Environmental and community activists celebrated a victory on the Hawaiian island of Kaua’i on October 16, when, after a 19-hour public hearing, Kaua’i’s County Council passed a bill mandating that the five largest agribusinesses on the island disclose their use of pesticides and Genetically Modified (GM) seeds. Bill 2491, which passed by a margin of 6 to 1, was vetoed by Mayor Bernard Carvalho as In These Times went to press. But activists are hopeful the County Council will override the veto, as just five votes are needed to do so.
“People in Kaua’i have, first and foremost, concerns with pesticides and the material impact on the island. They are connecting the local focus with the global food justice move- ment that has been growing and becoming more dynamic,” says Andrea Brower, a food justice activist and vocal supporter of the bill.
Hawaii has become ground zero for the testing of GM seeds, which are sold worldwide to farmers. Chemical companies began moving to Hawaii in the 1990s to take advantage of the island’s year-round growing season.
Today, about 9 percent of the state’s 280,000 acres of designated agricultural land is used for the production and testing of genetically modified seeds — primarily corn — by the likes of agrochemical giants Monsanto, Dow, Syngenta, Pioneer and BASF.
The GM crop production is accompanied by extensive use of pesticides. On Kaua’i, known as the Garden Isle, where the GM behemoths (along with Kaua’i Coffee) grow on some 15,000 acres, they also release an estimated 18 tons of designated “Restricted Use Pesticides” (RUP) annually. RUPs are pesticides that require a special license from the EPA and the state government due to potential harm to public health and the environment.
“Families are cleaning pesticide dust off of their houses every day. The trauma that is evident [from constant exposure to pesticides] is unacceptable,” says environmental scientist Fern Rosenstiel, co-founder of community advocacy group ’Ohana O Kaua’i, which was instrumental in getting the disclosure bill passed.
The decentralized coalition behind the legislation included farmers, teachers, parents, healthcare professionals, fisherman, surfers and tourists. The movement gained momentum through community meetings, education initiatives that included neighbor-to-neighbor conversations, and two large marches, including one in September that attracted an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 residents — the largest of its kind in the island’s history, according to Rosenstiel.
“[Most of the] young people leading this movement … grew up and were raised here, and are very frustrated by the future of the island, having been taught malama ‘aina — taking care of the land,” says Brower.
Representatives of the chemical companies have argued that they are following existing state and federal environmental laws, and that the community’s concerns about pesticide exposure are unfounded. They insist that legislation will hurt business on the island.
The evening before the vote, more than 40 people gathered in front of the City Council building and slept through thunder and lightning in or- der to get an opportunity to testify. After a 19-hour meeting that was full of public testimony from supporters and opponents of the bill, the City Council passed the legislation at 3:30 a.m. to cheers from activists.
The bill is set to take effect in June 2014 and imposes hefty penalties, including possible prison time, for employees of agricultural companies if they fail to divulge what pesticides they are spraying and in what quantities. The bill also establishes buffer zones between pesticide-sprayed areas and public facilities, including schools, waterways, parks and hospitals.
But even as the bill’s supporters celebrate their victory, Brower sees the bill as just the first step toward addressing the impact of the GMO industry on the island and the people who live there. The movement, says Brower, is “helping to open up questions about the interconnected issues of land-use policy, decision-making processes, water rights, links into the corporatization and privatization of our natural resources, the colonial history of the island and the anti-democratic agenda of the corporations. … [And] that has the potential to radicalize and politicize people, to start connecting the dots.”