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URUGUAY: Agro-Export Boom May Have Lethal Consequences

Eduardo Silveira

MELO, Uruguay, Mar 25 2010 (IPS) - Behind the explosive growth of the agriculture and plantation forestry industries in Uruguay lies clear proof of the indiscriminate use of chemical products that pose serious threats to the environment and human health.

Macario, a young farm labourer in the rural district of Isla de Zapata, 30 kilometres east of the northeastern Uruguayan city of Melo, told IPS that in recent months he has come across surprisingly large numbers of dead armadillos, turtles, birds and fish, for no apparent reason.

Meteorologist and environmental management specialist Juan Carlos Corona provided an explanation for these mysterious deaths and similar incidents: the uncontrolled use of toxic agrochemicals. There are currently around 300 such chemicals approved for use in Uruguay, many of which are carcinogenic.

In an interview with IPS, Corona said he would also not rule out a link between the high rates of cancer in this South American country – where it is the second leading cause of death after heart disease – and exposure to these widely used chemicals.

Corona noted that the most commonly used herbicide in the country is glyphosate, of which 5,000 tons were imported in 2008 alone, although potentially carcinogenic fungicides mancozeb, kresoxin-methyl and epoxiconazole are also used in large amounts.

Glyphosate is the main active ingredient in Roundup, the herbicide produced by U.S. agro-biotech giant Monsanto for use on its genetically modified soy (“Roundup Ready”) that is resistant to high doses of the chemical, which kills weeds and any other plants besides transgenic soy.

Corona reported that in 2008 alone, more than 6,000 tons of chemicals were used on food crops in Uruguay, including rice, soy and other beans, corn, sorghum, sugar cane, sunflowers (used to produce cooking oil), tomatoes, onions, beets, Swiss chard, lettuce, potatoes, grapes, apples and strawberries.

He then posed the question: Could there be a link between the widespread use of pesticides, herbicides and fungicides and the high rate of cancer-related deaths seen in Uruguay?

Corona cited an incident in which a plane spraying crops near Guichón in western Uruguay encountered technical problems and was forced to dump the load of pesticides it was carrying on a cattle ranch. The resulting contamination of the soil and water led to the death of 50 calves, each weighing over 250 kilos, in a single day.

A study conducted at Unicamp University in Brazil reports that “it has been amply demonstrated that the majority of farmers are unaware of the harmful effects of toxic agrochemicals, do not wear the appropriate protective equipment while using them, and are not provided with technical assistance.”

Sergio Koiffmann, a researcher at the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, also based in Brazil, noted that the harmful effects on human health caused by these toxic products include infertility and cancer.

Given the potential consequences of the widespread and indiscriminate use of these chemicals in Uruguay, Corona stressed the irony of the slogan “Uruguay, país natural” (Uruguay, A Natural Country) used to promote the country worldwide as a tourism destination and a source of food exports – two of the economic mainstays of this small South American nation of 3.3 million people wedged between Brazil and Argentina.

The rise in the use of toxic agrochemicals is directly connected to the significant growth and development of the agricultural and tree plantation sectors. Since 1987, when a law to promote industrial tree plantations was passed, the area of land occupied by plantation forests has grown from 100,000 hectares to almost a million hectares today. And another 2.2 million hectares have been designated for this activity.

The tree plantation industry was given a major boost in 2006 by the huge pulp mill installed in the eastern Uruguayan city of Fray Bentos by Finnish forestry company Botnia. The mill’s location on the Uruguay River, shared with neighbouring Argentina, led to a heated ongoing dispute between the two countries over environmental concerns.

Spurred by promises of further multi-million-dollar foreign investments, the plantation forest sector is poised to take over first place in Uruguayan agro-exports, traditionally occupied by the livestock industry (beef and dairy products) and followed in recent times by rice exports and even more recently by soy beans.

Thanks to heavy investment from Brazil, rice farming expanded to cover 160,000 hectares of land during the 2008-2009 harvest season, while soy bean crops accounted for more than 600,000 hectares of farmland, largely due to Argentine investment, according to figures from the Ministry of Livestock, Agriculture and Fisheries. Growing alarm along the border

Melo is the capital of the northeastern Uruguayan province of Cerro Largo, which has undergone a radical change in agricultural production, with cattle ranching displaced from its historical position as the leading economic activity.

The province’s naturally favourable soil conditions and strategic location on the Brazilian border have attracted foreign investors and major agribusiness firms.

The demand for this fertile land has driven up property values, and tempting offers have lured a good many small- and medium-scale family farmers to sell their land and leave the countryside for the outskirts of nearby towns and cities, giving rise to a social phenomenon that is also a source of growing concern.

In their efforts to maximise the productivity and profitability of their agricultural ventures, the new occupants of the province’s rich farmland seem to pay little heed to the potential environmental consequences.

Over recent years, numerous reports and complaints have been filed regarding the death of fish, birds and a wide range of other native animal species, allegedly as the result of the use of toxic chemical products on various crops, as well as industrial tree plantations.

On Sept. 12, 2008, Florencio Lezica, a farmer in the rural area of Campamento in southeastern Cerro Largo, filed a complaint with the Uruguayan environmental agency, DINAMA, concerning the contamination of a stream that runs through his property.

In response, DINAMA inspectors took a water sample and conducted tests, which reportedly showed no evidence of contamination.

However, Lezica challenged the validity of the tests, due to the location where the water sample was drawn, and doggedly maintains that the use of herbicides and insecticides on an industrial plantation of eucalyptus trees that borders his property is causing enormous harm to the local ecosystem.

“While they protect their trees (with chemicals), thousands of animals are dying every day from drinking water from polluted streams and creeks or eating contaminated insects,” Lezica said.

He told IPS that a dog he owned died in 2008 after drinking water from the stream on his property, and that a similar fate has befallen large numbers of armadillos, birds, fish and other animal species in the area.

Refusing to back down, Lezica gathered testimony from neighbouring farmers whose animals have also reportedly been affected.

He also personally extracted a sample of the water he believes to be contaminated and submitted it to the Technological Laboratory of Uruguay (LATU), the state agency responsible for quality control over all products sold in the country.

The results of the tests conducted by LATU apparently showed the water to be highly lethal, and were submitted to the Agricultural Services Department of the Ministry of Livestock, Agriculture and Fisheries on Sept. 22, 2008.

There have been numerous reports in other rural areas of Cerro Largo regarding the large-scale death of different animal species, particularly fish, in streams and creeks that flow through rice, soy bean and tree plantations. The layer of scum that has mysteriously appeared on the surface of the area’s waterways for no explicable reason has fuelled further speculation on the environmental hazards posed by agrochemical use in these activities.

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