Chiquitas Children

Nicolas Bérubé and Benoit Aquin

Jose Alberto Paniagua, 24, was born disabled and voiceless with a gaze permanently haunted by a look of terror. Jose's father and mother both worked at a plantation which used Nemagon.

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. 

Shock­ing symptoms

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.”

Nico­las Bérubé, 28, is a reporter for the Mon­tréal-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 Montréal.
Limited Time:

SUBSCRIBE TO IN THESE TIMES MAGAZINE FOR JUST $1 A MONTH