A Danwatch investigation
A Danwatch investigation
Editor: Louise Voller
Editor: Louise Voller
San Pedro de la “Y”, like any other typical Ecuadorian village along the coast, is surrounded by banana plantations. The sound of the crop dusters spraying the fields with pesticides is routine here.
So are serious illnesses. San Pedro de la “Y” is in one of Ecuador’s three banana-growing provinces, Los Rios, where most of the country’s bananas come from. There is a markedly higher share of cancers and mortality among pilots here, and more infants born with birth defects than in any other province.
Experts agree that there is a connection between these serious conditions and the planes that spray toxic pesticides over the banana fields.
Several studies document a health risk by living close to and working with pesticides in Ecuador’s banana production
Children born with defects
of children born in the banana-producing provinces are born with malformations. At a national level the figure is 0.22%
Children born with mental handicaps
of the children in the El Oro province are born with a mental disability due to genetic damage. The national level is 0.19%.
In one of the houses lives a woman named Sara.
Like the rest of the people in the village, the family lives humbly. A framed photograph of a man hangs on the wall just inside the door.
“I am his sister,” says Sara. He died as a result of getting pesticides on his face.
A family affected by pesticides
Sara begins to talk about her brother, who is buried in the church cemetery. Shortly before he died, he went to work on the banana plantation.
“It was almost as if the fluid had eaten half of his face. He died shortly after getting pesticide in his face on the banana plantation. The doctors didn’t say anything about what he died from, or whether it had anything to do with the pesticides,” she says.
Sara is 40 years old and has lived here in the village for 13 years. She has trouble holding back her tears when she speaks of her brother. And then she talks about her son, born with multiple handicaps, like many other children in this village among the banana palms.
“My son has heart problems, his testicles did not descend properly, and he has a tumour in his head. It’s all very complicated. He has been operated on once, and needs three more surgeries. Where am I going to get the money for all these treatments?”
Sara’s handicapped son Brandon is ten years old. From a distance, he looks like a five-year-old.
“That’s him. He doesn’t grow very much.” Brandon was born prematurely and spent his first weeks in an incubator.
Some of the health consequences of pesticides, according to toxicologists and epidemiologists, are miscarriages, premature births, birth defects and other handicaps.
But the villagers say that the doctors will not confirm the experts’ assessments, especially not in writing, so it is difficult for local residents to react.
The hardest question
Brandon is in the sixth grade and has just learned to write his name.
“I take him to school so he can make friends,” says Sara.
Her tears begin again as we talk about her son’s future.
“That is the hardest question. What will become of him when I’m not here any more? I don’t have an answer to that.”
As we are talking with Sara, we hear planes overhead. They are spraying the banana plantations around the little village. According to experts and the villagers themselves, this is where the problems start.
“When we hear the crop dusters, we stay inside. But they should warn us before they spray. And yes, they shouldn’t spray over our village, but over the banana plants,” says Sara with a resigned expression.
“We are surrounded by banana plantations, that’s the problem. I think my son’s problems are connected to the chemicals they’re spraying. They used to spray right down our well.”
Sara’s husband works on a banana plantation. “It’s the only work there is around here.”
Sara has never attended school, and can neither read nor write. She wants to show us the documents from the doctor and the hospital, but cannot understand what they say. The medical papers do not describe a direct connection between the pesticides and her son’s conditions, something we hear from a number of the other workers and families we interview in the area.
Can there really be no connection between the pesticides and the illnesses and injuries experienced by banana workers?
The experts consulted by Danwatch believe there is a strong connection.
Significantly more illness in banana regions
Adolfo Maldonado nods at the description of Sara’s lack of information about the reasons for her son’s and brother’s injuries. He has heard it before.
He is a tropical disease specialist and the author of several studies regarding the health consequences of pesticide use experienced by banana workers and local communities in Ecuador.
“It is very difficult to be 100% certain that a specific illness or injury can be blamed on pesticides, but these types of genetic problems are typical consequences of these chemicals. And the significantly higher rates of illness are very striking in these regions,” says Maldonado.
In 2007, Maldonado was a co-author of a report examining the effects of environmental contamination resulting from these pesticides in the region of Las Ramas-Salitre-Guayas. The report showed that newborns in Ecuador at that time had a 0.22% risk of being born with a birth defect. In the banana provinces, however, the risk was 2.58% – more than eleven times higher.
Sara’s dreams are for her children – that they will go to school and have the choice to work somewhere other than on the banana plantations.
“I just want my children to get an education, so they don’t end up like me. I hope they won’t end up working on a banana plantation where they spray pesticides, and where the same thing might happen to them as happened to my brother. He didn’t go to school either – couldn’t write his name – and that’s why he ended up on the banana plantation.”
Outside, the heat is dry and penetrating. A woman sits nursing her baby just a few meters from edge of a banana plantation.
My child’s illness was caused by the pesticides
In one of the neighbouring houses lives Gregoria Ramírez. She is 45 years old and worked for 11 years on a banana plantation. She has four children.
On March 9, 2011, her life and the life of her family changed forever. Gregoria’s fourth child, Taison, was born with multiple birth defects – a hole in the spine, a missing testicle, and a twisted foot.
“I asked at the hospital what had caused it, and they said it was the chemicals. They asked me if I had worked with bananas. I said that yes, I worked on a banana plantation, and so did my husband. The doctors told me that was the cause. That if you work with those chemicals and become pregnant, the baby will be born with deformities.”
Like Sara, Gregoria was unable to get the doctors to put their assessment that her son’s conditions were related to pesticides in writing. But when we show her son Taison’s medical records to specialist Maldonado, he has no doubt.
“These are absolutely typical symptoms of effects from these pesticides,” Maldonado says.
Gregoria has not been back to work on the plantation since Taison was born. She dedicates all her time to caring for her son, who is now six years old. He still uses a diaper, and probably will for the rest of his life, Gregoria says.
“Who knows how long he will live,” she says.
Her husband and two of their children still work on the plantation. He declined to be interviewed by Danwatch, because he is afraid of losing his job or getting into trouble for speaking with a journalist about such things.
“It is wrong of them to spray”
Here in the village, the community is accustomed to the weekly flights of the crop dusters.
“It is wrong of them to spray. When the crop dusters come, we hurry into the house because it stinks. The smell gets into the house as well. The fluid sticks to the plants and floats on the water in the river like oil. I think it’s wrong, but there’s no other work here. They have to work there.”
So says another of Gregoria’s neighbours, Cerilo Calderón. He was fired from the banana plantation a few years ago after losing his sight. He believes it was because of the pesticides, but he has no written diagnosis to back him up.
All the houses in the village have similar stories to tell, and all the stories revolve around the words sickness, bananas, and pesticides.
“I just hope my son doesn’t end up like me”
We also meet a 28-year-old banana worker, whom we will call David, who wished to remain anonymous out of fear of losing his job and getting in other trouble. He has worked clearing out damaged banana plants for three years.
David lives 200 meters from a banana plantation and sits facing the road with his sleeping three-month-old son.
“I want the best for my son. I don’t want him to end up like me, working on a banana plantation,” David says.
He is very aware of the many chemicals involved in the work he does.
“When they spray from the air and we are working down below, our entire body starts to itch. They spray some really strong chemicals.”
Gramoxone, Basta, Glyphosate. David knows the names, and knows it’s poisonous stuff, he says. But what good does that do him?
“There is no other work for us poor people with no education. It is the only way I can earn enough money to provide for my family.”