such small societies. How do these “sprayed small towns” react?

It’s very curious. Because after years of silence, some people go and protest. I think that’s a consequence of despair. For many of those who protest that’s a way of saying “I’ve already lost everything, my son died, my neighbours are getting sick. I’ll do something, a rally, a silent march, something.” But it’s difficult anyways.

For many, if you protest the use of agrochemicals, you are definitely against farmers or producers. So if you have kids or if you know that a member of your family could lose his job because of you protesting, you may reconsider your position. For those who led the protests in the last years the damage has been terrible. Some of them were fired from their jobs, some of them are no longer invited to social events in those small towns. They turn out to be some sort of public enemy. What is important to understand is that they are the first boundary. But the vegetables in the salad we eat in the city were produced in similar conditions as the ones the people in the sprayed small towns live. Of course their exposure to that is more dangerous. But that is coming to us as well via the food we eat.

In your book you try to explain what you call “fallacies” about the use of pesticides. Why is it that those products seem unavoidable?

To me it is all related to silence. Agrochemical producers hide the cases of polluted soils, the deaths, the diseases and also the alternatives the system has to avoid pesticides. They say “it’s us or nothing.” Industrial production has proved it will leave millions of people without their daily ration of food. So, how do they explain that? Nowadays the world is producing more food to be eaten by the same people. So producing more — which is the argument put forward by those using agrochemical (firms) — does not guarantee that the hunger in the world will disappear soon. With this issue something similar happens to what magicians call “misdirection.” — I show you a trick I’m doing with one hand but the actual trick I do with the other hand, to which you are not paying attention. With industrial agriculture something similar happens: governments say growing soy brings into the country millions of dollars, that ours has to be an agro-exporter model, that Argentina is meant to be the granary of the world… but on the other hand, you have all the damage the agrochemicals bring with them. Even the Institute of the National Agricultural Technology Institute (INTA) warns about the misuse of pesticides, as it has been proven that they do not fade away in the air but remain in the soil.

When did Argentina start to use agrochemicals?

Genetically modified crops were implemented in 1996, so it’s been 20 years. And that has been growing exponentially. So now, for example, there’s no cotton or soy in Argentina that’s not transgenic. The agricultural business is the commodity. And the commodity has to do with being on a large scale. And that means thousands and thousands of seeds and acres.

You reveal that people in charge of controlling the use of pesticides have to sign a confidentiality agreement. Is the state in some way backing the use of these products?

Of course. And I would say it’s the state at all it’s levels. Nationally, they do it by encouraging monoculture, or passing legislation regarding the use of transgenic seeds. No-one points out that allowing those seeds in implies the use of powerful and dangerous pesticides.

Did you find any change in the situation after the arrival of the new government?

There are certain things that never change. This system of agricultural production is not going to change. Because it is a business that will support the current government — it supported the previous one and will support the next one. We are talking about a huge source of income for them.

And how do you assess the wider situation in Latin America?

Our region stands to lose out. International experts call Latin America “the world’s scrapyard for pesticides.” This means that those selling those products know that they are allowed to sell in this region what they wouldn’t normally be allowed in Europe or the United States. The problem is that in our continent there is a sad coincidence taking place nowadays — on the one hand there are lax governments and on the other there is a lack of legislation or laws that are not being applied. It happens in many of our sprayed small towns that there is a local law regarding fumigation but there is no office controlling what happens if someone violates the law. Or there is an office that runs until 5pm and farmers fumigate at night. In the end, the problem has always to do with control.

With this difficult scenario, who do you think can help improve the situation?

I think that beyond the activists or the groups protesting, it’s up to each one of us. The big battle will be the one we fight as consumers, because the system only minds about money. They are producing this way because it’s more profitable. I think the actual change will start with very tiny decisions, such as where we buy what we eat. It’s important to understand that these people are producing food out of venom.

Then, in the small towns near the farms, there are some demands that still can be made. I call it “the war of the metres.” You can’t avoid being fumigated near your house, but you can at least ask them to do it at least 10 metres away. Unfortunately, they won’t stop fumigating near rural schools either. But at least people can ask them to fumigate when their kids are not there. Sadly, the bigger war is already lost.

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