South America

Lawsuit Over Pesticide Poisoning in Uruguay

A rural community poisoned

Paso Picón is a village of three hundred people, located only fifty kilometers from the capital city of Montevideo. Adriana Pascual, a school teacher and mother of two, moved to Paso Picón from the city, looking for a healthier life in the countryside. What she and her family found instead was illness caused by exposure to pesticides. Adriana’s home neighbors a large farm where pesticides are frequently applied. She suffers from pharyngitis and esophagitis, and a drastic reduction in her cholinesterase enzyme level, all clear markers of pesticide poisoning. Adriana’s young daughter, like almost everyone in Paso Picón, suffers from persistent respiratory problems.

Others, like Ariel Gulpio, have even more serious health issues. Ariel lives one hundred meters from one of the large farms. A few years ago, while working in his garden, he was exposed to a white dusty material that was being sprayed on the neighboring farm, but was carried by the wind to his garden. One hour later, he was sent to the hospital with severe breathing problems. The exposure to pesticides led to the inflammation of his liver and gallbladder, which had to be removed, and he suffered permanent injuries to other organs.

GM crops lead to pesticide spraying

Paso Picón’s produce traditionally consisted of vegetables grown on small family farms. This began to change in 2003, with the introduction in Uruguay of genetically modified (GM) soy and corn crops. The introduction of these new crops came hand in hand with the large-scale use of pesticides such as glyphosate (Roundup) and 2,4-D.  However, the introduction of these pesticides was not accompanied by adequate laws and regulations governing the application of pesticides in inhabited rural areas.

Local producers of genetically modified soy claim that the area is rural and that the spraying regulations applicable to such rural areas do not prohibit the producers from spraying pesticides within the limits of their own property. Therefore, the presence of a private residence or school on the adjoining property need not be taken into account.

The problem persists

On numerous occasions over the past several years, the residents of Paso Picón have complained of this situation to the Uruguayan agriculture and health authorities, to little or no avail. The farmers have been fined, but the spraying has continued. The government has explained to the community that according to the regulations, it is forbidden to apply pesticides within three hundred meters of “urban or semi-urban areas or populated centers,” but that Paso Picón, with its mere forty homes, does not fall within any of these categories.

Yet the problem of pesticide poisoning in Paso Picón is so serious that a government official who went there to investigate ended up in the hospital emergency room, having been sprayed with pesticides during his field inspection.

A lawsuit to improve the rules

The combination of careless and defiant farmers, unclear regulations, and lack of political will on the part of regulators left the community with no choice but to bring the problem to the Uruguayan courts. In their lawsuit, filed in 2018 against the government and a well-heeled farmer who is the biggest offender, villagers seek reparations for the health harms inflicted on them and the loss of their organic crops. Most importantly, they seek a court ruling that the spraying of pesticides be regulated or prohibited if it affects inhabited areas, regardless of whether those inhabited areas are surrounded by large farms.

The problem faced by the residents of Paso Picón is a common one, but not often discussed in Uruguay. This probably accounts for the substantial media attention that the lawsuit has received, with the villagers and their lawyers having been invited for television interviews, and newspapers publishing articles as well. The lawsuit and the media attention are contributing to a much-needed national level discussion about the pervasive problem of pesticide misapplication, which hopefully will lead to a solution for the people of Paso Picón and all others unreasonably exposed to pesticides throughout Uruguay.

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