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12 February 1998 Edition

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Pesticides kill banana workers

By Dara MacNeil

At first glance, the workers on the northern Atlantic coast of Honduras appeared to have fallen foul of a bizarre and gruesome new epidemic.

Doctors and medical authorities were alarmed by the spread of respiratory diseases among local people, along with a rise in the incidence of both cancer and sterility.

But what caused most concern was the emergence of a particularly grim and hitherto unheard-of phenomenon - infants born dead, without brains.

Moreover, these births were not isolated occurrences. According to medical workers in the region, the number of such births now stands at eight per thousand. And rising.

One factor common to the communities of the region is that most depend for their livelihood on the large banana plantations that dominate Honduras's northern coastline.

This led doctors to scrutinise the pesticides being used on the plantations, in particular those owned or operated by the US fruit production firm, Castle & Cooke. Quickly, they narrowed the possible source of infection down to what they now believe is the real cause The US firm, it is charged, has been using highly-toxic, often lethal chemicals on its farms, while failing to either inform or protect its workers from the obvious dangers posed.

Medical facilities in the region are treating increasing numbers of banana workers for ailments such as tuberculosis, acute respiratory diseases, asthma, pneumonia, skin rashes and burns, cancer and sterility. Medical workers in the region have called on the Honduran authorities to investigate the problem as a matter of urgency.

Some have gone so far as to characterise the company's reckless and criminal use of the lethal chemicals as little short of ``genocide'' committed against the impoverished workers.

According to the testimony of some of those affected, planes belonging to Castle & Cooke regularly spray company plantations with tonnes of the highly-toxic chemical Nemagon, which is used to kill off parasitic worms (known as nematodes) within the banana crop.

In the United States (where the chemical is manufactured) sprays such as Nemagon are used sparingly, if at all. Only specially-trained workers are permitted to apply them to crops and then, only in a strictly-controlled and regulated environment.

A former banana worker in Costa Rica recalled recently the potency of the pesticides he was employed to inject into the earth around banana trees.

``You would inject it and all the animals, the crickets, frogs, lizards and all the insects would die - immediately.'' The pesticide in question was Nemagon.

Indeed, Nemagon is already known within the agro-chemical industry as a highly dangerous substance. During the 1960s and 1970s, literally hundreds of thousands of banana workers worldwide became sterile after working with DBCP - the chief constituent of Nemagon.

That mass sterilisation (which affected an estimated 10,000 banana workers in Costa Rica alone) is now the subject of a `class action' (large scale) lawsuit in the United States. Central to the claimants' case is that the companies which manufactured DBCP continued to produce and market it after it was found to have caused sterility in US workers. Crucially, however, that marketing was targeted at companies working outside the US.

A weak regulatory environment and an inability (or an unwillingness) to enforce what protective laws do exist means many large fruit corporations in Latin America continue to use chemicals that are either strictly controlled, or banned completely in wealthier countries.

Indeed, the World Health Organisation has classified many of the pesticides currently used in Central America in its `dangerous' or `second most dangerous' categories. Several of those used also appear on the Dirty Dozen list of the world's worst pesticides, compiled by the US-based Pesticide Action Network.

Among the largest fruit corporations in Central America are Del Monte, Dole and Chiquita.

Honduras demands death squad documents


Meanwhile, Honduras's Human Rights Commission has again called on the United States to honour a commitment made last year and hand over documents relating to US involvement in death squad activities during the 1980s.

Leo Valladares, the head of the country's Human Rights Commission (HRC), has publicly called on President Clinton to honour the commitment made by US authorities last year and hand over all documents that relate to the 1980s campaign of murder and terror directed against left-wing activists in Honduras. Between 180-200 people were murdered as a result.

The campaign was directed chiefly by the Honduran army, with the assistance of Argentinean `advisors'. The presence of the Argentineans is seen by many as conclusive proof of CIA involvement in the terror campaign: during the 1980s the US intelligence agency frequently used Argentinean proxies in order to achieve maximum `deniability.'

As a result, these `third country' advisors and assessors became part of the counter-insurgency furniture in Latin America, their presence virtually synonymous with a CIA-backed operation. .

Despite promises and diplomatic noises to the contrary, Washington has so far failed to release any documentation of significance.

Mr Valladares has spoken publicly of his frustration over Washington's ``negative response'' to his repeated requests.

As a result, an ongoing Honduran inquiry into crimes committed by the military during the 1980s, has been severely hamstrung.

In what is now seen as little more than a deeply cynical PR exercise, the US Department of State did release hundreds of documents relating to the period in question. However, the documents contained little or no information and proved to be of little use to Honduran investigators.

Washington, however, will doubtless cite their release as evidence of willingness to cooperate with the inquiry.

Meanwhile, both the CIA and the Department of Defence have refused to cooperate with Honduran investigators. According to observers, there is nothing new about the position adopted by the Pentagon and the CIA. In the past, both have issued similar refusals to inquiries in El Salvador, Haiti and Guatemala.

It doesn't require an overactive imagination to guess what the agencies in question want to keep covered up.

US won't sign biological weapons treaty


As the world - propelled by Bill and Tony - spins towards a possible confrontation in the Gulf it is worth remembering what the supposed fuss is all about. Saddam Hussein is accused of stockpiling lethal chemical and biological weapons (such as those used against the Kurds a few years ago).

Nobody in their right mind would advocate any country amassing such weapons of mass destruction. But can anyone explain the apparent oversight on the part of the US who, although prepared to go to war over Saddam's possession of such weapons, has refused point-blank to put its name to a succession of treaties designed to prevent particularly odious weapons from becoming an everyday part of the military arsenal? Thus, the US signature is absent from non-proliferation treaties governing landmines, nuclear bombs and biological weapons.

Why is the US so intent on guarding its own biological weapons stockpile. More to the point, will they allow a team of international (Iraqi?) inspectors to scrutinise their deadly hoard?

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