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ENVIRONMENT-PANAMA: Agrochemicals Menace Health and Environment

PANAMA, Nov 3 1995 (IPS) - Intensive use of chemicals in Panamanian agriculture is posing serious health problems among farmworkers and consumers and menacing the environment, government officials admit.

Figures released by the Ministry of Agricultural and Fisheries Development (Mida) show that Panama uses close to three kilograms of agricultural chemicals per inhabitant every year – more than six times the world average.

The most heavily contaminated areas are found in the banana growing provinces of Chiriqui and Bocas del Toro and in central Panama’s Azuero peninsula, a region of large-scale cereal cultivation and sugar processing plants.

Fish, ducks and other swamp and riverine animals have been dying in increasing numbers and workers who have been exposed to herbicide and pesticide fumigation are suffering skin lesions, officials said.

“Everyone knows that they (the cereal and banana growers) pollute the environment with their system of dirty agriculture, but who’ll tie the bell on the cat?” a government official, who wished to remain anonymous, told IPS.

Several non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have joined with elected officials and the Chiriqui banana unions to try to stop the damage.

Viterbo Perez, an NGO activist in Rincon de Santa Maria, a settlement adjoining rice fields owned by the Cocle Central Grain Company (Cegraco), said his group had evidence that the company had polluted the Las Macanas swamp by dumping agrochemicals.

Perez asserted that Mida functionaries “are afraid to speak” about the situation because one of their colleagues was dismissed “by an order from above” after he denounced the killing of thousands of wild ducks by chemicals allegedly dumped by Cegraco in Las Macanas.

A local official from Santa Maria settlement, Juan Jose Arenas, alleged that herbicides and pesticides are dumped even in the region’s inhabited areas and that he had “seen babies born deformed and school children who have vomiting attacks” because of residue from aerial fumigation.

Sabina de Leon, a local resident, said local people “dare not say anything as they believe that if they complain, the company will fire their relatives who work there.”

A 1993 study conducted by researcher Hildaura Patino and a group of medical students from the University of Panama showed that 50.4 percent of the work-related accidents that occurred that year in Chiriqui and Azuero were attributed to exposure to agricultural chemicals.

Despite this finding, Carlos Campos, director of the state health center in Rincon de Santa Maria said that the effect of agrochemicals on human health had not been studied in detail.

He admitted, however, that local residents “complain a lot about babies being born with problems and deformities.”

In addition to Rincon de Santa Maria, several other settlements that include El Rodeo, El Limon and La Escota and count a total of more than 1,500 people have been affected by Cegraco’s and other Azuera cereal companies’ use of agricultural chemicals.

Conditions have also reached an extreme at U.S. transnational Chiquita Brands Company’s 10,000 hectare banana plantations in Chiriqui and Bocas del Toro.

In 1992, fumigator Ricardo Rios filed a million dollar lawsuit against the company claiming that prolonged exposure to the dibromo-3 and chloropropanol (fumazone) banana fumigating agents used by the company had made him infertile.

Rios based his claim on an examining report written by Baru district medical certifying commission president Maximo Chacon, who stated that the fumigator suffered from “secondary infertility resulting from prolonged contact with agrochemicals.”

Although Chacon confirmed that other workers who performed Rios’s type of work showed similar symptoms, he said the investigation could not be completed because the workers didn’t return to the consulting office.

This is not an isolated case as several years ago, thousands of workers in Costa Rica and Honduras filed suit against transnational banana companies claiming infertility and other chronic illnesses because of their excessive exposure to dangerous chemicals.

Although the independent banana businessman Basilio Chong said that the western region plantations had stopped using fumazone, secretary general Jose Morris of the Chiriqui banana workers’ union asserted that Chiquita Brands could still be using this chemical.

“The company itself brings in these chemicals (for banana fumigation and they often bypass the Health Ministry bureau responsible for their inspection,” Morris said.

One indication that the contamination has not ended is revealed by statistics from the Social Security Hospital of Chiriqui and Bocas del Toro showing that every month it treats more than 200 workers suffering intoxication or skin reactions from exposure to agrochemicals.

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