Features » May 10, 2005
In the ’70s and ’80s, the banana companies Dole, Del Monte and Chiquita used a carcinogenic pesticide, Nemagon, to protect their crops in Nicaragua. Today, the men and women who worked on those plantations suffer from incurable illnesses. Their children are deformed. The companies feign innocence.
CHINANDEGA, Nicaragua—Carlos Alberto Rodriguez sits prostrate in his rocking chair all day, from dawn to dusk. At first view it looks like this ex-plantation worker—young to be retired, at the age of 55—is giving his body a much-deserved rest after a lifetime of hard work, in which 14-hour days and six-day weeks were the norm. But when he took his retirement nine years ago, Rodriguez’s health quickly deteriorated. First he lost his memory, then his ability to speak, and finally, his capacity to engage in any way with the people around him.
Today, Rodriguez, reputed to have been a jovial bon vivant, is unable to walk or take care of himself. His wife Membreño stopped working in order to care for him. She spoon feeds him and washes him daily; she addresses him like one would a newborn.
For 23 years, Rodriguez irrigated the fields of the Chinandega area, the most important banana region in Nicaragua. His job was to ensure that the pesticide used at the time, Nemagon, was distributed uniformly over the entire surface of the fields. It was a meticulous assignment that he performed dutifully, without thinking for one minute that the fine whitish mist that fell atop the banana plants every dawn was in fact one of the most dangerous poisons ever created. A pesticide so toxic that it was banned from use in its country of conception, the United States, where today those responsible for public health believe it should never have been put into circulation.
“When he’d come home from work he’d have it all over him,” explains Membreño, who herself worked for the plantations from 1972 to 1984, and who was operated on last year for uterine cancer. “On his skin, all over his clothes, in his hair—he was always covered with Nemagon.”
In Chinandega, a two-hour drive from Managua and one of the poorest provinces of the country, Rodriguez’s case is no surprise to anyone. The ailments suffered by the banañeros, or banana plantation workers, are familiar to all in this region of earthen streets and cement-block houses.
Mostly in their fifties, the banañeros suffer from kidney failure, diminishing eyesight and bones that are weakening at the rate of octogenarians. They can manage sleep only with the assistance of medication that saps both their morale and their money. The sickest among them have cancer of the reproductive system, testicular in the men, uterine in the women; their days are numbered because treatment is as expensive as their wallets are empty.
Dr. Francisco López of Hospital España in Chinandega has personally examined more than 3,000 ex-plantation workers suffering from diseases directly related to their exposure to Nemagon in the ’70s. “The most common effects are sterility, chronic kidney failure and skin disease,” he says. “Some see their nervous system deteriorate. The women exposed show abnormally high numbers of miscarriages, and many of their children are born with congenital deformities.”
López estimates the number of affected banañeros at about 15,000. In the ’70s, when Nemagon was used, there were 28,000 people working in the plantations.
Nemagon—also known as dibromochloropropane, or DBCP—was developed in the early ’50s in the United States by Dow Chemical Co. and Shell Chemicals and marketed as a miracle product.
Used to protect banana and pineapple plants, Nemagon destroys the microscopic worms that attack banana tree roots. Nemagon makes the trees grow and stay healthier, longer.
Today, we know that the companies had reason to worry about the potential danger of their product from the start. Laboratory tests conducted in the ’50s revealed that Nemagon caused testicular atrophy in rats. Regardless, scientists defended the product and in 1961 it was given the green light by the Department of Agriculture. The pesticide was instantly successful with American fruit companies, which exported it to their plantations in Central America and all over the world.
The health problems caused by Nemagon were first observed in 1977. That year, a third of the workers in a California factory that produced the chemical were declared sterile. They sued Occidental Petroleum Corporation, their employer, which was forced to pay millions in compensation to the affected workers.
That same year, the Environment Protection Agency ordered American companies to stop using Nemagon, judging it too noxious for human contact. But the ordinance was valid only for the United States. Standard Fruit Co. (now known as Dole Food Co. in the United States) continued to use Nemagon in Honduras as late as December 1978, a year after the disclosure of the sterility problem, as well as at its Philippine plantations until well into the late ’80s. The result: Tens of thousands of workers continued to be exposed to the nefarious chemical for years.
