Ybycuí, Paraguay – For the last six months, environmentalists in Paraguay have been struggling to draw international attention to a case of pesticide dumping that they say is an all-too-typical example of the weak state of environmental oversight here.
In late November 1998 Delta Pine–Paraguay deposited 660 tons of expired, pesticide-treated “Originator” cottonseed in Ybycuí, a small village some 120 kilometers west of Asuncion, the capitol of this impoverished South American country. Hired townspeople reportedly used hands and shovels to mix 30,000 bags of seed with soil on a 1.5-hectare lot near the village.
In normal applications, half of one 50-pound sack of the seed is sufficient to plant a hectare of land.
Environmentalist activists here accuse the company –a local subsidiary of the larger, U.S.-based Delta & Pine Land Company, inventor of the “Terminator Gene” and a recent Monsanto acquisition – of disposing of what amounts to toxic waste in an illegal fashion.
For its part, Delta Pine–Paraguay issued a statement saying it was conducting a recuperation project aimed at improving soil quality in Ybycuí.
And according to Roger Malkin, CEO of Delta & Pine Land, “the disposal technique is termed ‘landfarming and is a common practice in the U.S. and elsewhere, as the biodegradation process enhances soil fertility and quality.”
There are is no specific U.S. regulation which covers the disposal of treated cottonseed, but it is considered a “used pesticide” and the recommendation of both the EPA and most manufacturers is that large quantities either be disposed of in a landfill approved to handle chemical waste or incinerated in a licensed facility. In instances of landfarming, the EPA says that seed disposal should occur at approved concentrations.
The substances contained in the treated seed are considered mildly toxic and biodegradable, provided proper disposal conditions are met. Over exposure can produce vomiting, skin and eye irritations and for those with certain heart problems, death. Studies on animals have shown that over time the pesticides are carcinogenic and can cause birth defects.
Dr. Allan Felsot, an expert with the Crop and Soil Sciences and Environmental Toxicology department at Washington State University, said that “there is nothing wrong with landfarming pesticide waste per se” if the old seed is used in proper amounts. However, he also noted that if the amounts reported by Paraguayan authorities are accurate, that would have produced concentrations well beyond generally acceptable levels.
If they those reports accurate then the landfarming practice used at Ybycuí was not sound, according to Felsot, given that biodegradation of pesticides in soil occurs much more slowly at high concentrations than at low concentrations.
In a media statement Delta & Pine’s local representatives said that they submitted an environmental impact statement to authorities prior to requesting permission to deposit the seed at Ybycuí, in accordance with Paraguayan law. However, the agency responsible for OK’ing such requests, MAG’s Office of Environmental Regulation, has said it was told of the company’s actions only after the fact.
An anonymous source in Paraguay’s Department of Justice told EcoAmericas: “as to whether or not the seeds were disposed of improperly and were the dictates of the law ignored—it’s pretty obvious that no, they didn’t go about this in the legal manner.”
Ybycuí residents meanwhile complain of lingering health effects that environmental activists here attribute to exposure to the seed.
Delta & Pine’s Malkin referred to those claims as a “campaign of misinformation” being waged against the company.
Dr. Pablo Balmaceda, a Paraguayan physician and environmental activist monitoring the case, said that his tests of Ybycuí residents point toward pesticide intoxication.
“We have results that are pretty conclusive,” he said. “Out of 20 children we tested, 16 had yellow skin, four had swollen livers – that is 20 percent of the sample – and 40 percent had enlarged spleens.” He added that 20 percent of tested adults tested exhibited skin irritations and enlarged livers, while 35 percent showed swelling of the spleen.
All these symptoms can be associated with acute pesticide poisoning.
In a statement issued to the Paraguayan media Delta Pine officials content that “no injury has resulted from the seed disposal.”
Government authorities called in to investigate the case have concurred that the seeds pose no threat. The country’s chief environmental enforcement agency, the Office of Environmental Regulation (DOA), says that the seeds “can be classified as moderately toxic, biodegradable, and in contact with the environment rapidly loose their chemical and physical properties.”
The DOA is not an independent ministry but rather is a branch of the larger Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock (MAG), the government agency that also manages all purchases of seed imports to Paraguay.
Based on the Health Ministry’s flawed samples, a federal judge concluded that the seeds do not contain pesticides and are not toxic –but did rule in February that Delta Pine’s local representatives should at least cover them with a layer of earth.
To date, the firm has not complied with that order. Delta & Pine’s U.S. representative has left the country and their Asuncion office is now closed.
Accusations of corruption
Activists here charge that authorities are responding too slowly to calls to investigate and have yet to undertake any rigorous scientific analyses of the dump site.
No official health studies of villagers involved in the dumping operation have been conducted, and the only soil samples taken at Ybycuí by investigators from the government Health Ministry turned out to be flawed and incapable of providing conclusive results. Still, Paraguayan authorities have cited those faulty samples as evidence that the seeds do not represent any danger.
According to Myryam Caballero, director of AlterVida, an Asuncion-based non-profit environmental organization, Paraguayan authorities simply don’t have the resources or technical skills to conduct even basic tests. This might explain, she said, how Paraguay’s Health Ministry could issue a statement claiming that the seeds disposed of at Ybycuí do not contain pesticides, when in fact they are openly advertised as being treated with pest-killing chemicals.
Angry Ybycuí residents say that corruption, not incompetence, is the problem. They claim that government authorities that permitted the treated seeds to be illegally imported into Paraguay are stalling investigations.
Each year, MAG buys a fixed amount of cottonseed for distribution to farmers as dictated by a national cotton harvest plan. Producers do not directly purchase their own seed overseas, but must acquire it from MAG. Some charge that corrupt MAG employees conspire with Paraguayan representatives of international seed vendors, over purchasing seeds each year and skimming money off the top. They then allegedly dump the surplus seeds in remote locations like Ybycuí.
“We’re up against a powerful and corrupt elite which pervades the government bureaucracies and is trying to protect itself,” says Julio Paniagua, a resident of Ybycuí.
“Delta Pine has its share of guilt,” said Gerardo Iglesias of the International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers (IUF), which has been looking into the case, “but in Paraguay they found fertile ground for what they were trying to do.”
Whatever the potential merits or dangers of landfarming, the Ybycuí case illustrates that, some 30 years after the Green Revolution, many Latin American countries who rely heavily on pesticides continue to run tremendous risks as a result of improper use, lack of expertise and resources, and corruption.
In July the national media reported that another 5,000 tons of unused cottonseed, purchased from various overseas companies and treated with pesticides in Paraguay, sits stockpiled in government warehouses. An unknown quantity has reportedly already been sold to Paraguayan vegetable oil factories as fuel for their ovens – many of which do not attain the high temperatures recommended for pesticide incineration.
That discovery, coupled with the Ybycuí case, has raised attention regarding the use of pesticides here and highlighted the need for a national toxics strategy. Paraguayan environmental organizations have started to promote organic farming techniques and to market organic products, while the Pan American Health Organization is planning to work with government authorities to develop a Paraguayan toxic substances management plan.
EcoAmericas, August 1999