Mauricio Berger, PhD, Social Sciences, Associate Researcher, Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas y Técnicas (CONICET), Associate Professor Instituto de Investigación y Formación en Administración Pública, Facultad de Ciencias Sociales, Universidad Nacional de Córdoba, Argentina (IIFAP, FCS, UNC). firstname.lastname@example.org
Cecilia Carrizo, Msc, Public Administration, Associate Professor, Instituto de Investigación y Formación en Administración Pública, Facultad de Ciencias Sociales, Universidad Nacional de Córdoba, Argentina (IIFAP, FCS, UNC). email@example.com
Those affected by the massive and ongoing sprayings with agrotoxics (soybean and other transgenic crops), from almost 20 years ago in Argentina, have been making a long journey that begins with the perception of the damage to their bodies, to the leap – almost heroic – into public space: appearance, public and judicial denunciation, collective mobilization, interpellation to public authorities, to achieve recognition of the damage and risk and its victims, of those responsible, and to demand condemnation, reparation and compensation. However, the response, more than an approach to recognition of rights, is a sum of devices that deepen injustice: invisibility, institutional abandonment, exclusion from participation, discrimination and stigmatization, modulation or paralysis of citizen political action. In addition, there are also problems of political under-representation (political parties or trade unions do not take up the problem in their electoral and parliamentary agendas) and therefore of political over-exposure of those affected in the absence of intermediate structures such as, in other countries, professional associations, trade unions, social organizations, and areas of the Public Prosecutor’s Office for public defence of victims. In the last seven years, another public environmental problem has emerged, in relation to agrobiofuels production: the victims of its chemical pollution. The province of Córdoba, at the heart of the agribusiness model in Argentina, and the leading producer of transgenic crops in the country, is the territory where the environmentally affected peoples have been leading the resistance.
25 years of GMO crops and people sprayed as transgenic soybeans
People who suffer the effects of environmental pollution (agrotoxins) are almost all innocent victims. They are not aware of the problem to which they are exposed until they begin to perceive in their own bodies its impacts: dermatological, respiratory, gastrointestinal, neurological, and endocrine disruptions. They begin to investigate by their own means the toxicology of agrotoxic sprayings – which they identify as probable causes of these conditions and of other more chronic health problems. In doing so, they discover -even before medical and scientific research- that the massive use of these substances and its residues are related to all kinds of cancers, malformations in foetuses and spontaneous abortions, as well as male and female sterility. With the pain of accepting their own illness, that of other relatives and neighbours, or – most acutely – that of their children-, and the feeling that “something is wrong”, some affected people keep their suffering private, almost as if it were a congenital-hereditary problem. Others, counting on what their bodies can do, make this apparently private condition into a public problem.
Those affected begin by reporting the problem to the health and environmental authorities, contacting organizations and networks working on the issue, and sending information to the local press. From that first act of enunciation, the demand for an official response from the state begins: first, for the health authorities to clarify the causes of the diseases, and then to intervene in the resolution of the problems. From the citizen’s claim, the State intervenes, slowly and deficiently. This is the case of Barrio Ituzaingó Anexo de Córdoba, where a group of mothers started their long struggle almost two decades ago.
In the early 2000s, at the provincial government level, the Ministry of Health conducted epidemiological censuses, without specific or adequate protocols for the problem, with epistemological paradigms based on causality, with sub-registries and other problems subsequently observed in a PAHO audit, excluding the participation of the affected ones and denying the information generated by the inhabitants themselves, in particular by Grupo de Madres de Barrio Ituzaingó Anexo (Group of Mothers of the Ituzaingó Anexo Neighbourhood). By 2003-2004, this group drew up a “map of death” in which they identified the different conditions in the neighbourhood grid. As a response, the Ministry of Health not only denied the map of death because of “its lack of scientificity”, but also commissioned an environmental audit which concluded that the chemical values found in soil and water were “within the norm”, using this result to dismiss the necessity of more studies or public interventions. The Group of Mothers publicly denounced the situation as a hidden and silent genocide in the neighbourhood since all the public responsibilities were systematically neglected, and the rights to health and clean environment of the affected peoples were in a state of suspension.