Pabla de la Concepción Núñez, 68, worked in the Chinandega region plantation from 1970 to 1980. From 6 a.m. to 11 p.m., five days a week, she worked in the field cutting off banana bunches, pruning the flowers off the banana trees and sticking “Dole” stickers onto the bananas.
“We would only get half an hour to eat lunch,” she says. “We had to be fast. We didn’t have time to go and wash our hands. The water we drank came directly from the runoff from the fields.”
Years of exposure to Nemagon have left their mark. Núñez now has kidney problems, and the skin of her legs is cracked and regularly infected. In the early ’80s, she gave birth to a stillborn child. Then she had a son who was born without his left hand.
The workers’ children are often those most affected by the pesticide. When Simcoa Paniagua and Mercedes Alvarez, both of whom were exposed to Nemgaon during the ’70s, tried to have a child, they first had a son with such extreme deformities he died at the age of 2, and then they had José Alberto. He is 24 today, and unable to either walk or talk. His gaze is permanently haunted by a look of terror, as if he were witnessing a never-ending sequence of horrific images.
The most striking case, though, remains Roberto Francisco, who at 11 is a likeable, smiley and bright boy, born with his four limbs so atrociously deformed that he is unable to move. Roberto is confined to his wheelchair, which his friends manipulate to get him to school and back. “I can’t do sports, but I like watching my friends play soccer,” he says when asked what he likes to do in his free time. When he grows up he hopes to become “a deputy, an engineer or a lawyer.” Roberto’s father worked in the plantation from 1971 to 1992. For now, his grandmother is raising him; she makes a living selling corn patties that she cooks in her own wood stove.
According to Dr. Barry Levy, former president of the American Public Health Association, Nemagon is so dangerous that it should never have been put into circulation. “The product’s creators should have become alarmed as early as the mid-’50s, when lab tests revealed it was making rats sterile,” he says. “But that didn’t stop it being put on the market.”
“The most amazing thing about the Nemagon catastrophe is that it could have been avoided,” Levy continues. “The companies went forward. And then when the American government abolished the product here, they expedited it to other countries.”
Who made the decision to ignore the alarming effects of Nemagon on laboratory rats? What ethical principles guided those involved in the product’s development? The answers may never be clear, but a comment by Clyde McBeth, one of the chemists behind Nemagon, is telling. In response to a question about the sterility caused by the pesticide in certain Central American workers, he told a Mother Jones reporter: “From what I hear, they could use a little birth control down there.”
Battling for restitution
Dawn is breaking in El Viejo, a village near Chinandega, and dozens of people are heading toward an empty lot. Dressed in rags and dirty dresses, barefoot, the masses walk under the heavy mango tree branches and enter a large straw hut that protects them from the sun. Some sip on Coca-Cola, others pull a couple of cordobas from their pockets to treat themselves to a corn patty. After an hour, a crowd of 200 workers has gathered to discuss the millions of dollars they are owed.
Victorino Espinales, 51, an ex-Sandinista warrior sporting a belly, a hard stare and the gift of gab, takes hold of a microphone and welcomes everyone. “Thank you for coming,” he says, smiling. “It is essential that we remain united in this, the most important battle of our lives.”
Espinales was 25 in 1979 when he enrolled in the revolutionary forces that threw out dictator Anastasio Somoza that year. He took up arms again a few years later, in 1983, to lead a 2,700-man division to battle the Contras, the right-wing militia supported by the CIA that aimed to topple the Sandinistan government.
Now he uses the courtroom as his battleground. Since the mid-’90s, he has been the head of an association of banañeros united in their suit against the American companies. A slew of cases concerning the 8,000 victims in the Chinandega region are currently in the works.
Two major agreements made in the ’90s fueled the banañeros’ hope. In 1997, all the concerned companies, with the exception of Dole, agreed to give the approximately 26,000 workers from Central America, the Philippines and Africa $41.5 million, a sum that, once divided among the workers and their lawyers, brought $1,500 to each. In Costa Rica, an earlier 1992 agreement had allotted $20 million to 1,000 affected workers.
