A Giant Spraying Sound

Since NAFTA, Mexican growers are spraying more toxic pesticides on fruits, vegetables–and workers.

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On a single scorched block in Villa Jua’rez, Sinaloa, Mexico, four young men have leukemia. Another died of the disease last spring.

The cluster of sickness may have nothing to do with the tons of toxic pesticides that flow into every water source available to the residents of this small farm town; it may be unrelated to the four nearby airstrips where farmers load planes with pesticides to spray over the surrounding fields; it may not be linked to the work that brings young men home soaked to the skin with the chemicals they apply to crops.

But while there has been no comprehensive study of the tragedy, you can search far and wide and not find a single doctor who thinks it is anything but the pesticides that are making the young men of this flat, hot valley sick.

“There is no one who works in this clinic who doesn’t believe the leukemia is related to the agrochemicals,” says Dr. Sonia Leon, an emergency room physician at the government hospital in Villa Juarez. During the growing season, the clinic treats between 50 and 80 cases of pesticide poisoning a week. “When I go home every night, I run away from here as fast as I can,” Leon says. “But what of the people who live here? They look up, and the chemicals drift down from the planes into their eyes. They walk to the fields, and they are dusted with chemicals from the leaves. They are surrounded; they have nowhere to run.”

In the Culiacan Valley of Sinaloa, it is normal for 3,000 field workers a year to be hospitalized from what is called pesticide intoxication–the racing heartbeat, loss of consciousness, pounding headache, high temperature, nausea, and burning

skin that come from overexposure to pesticides. Throughout Mexico’s agricultural belt it is common for children to break out with skin rashes that doctors cannot explain. It is considered inevitable to die young from a combination of malnutrition, inadequate living conditions, and chemical inhalation.

On the unnamed street in Villa Juarez where leukemia is the rule, Ubaldina Soto, 35, rocks back and forth on a porch chair. She clutches a photograph of her son, dead this March of the insidious cancer at the age of 16.

“They say it’s pesticides that killed him. How should I know?” Soto asks. “I’m just a mother. I want them to investigate, to clear this place of contamination so this doesn’t happen to anyone else. A parent shouldn’t live to see her children die.”

The death of Adrian Allesquita Soto, who worked in the fields on weekends during the school year, is well known to the doctors of Villa Juarez, and so is the intolerable level of pesticide-laced filth that pervades the town. In a September 1993 analysis by a local human rights group of 100 water samples from the drainage canals that meet in Villa Juarez, 95 percent tested positive for 10 organophosphate compounds and 3 organochlorines. Of the 13 compounds, only 4 are permitted for use in Mexico today.

It has been this way for generations in the fruit- and vegetable-growing regions of Mexico. Growers slather their farmland with chemicals to increase production of the tomatoes, cucumbers, bell peppers, melons, and other crops that make up close to half of the fresh vegetables sold in the United States during winter. The indiscriminate use of pesticides in Mexico stretches from the tomato fields of Sinaloa to the tobacco plantations of Nayarit, where Huichole Indians are dying at alarming rates (see sidebar).

Since the danger of Mexican pesticide abuse first received widespread attention a decade or so ago, improved practices by Mexican growers have cut the danger to U.S. consumers of ingesting significant amounts of agrochemicals. Paradoxically, the very steps taken to prevent harm to the U.S. consumer have upped the danger to Mexican field workers. Growers now use fast-decaying organophosphate compounds that leave less residue on produce but are potentially lethal to field workers.

Government officials promised–and environmentalists hoped–that the North American Free Trade Agreement (in effect since Jan. 1, 1994) would reduce the level of pesticides coating Mexico’s fields, but so far this hasn’t occurred. In fact, the competition that NAFTA has set off between growers may actually increase the amount of pesticides used on Mexican crops.

Responsibility for pesticide use lies not only with Mexican growers but also with their U.S. agribusiness partners. A Mother Jones investigation shows that these companies, which supply capital to more than 40 percent of large-scale agribusiness in Mexico, distribute produce that has been sprayed with pesticides not permitted in the United States. Even when Mexican growers limit the use of pesticides to those allowed in the United States, they look the other way as workers apply chemicals without the basic protective gear and precautions mandated around the world.

