By Jeannie Economos
What do farmworkers in Central Florida have to do with people living halfway around the world in Bhopal, India? A lot more than you might think. Both communities have suffered disease and death that have links to their exposure to highly toxic pesticides. The Bhopal disaster and tragedy in 1984 – a gas leak and an explosion at a then-Union Carbide plant that immediately exposed hundreds of thousands of people to methyl isocyante gas – was much more dramatic, with photographs and films of the contamination and carnage broadcast around the world. In contrast, the farmworkers’ story in Florida is slowly unfolding and, perhaps, is an equally insidious story, insidious perhaps because it remains largely unknown to the rest of the world.
A recent verdict by an international peoples’ court hopes to change that.
Between Dec. 3 and 6, 2011, on the 28th anniversary of the Bhopal incident, communities from around the globe converged on the once-ravaged (and still contaminated) Indian town to both stand in solidarity with the people of Bhopal and surrounding villages, and to bring the stories of their own people and communities before the Permanent Peoples Tribunal (PPT) in a trial that accused the “Big Six” of basic human rights violations. The six largest pesticide manufacturing companies in the world, known as the “Big Six,” include the powerful and monolithic BASF, Bayer, Dow, Dupont, Monsanto and Sygenta. These companies are, also, referred to as TNCs or transnational corporations, and they have a stranglehold on small and large-scale agriculture and peasant farmers and communities worldwide.
The Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal is an independent, international people’s court founded in 1976 by law experts, writers and other intellectuals, and it succeeded the International War Crimes Tribunal of 1967 with a mission to examine and provide judgment on violations of human rights. It was inspired by the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Peoples and uses International human rights law and the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, among other documents, as standards in its deliberations.
Over five years of work, initiated and coordinated by Pesticide Action Network international (PAN), culminated in a three-day trial that caught the attention of national Indian news media and that included testimony by, among others, Dr. Irene Fernandez , a Malaysian human rights activist working with women plantation workers, and Dr. Y.S. Mohankumar, an Indian medical doctor, working with endosulfan (a highly toxic pesticide) victims, harassed and sued by pesticide companies.
From around the globe, cases of individuals suffering health effects from exposure to pesticides, to small farmers resisting the pressure to use GMOs, to communities devastated by pesticide contamination, the PPT heard stories of the agrochemical TNCs’ forceful power and influence violating the rights of people to their health, livelihood, food sovereignty and to the rights of children women, indigenous people, to a safe environment and to the very right to life itself.
The PPT found the companies guilty!
PAN and its allies, including the Farmworker Association of Florida, have taken this verdict to the White House and are demanding a response.
In a once sleepy, little, rural town just north of Orlando, is a community of people who once worked growing and harvesting vegetables on the farmland on Lake Apopka. These farmworkers were largely African American, and later, Hispanic and Haitian. They worked day in and day out producing the fresh produce – corn, carrots, cucumbers, cabbage, among other things – that was shipped around the country and that fed us all. They were (and, still are) largely invisible to the mainstream public and to the world. Yet, they performed critical work that enabled tens of thousands, if not millions, of people to have food to eat.
The vision of an idyllic rural town belies the realities of the racial, ethnic and class discrimination experienced by the farmworkers. One type of heinous discrimination was the blatant disregard to the health and well-being of the men, women and children farmworkers in the growers’ drive to produce and sell crops. Farmworkers who worked on Lake Apopka were exposed for decades to a class of pesticides known as organochlorines. This class includes DDT and others (chlordane, toxaphene, aldrin, endrin) that are now banned because they are persistent organic pollutants (POPs) and because of their toxicity to wildlife.
In the 1980’, University of Florida researcher Dr. Louis Guillette linked low reproductive rates, birth defects and hormone disruption in the lake’s alligator population to a spill of DDT at the Tower Chemical Company on the south shore of the lake. In the winter of 1998-99, after the farms, bought out by the state, had closed and the former farmland flooded, there was one of the largest bird mortality incidents in U.S. history that was eventually linked to pesticide poisoning of the birds from another POP chemical, toxaphene, in the same family as DDT.
Millions of dollars have been spent on buying out and closing the farms, on “restoration” efforts for the lake and on wildlife studies.
But the people who fed us, who worked under the scorching sun, endured hardship, abuse and exploitation, who risked their health and that of their children… Where are the dollars, where is the accountability for and to them? That is why, in an effort to have their case heard, farmworkers from Lake Apopka and the Farmworker Association of Florida joined with others around the world to take their case to the PPT.
Now, they want the White House to respond to the verdict and to hold the Big Six accountable for violations of their human rights.
If you want to support the farmworkers at Lake Apopka in Florida and/or the peasant farmers and impacted communities around the globe, visit the Farmworker Association of Florida’s website at floridafarmworkers.org or send a letter to:
Nancy Sutley, Chair, White House Council on Environmental Quality, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20500