Himself the son of a banañero, Espinales began working intermittently in the banana plantations at the age of 18. Today he suffers pain throughout his body, especially in his kidneys. A sperm exam performed a few years ago revealed that 60 percent of his spermatozoids were dead, and part of the remaining percentage were seriously defective.
Since then, he has refused to consult a physician. “I am resisting,” he says. “I’m afraid of what the doctor would tell me. I’m afraid it will be the end.”
In the meantime, he and his association have accumulated quite a few judicial victories, which nevertheless remain symbolic. In December 2002, as a result of one of the most elaborate court cases ever seen in Nicaragua, a national tribunal sentenced the American multinationals Shell, Dole and Dow to pay $489 million in damages and interest to 450 workers affected by Nemagon.
The companies, however, refused to appear in court during the trial and still refuse to pay a penny of the fine. In fact, the companies in question joined together to reject the workers’ accusations. They deem the Nicaraguan court system to be corrupt, and therefore incapable of determining a fair sentence.
According to Freya Maneki, director of corporate communications for Dole, no study has proved that workers have suffered health problems after having been exposed to Nemagon. “We believe that the majority of the plaintiffs have not been affected by Nemagon,” she says.
Scot Wheeler, spokesman for Dow, says that his company did its share by sticking warning labels on the vats of Nemagon, encouraging workers to read them and asking that employers provide their workers with the necessary safety equipment.
These are incendiary words to Dr. Arthur L. Frank, director of the environmental health department of Philadelphia’s Drexel University and a researcher at the National Cancer Institute. “The labels were written in English,” Frank says. “Even if they had been written in Spanish, there’s no guarantee the workers could have read them, since many among them are illiterate. And it isn’t as if the companies weren’t aware that the product was dangerous. If the product was making people sick here in the States, it’s only logical that it would also make people sick elsewhere in the world.”
In 2003, the ex-workers joined forces with a California law firm in order to sue the companies on American soil, where they would be forced to attend the trial. But the document presented in court contained a handful of technical errors, resulting from the translation from Spanish to English, and was not admitted.
In December 2003, the companies concerned—Shell, Dow and Dole—fought back by bringing a $17 billion countersuit against the ex-plantation workers. In this lawsuit, Dole referred to the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), a law usually used in defense of victims of crimes committed by the Mafia.
The companies accused the 4,200 workers, their lawyers and the doctors who examined them of fraud. They accused them of including names on their lists of victims of people who have never worked on the plantations. They accused them of trying to get rich at the companies’ expense.
A victims’ march
In Nicaragua, the ex-workers aren’t giving up. In the last two years they’ve organized three marches from Chinandega to Managua, more than 84 miles. The last of these marches, begun on January 31, 2004, attracted more than 5,000 people, many of whom are sick and weak.
“We walked for 10 days,” says Espinales, who was one of the march’s organizers. “Once we were there we were made to camp in front of the National Assembly for days before the president would pay us any attention.”
The march garnered national interest thanks to its size and length. The big Nicaraguan dailies dedicated full pages to the victims of Nemagon, a product dubbed “death’s dew.”
The results were unprecedented. President Enrique Bolaños named a ministerial commission to investigate the consequences of Nemagon use. And Espinales’ lobbying enabled Nemagon victims to get free medical treatment, though it could take years before the promise is implemented.
Until then, the lawsuits continue, and the workers pray every day for justice. As for Espinales, he intends to fight “to his very last breath.”
“The companies have already offered me $20,000 to stop the proceedings, to let the case slide,” he says. “I refused. I told them I was fighting not for money, but to create a precedent that could help the other workers in the world confronted with similar problems.”
López, who has followed the banañeros saga for many years, would like to believe that the workers will eventually be compensated. But he fears it will be impossible.
“The people are sick, but things are at a stalemate, legally speaking,” he says. “I don’t want to play devil’s advocate, but I don’t think these workers will ever be compensated. It’s a thought that saddens me very much.”
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Nicolas Bérubé and Benoit Aquin
Nicolas Bérubé, 28, is a reporter for the Montreal-based daily newspaper La Presse. He covers international as twell as local stories.
Benoit Aquin, 42, is a freelance photographer. His work has been published in various magazines, includling Wired, Canadian Geographic and Macleans. He lives in Montreal.