The Culiaca’n Valley produced much of the $3 billion’s worth of produce exported from Mexico to the United States last year. Since 1988, when Mexico began to open its markets to foreign investment, business in the valley has skyrocketed. About 250,000 acres of vegetables are farmed today, more than five times as many as 10 years ago.

Ninety percent of this acreage is in the hands of large-scale producers, wealthy men who drive Chevy Suburbans equipped with car phones. The valley stretches from the Gulf of California east to the Sierra Madre Occidental Mountains, and its roads and highways are lined with packing plants painted with familiar American brand names such as Dole.

Between December and May, 250,000 workers spray and harvest endless rows of plants, as planes loaded with pesticides zoom low overhead. Most of the workers are Mixtec Indians from Oaxaca, an impoverished state on Mexico’s southern edge. Many live in huge migrant farm camps built by growers–long rows of corrugated tin shacks that roast the workers in the valley heat.

Others, not so lucky, camp out in the fields, bathing and washing in the drainage canals that flow by, the water tinted a sickly chemical yellow. At night, the disease-ridden camps are suffused with the strangely sweet scent of pesticides. In the fields, the fumes can be overpowering.

Ever since U.S. growers realized they could capitalize on Mexico’s winter warmth to grow fruits and vegetables when U.S. farmland lies fallow, they have been a powerful political force in agricultural valleys such as Culiacan. Until 1992 Mexican law prohibited foreign ownership of land, so U.S. agribusiness created a complex system that allowed it to own Mexican produce. Under a typical arrangement, a U.S. grower, distributor, or supermarket chain forms a legal partnership with a Mexican grower and provides the capital, seedlings, and technology to cultivate crops. The grower provides the land and the field workers. Often the contract specifies the pesticides sanctioned by the U.S. partner and lays out the safety measures necessary to use them.

In practice, the selection and use of pesticides is usually left to the Mexican partner, who is under keen pressure to produce fruits and vegetables of carefully regulated size, color, and shape. Committed to hitting the market at exactly the time when their U.S. counterparts cannot, Mexican growers feel compelled to use agrochemicals to control the growth cycles of their crops.

“In Culiacan sometimes they’ll spray tomatoes 25 times before they’re picked,” says Robert Paarlberg, professor of political science at Wellesley College and an expert on agriculture in developing countries. He is concerned that the number of acres that are oversprayed will rise with free trade, as more U.S. growers compete in the Mexican market. “The big distributors are down there now trying to convince Mexican supermarkets that these perfectly round, perfectly formed fruits are what their customers want. It’s a big step backwards as far as I’m concerned. People used to be perfectly happy to buy oranges that didn’t all look alike.”

A 1992 Government Accounting Office study revealed that Mexican growers use at least six pesticides that are illegal in the United States, although some U.S. officials say the number has since declined. According to a source in the Mexican Ministry of Agriculture, more than 165 million pounds of pesticides were used in the country in 1993. But the government does not release such figures, making it impossible to tell how NAFTA has affected total pesticide use.

On a single day’s visit to a farm near Culiacan, this reporter spotted workers using parathion and methamidophos, two of the most toxic organophosphates on the market. The local growers association claims neither is still used here. One was being sprayed in the field of a grower under contract with Dole Food Co.

The less acutely toxic compounds paraquat, endosulfan, and malathion were also in use that day, but no workers were following the safety instructions on the skull-and-crossbones labels. The instructions say special gloves and masks should be worn when handling the chemicals. They say the chemicals are toxic and inflame the skin. They say it all in English, which few of the workers understand, or in Spanish, which few can read.

Thankfully, no growers were applying the still more toxic organochlorine compounds that once were the norm here. One grower said, “We use the strongest stuff we need to keep the product coming up on schedule but that won’t show up on inspection. The organochlorines are a dead ringer for getting caught.”

Most U.S. growers with operations in Culiacan claim they are not responsible for the way their Mexican partners manage their workers. “We just contract with them to buy the product,” says one grower who asked not to be named. “We do it precisely to avoid the kinds of hassles you are giving me.”

