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A Poisonous Blend

The Brazilian coffee market is a wild west of toxic pesticides, possibly leading to depressions, suicides and cancer.
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MINAS GERAIS, BRAZIL – This summer José Braga, a coffee farmer of 46, will sit in the back of a truck in a chaos of 36 random co-workers, on dusty and bumpy roads, off to a coffee plantation where he will work throughout the summer.
José Braga is more fortunate than most coffee farmers in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais. He owns a small plot of land, on which he has a house and can grow his own coffee and a few additional crops. However, the income from his land is not nearly high enough to support himself and his family. And this year has been the driest in many, which will give a poor harvest. That is why José Braga will, again this year, take the harsh work picking coffee as a day labourer in one of the big, powerful farmers’ coffee plantations.


José Braga will work without a contract or the rights and benefits that workers should have under Brazilian law. But that is not his biggest concern. ”Cancer is the worst problem, because so many use pesticides. That is what I am afraid of”, he explains.

Cancer, depression and suicides

Dalberto Luiz Gomes, director of CRESOL, a workers union in nearby Muriaé, confirms this. ”The biggest problem in the coffee industry is cancer”, he says. There is no doubt in his mind as he continues to explain, how the cancer is directly linked to the use of pesticides.
José Alves, administrative manager at the Cancer Hospital Fundacão Cristiano Varella in the coffee region of Minas Gerais, confirms that “the three most common types of cancer can be related to the use of pesticides”; he continues: “The cancer patients mainly come from small family farms, which are plentiful in this area,” and the number of patients is on the rise. But contrary to the union director, José Alves argues that the cancer stems from alcohol and tobacco. That the rural population has a high risk of getting cancer, can be related to the fact that “they smoke and drink more” and that the chemicals that can be found in cigarettes cause cancer.
Back at the union, the director Dalberto Luiz Gomes is not surprised to hear the doctor blaming cigarettes. He still believes that the pesticides are the reason that cancer is on the rise in the region:
“I have no technical evidence, but this is what I hear and experience”.
And he is far from the only one with that opinion. Based on first hand impressions and supported by media articles, student reports, farmers, and NGOs, union leaders and fiscal work auditors, he argues that pesticide-related cancer is both very real and a growing phenomenon.
Chances are that cancer is just one part of the problem. Bruno Arnelli Lopes, a fiscal work auditor with the Ministry of Labour in Rio de Janeiro, explains how shocked he was when he read news articles on the subject. They state that, due to pesticides, the farmers working with tomatoes, plants and coffee not only triple the risk of getting cancer. They are also much more likely to have severe depressions leading to a tripling of the suicide rate in the industry.

A toxic job

Brazilian agriculture is notoriously known for using very strong toxic pesticides. And they use a lot of it, says farm worker José Braga: ”There are weed and rushes between the coffee trees. To remove them we throw chemicals on it. Then we throw other chemicals to make the coffee grow”.
And as safety equipment in many farms is but a wish, it is no wonder José Braga is afraid of how the toxics might affect him.
President of the Rural Workers Union in Manhuaçu, José Adenil Campos, explains that this is a common problem within the coffee plantations.
“This problem is increasing. It is dangerous pesticides and most of the workers do not have any protective gear”, he continues; “if they have some gear, they lack something else”.
José Adenil Campos says that the workers lack simple equipment such as masks, proper boots or even gloves. Furthermore, there is almost no awareness of how dangerous the chemicals are. For example there are cases where farm-workers decide not to use masks, just because of the heat, says José Adenil Campos. He adds that most often the workers simply do not have a choice, as they are offered no safety equipment and they do not have money to buy it themselves.
Juares Campos, who works for a landowner in Manhuaçu, has first-hand experience with the pesticides. “The farmer came with some pesticides that I had to spread on his land”. He stretches out his arms, completely covered in red rashes.
“His arms have been like this for a long time, he has even been to the hospital twice” tells his wife, Joana D’Ark.

Contaminated water

The problem goes beyond safety equipment and farmers’ health as the toxics contaminate the farms’ water supply and spread on to the surrounding areas. Union director Dalberto Luiz Gomes explains: “some students took samples of the water in a village near Muriaé and the water was full of pesticides”.
Romerito Antunes Perreira, a coffee picker of 29, who is fortunately aware of the problem, says:
”I don’t want to drink the farm’s water, because it is so full of chemicals that you get sick. I bring my own water from home”. The trouble is that his own water supply could be full of pesticides as well.

The pesticide trap

While the workers often are unaware of how toxic the products are, the pesticide industry uses every mean to sell off their products. Especially the uneducated and often illiterate small scale farmers with minor family plantations are easy victims.
Valdeli Silva works in the municipal ministry of Agriculture and Environment in Rosário de Limeira, and he knows this problem very well: “The pesticide industry sells cheap, unlicensed pesticides to the small scale coffee producers at their family farms”. In this way even the pesticides that are too poisonous to be accepted in Brazil are used in the farms.
Union director Dalberto Luiz Gomes explains how the pesticide salesmen convince the small farmers that the coffee cannot grow without the pesticides. He continues “but once you use the pesticides it ruins the soil” and the following four years nothing can actually grow without using more pesticides. For the small scale farmer that has to provide food for his family it is not an option to wait for the soil to re-fertilize. He will have to buy and use new pesticides to earn his living.

A small step forward

Back in the Limeira, Valdeli Silva of the municipal ministry of Agriculture is advocating for agricultural sustainability and awareness about how to use pesticides. At his nearby farm José Bragas seems to have got the message.
“I don’t want to use pesticides on my own farm, because of the risk of cancer” he says.
But he is one of few and most of the farmers are still unaware of the risk they run when they work with pesticides. And though he refuses to use them on his own farm, José Bragas will probably have to work with chemicals this summer, when he starts working as a day labourer on the big farms.

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