Image 1: Group of Mothers in Barbijos concentration (Source: http://www.medionegro.org/)
In parallel to the intervention and early withdrawal of the provincial government, the municipal level responded to the claim of the Mothers’ Group by declaring a “health emergency” in the neighbourhood, creating a health centre, and conducting a new epidemiological study. A key part of the municipal intervention was a study of biomarkers of exposure in children of the neighbourhood, which showed the presence of pesticides in the blood of most of those who participated in the sample. Later, another study compared this result with a non-exposed population from the city of Córdoba, showing that children from Ituzaingó Anexo had more residues in their blood than those who did not live in the neighbourhood.
While the struggles mainly unfold at provincial and local scales, at the national scale there have been almost no consequences to the 20 years of transgenic crops and massive use of pesticides and herbicides, in spite of civil actions against the system of agrochemical toxicity classification, and of the procedures on the market liberation of transgenic crops led by civil society organizations . In the case of Ituzaingó Anexo, back in 2009, the President of the Nation enacted a National Commission of Investigation on Agrochemicals and Health, whose final report about the situation denounced by residents was inconclusive, arguing, in line with the corporate discourse of good agricultural practices, that the problem were not agrotoxics and their residues, but rather how the producers and airplane operators used them: the good practices policy.
The members of the Group of Mothers and neighbours of Barrio Ituzaingó Anexo also went early to the Administration of Justice, filing complaints for the crime of contamination against producers and public officials for the omission of their duty of control. Ten years went by before the first trial in the country, and probably in Latin America, was held in 2012 against producers and airplane operators for the crime of endangering the health of a population by illegal fumigations. However, in the judicial process, the responsibilities of public officials for actions or omissions in health controls and surveillance were prescribed, and the producers’ conviction is not final due to the appeal of the defence.
The Group of Mothers succeeded in raising the issue of the health and environmental consequences of the use of toxic agro-chemicals at a public level, and opened the way for a struggle that is recognized beyond national borders, despite which it maintains a territory of injustice in the neighbourhood itself. Today, in Argentina, there is a widespread struggle of the so-called Fumigated Peoples (Pueblos Fumigados), who previously leaded the national campaign ‘Stop the Sprayings’ (Paren de Fumigar). Those affected are still untreated, diseases continue to appear and fill the map of death that the Mothers have not stopped updating day by day; those children with biomarkers of pesticides in their blood remain untracked and with the agonising uncertainty of their parents. The neighbourhood remains without the environmental reparation of its soil, with only public works such as paving and lighting having being carried out. The contaminated land has not been remedied and the construction of new houses and an industrial park were allowed almost illegally on it. New cases of affected children in sprayed areas (rural towns, rural schools and peri-urban areas all across Argentina) also drove new groups of mothers and concerned citizens in the country to self-organization, protests and judicial actions. In that context, studies on genotoxicity show genetic/chromosomic damage among children, setting precedents for an upcoming round of struggles.
From the sprayings to the agrobiofuel air pollution: living and resistance in the chemosphere
2012 was the year of the historic Barrio Ituzaingó Anexo trial, and, also, the beginning of the conflict and the resistance to the installation of Monsanto’s largest GM maize processing plant. In February of that year, the residents of Neighbourhoods Inaudi and San Antonio, in the city of Córdoba, began to denounce acute health conditions and to relate them to the operation of a bioethanol plant owned by the firm Porta Hermanos, which has been fractionating alcohol and producing liquor in a residential area for 50 years, and now going to the ethanol industry, developing its production in joint ventures with some companies such as swedish Alfa Laval or french Gevo.
The neighbours organized themselves and created the group Neighbours United for a Healthy Environment (Vecinos Unidos por un Ambiente Sano- VUDAS). They reported a persistent unpleasant smell, eye, skin and respiratory irritations that were increasing in intensity, and the lack of consultation and safety protocols. Doctors who treat these ailments, especially in children, began to recommend that they leave the neighbourhood.