Confronted with the fact that toxic organophosphates were sprayed in a field the company has under contract, Dole Food Co. spokesman Tom Pernice said, “We recognize at the corporate level that this is an issue, and we are working on an approach that can be used in foreign countries. We are going to craft something that could be successful.” Pernice says that Dole is involved in pilot programs intended to prevent pesticide abuse, but he did not return repeated phone calls asking him to name the programs.

So far, the efforts of companies like Dole to prevent pesticide abuse have been met with skepticism. “I work for U.S. growers who have operations in Mexico, so I’m the last one to criticize, but this is one area where I think they are terribly out of line,” says David Runsten, an agricultural economist and consultant for the nonprofit California Institute of Rural Studies. “You very often find people walking around with backpack sprayers wearing sandals and no protective clothing. If [the growers] are conscious of the effects on workers, they should be ashamed. Essentially they are using up these workers, using up their health very cheaply.”

When Mexican, Canadian, and U.S. officials first discussed creating the world’s largest free trade zone, environmentalists hoped the accord would obligate Mexico to enforce its environmental standards. But neither NAFTA nor the Global Accord on Trade and Tariffs is designed to address social inequity. The pacts focus on reducing the danger to consumers from pesticide-tainted produce, and not on protecting workers.

Sandra Marquardt, a spokeswoman for the Washington, D.C.-based environmental group Greenpeace, says the system is structured to “make sure the residues don’t show up in the marketplace. The longer this continues, the more we’ll have great-looking fruits and vegetables–and dead workers. That is just not a socially acceptable way of buying food.”

Since NAFTA went into effect, U.S. producers have dramatically increased their investments in Mexico. According to a source in the Mexican Confederation of Agricultural Producers, U.S. investment in Mexican agriculture is up by $8 million since 1992.

All this is good news for the Mexican economy, which desperately needs foreign investment. It is likewise good for U.S. consumers, since it will probably result in lower prices. Further, backers of agribusiness argue that free trade itself will limit pesticide use. Since pesticides make up as much as a third of the average cost of farm production, Mexican growers claim to be the first to want to bring pesticide use down. (Grower Rosario Beltran could give them a few tips–see sidebar.) By teaming up with U.S. agricultural concerns, they say they can learn the latest techniques for growing produce without heavy pesticide use.

The problem with this scenario is–as always in Mexico–seeing that it comes to pass. In the past six years, Mexico has made hopeful strides toward stricter environmental standards, but its new regulations are undercut by a total lack of enforcement.

For example, despite the 1987 establishment of an elaborate agency to regulate pesticide use, Mexico still does not monitor pesticide residue levels on produce. (The Mexican government leaves that to growers and U.S. border authorities, who inspect an average of 1 percent of all shipments.) And while Mexico has comprehensive occupational-safety laws that mandate extensive precautions for workers who come into contact with toxic chemicals, there are no inspections to see that the laws are enforced.

“The regulations can be very good on paper, but if they don’t verify and enforce them, it’s as if they don’t exist,” says Dr. Arturo Lomeli, a prominent Mexican pesticide expert who is a member of the prestigious environmental organization El Grupo de los Cien. “Inspection and enforcement of worker-safety standards are almost unheard of. In all my years traveling to the fields, I’ve never seen a worker properly garbed for pesticide application.”

If there is hope that the Mexican government will tackle pesticide abuse, it lies, advocates say, in NAFTA’s torturously complex side accords on labor and the environment. Under the accords, private citizens have the right to complain if a government or industry is violating environmental or labor laws.

But under the pact, carefully worded to preserve the autonomy of the three countries, the person, group, or agency registering the complaint must be able to prove that the government engaged in a persistent pattern of failure to enforce the law effectively. The complaint must be brought first to a national office, which decides whether to set up an intergovernmental dispute-settlement panel. The panel, made up of representatives from all three governments, can recommend fining the offending government or initiating trade sanctions against it.

Unfortunately, environmentalists say, this process puts workers and environmentalists in the position of enforcing standards that the government should.

“It puts the burden on the victims to prove that they have been wronged,” says Monica Moore, program director of the San Francisco-based Pesticide Action Network, North American Regional Center. “It’s like putting out a little suggestion box in the capital city and calling that policy. It’s just not the real world.”

Esther Schrader is the award-winning Mexico City correspondent for the San Jose Mercury News. Research assistance by Anna Snider.


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