Banana companies used a carcinogenic
pesticide, Nemagon, to protect their crops in Nicaragua.
by Nicholas Berube
In These Times magazine, May 2005
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 Membreno 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 Membreno, 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 bananeros,
or banana plantation workers, are familiar to all in this region
of earthen streets and cementblock houses.
Mostly in their fifties, the bananeros
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
Dr. Francisco Lopez of Hospital Espana
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."
Lopez estimates the number of affected
bananeros 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
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
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.
Pabla de la Concepción Nünez,
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. Nünez 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 Nemagon 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 neverending sequence of horrific images.
The most striking case, though, remains
Roberto Francisco, who at ii 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
Now he uses the courtroom as his battleground.
Since the mid-'90s, he has been the head of an association of
bananeros 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 bananeros' 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 i,000 affected workers.
Himself the son of a bananero, 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 6o 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
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 hey 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 companies accused the 4,200 workers,
their lawyers and the doctors 'ho 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 from are sick and weak.
"We walked for 10 days," says
Espinales, who was one of the march's organizers. "Once e
were there we were made to camp in front F the National Assembly
for days before the resident would pay us any attention."
The march garnered national interest tanks
to its size and length. The big Nicaraguan dailies dedicated full
pages to the victims of Nemagon, a product dubbed "death's
The results were unprecedented. President
Enrique Bolanos 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."
Lopez, who has followed the bananeros
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
NICOLAS BERUBE, 28, is a reporter for
the Montreal-based daily newspaper La Presse. He covers international
as well as local stories.
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