Image 2: Fuera Porta Neighbours Collective (translation: Get Porta out of our neighbourhood!) (Source: http://www.medionegro.org/)
In 2013, the University Network of Environment and Health (REDUAS) offered to carry out an environmental health study. The epidemiological evaluation reports a high frequency of disorders such as persistent headaches, eye congestion, obstructive pneumopathies, gastritis and/or symptoms compatible with chemical irritation. Based on this evidence, neighbours filed a criminal complaint against the company, by virtue of which the District Attorney in charge ordered an environmental chemical survey that uncovered the presence of several chemical contaminants in the streets of the neighbourhood (mainly, formaldehyde, toluene, xylene, acetic acid, ethanol, and others substances included in the Hazardous Waste Act). REDUAS and other sources link these hydrocarbon pollutants with the symptoms shown by the neighbours in the sector. However, official experts have dismissed the relationship between the Porta Hermanos plant and the compounds found in the ambient air of Barrio San Antonio by saying that “there is no possibility that the compounds can be generated in the productive processes because they are absolutely incompatible with the production being attempted”. Likewise, the company argues that it produces bioethanol with the degree of purity required to be regarded as a biofuel, and states that it is “only alcohol”.
In 2016, VUDAS requested REDUAS to carry out a new evaluation of the collective environmental health. It could be seen that 65% of the population has been evaluated, with cases of cancer, congenital anomalies, respiratory disorders, conjunctivitis, headaches, dermatitis, dyspepsia, with children being the most affected. The report concluded that “the symptoms are reproducible with repeated chemical exposure, the condition is chronic, the symptoms are resolved when the triggers are eliminated, the symptoms involve multiple organ systems, without specific treatment or symptoms and contact with substances that trigger the symptoms must be avoided, as it will favour the severity and new intolerances, characteristics of the Multiple Chemical Sensitivity Syndrome”.
Seven years on from the start of their struggle, the group of affected people has built up a history of permanent actions and work in networks of concrete solidarity with the Mothers of the Ituzaingó Anexo neighbourhood, with what was the struggle against Monsanto and the current local struggles linked to the agribusiness model and others. The neighbours made a civil action claim against the Secretary of Energy of the Nation as the Porta plant is not registered in the national record. The legal ruling of Federal Judge Hugo Vaca Narvaja was objected by the company, but his decision was ratified by different legal instances, leading to public hearing this year at which the company or the national energy officials were present. The neighbours from the initial moment of their organization are on alert for a possible explosion of the factory, another of the most common risks associated with this type of enterprise. This problem remains the same after five years of work, as there has been no study, no operation to organize the evacuation of the area, despite repeated explosions recorded by neighbours and the explosion in one of the company’s factories in Santiago del Estero in November 2017, which caused the death of one of its workers and severe burns in three others.
Three years after the Civil Action, no measures were taken by the judge with the urgency needed. In spite of this, he ordered a new assessment of the environmental impact of the plant, without making any decisions on suspending the plant production and leaving all the neighbours without any protection to risk, nor any special policy from the health agencies in this regard. The affected peoples continue to denounce living in a zone of sacrifice for the profit of the agribusiness, with the complicity of municipal, provincial and federal authorities from past and present governments.
Note: A more complete narration by the struggles of the Grupo de Madres de Barrio Ituzaingó Anexo and the Vecinos Unidos en Defensa de un Ambiente Sano is available at the e-book “Afectados Ambientales. Aportes conceptuales y prácticos para la lucha por el reconocimiento y garantía de derechos””, free to download at: https://rdu.unc.edu.ar/handle/11086/11482
 The history of the 4 -years resistance against the construction of Monsanto plant in Cordoba must have another article. After the announcement and the first steps in the building of the plant, there was a persistent direct action from a multitude of actors gathered in assembly of affected neighbours, environmental activists, students, academics, artists, agroecological producers, among many others), who settled with tents and adobe rooms all around the site of the plant construction, the “Acampe contra Monsanto” (“Camp against Monsanto”).