The Legacy of Pesticides

In the 1950s and ’60s, the South Coast of Central America experienced a boom in the cotton industry.  The climate and soil of the area was highly favorable for growing copious amounts of cotton, and world demand for the crop to make textiles and other products like cotton seed oil had expanded tremendously since the end of World War II.  The town of Tiquisate, Guatemala lies along the South Coast and previously had been known for its prodigious banana plantations that dotted the landscape in the 1930s and ’40s.  In fact the United Fruit Company set up a large division there called the Compañía Agrícola, which established a vast network of large banana farms.  As the company’s preeminence declined in the early 1960s, and the cotton boom was raging, much of Tiquisate’s fields and woods were converted to cotton plantations.  Along with this transition to a new and warmly welcomed export commodity came an era in which plantation owners deployed large doses of pesticides to protect their valuable crops.   This craze in the use of chemicals was caused by a plague of “chinchonas,” an insect similar to boll weevils that threatened cotton cultivation and the attractive profits it could garner.  While reports of the hazardous effects of cotton production trickled in and a number of illnesses were reported, concerns over the environment and worker health were largely ignored.  In fact, in the 1960s, it became dangerous to express objections to cotton cultivation, as the Guatemalan government, a major proponent of export agriculture and supported by landowners, became mired in a civil war against leftist rebels, and viewed reform movements of all types with suspicion.  

Today in Tiquisate, the effects of this chemical deluge is showing up in the ill health of a number of small children, who are beset by a variety of physical ailments. 

Forty-five year old Marvin Giovanni Peña, a former city planner in Tiquisate, pointed out this connection to me in an interview on February 20, 2018.  Peña’s own daughter had been suffering from a renal disease that Peña believed was linked to activities from the cotton era.  Peña himself founded an organization to help the local community deal with kidney ailments, and his efforts included helping more than 150 families from the municipality of Tiquisate transport loved ones to a hospital where they could receive dialysis.  

As he recently began campaigning for the mayoralty of Tiquisate, Peña was assassinated.  Upon leaving an evening political meeting, held by his party, La Fuerza, Peña was shot in the back while driving away on his motorcycle.  

Peña was known for his “don,” a willingness to help others, and he extended this graciousness to me by granting this interview, and through spending the day introducing me to other people who could help me understand the town’s rich history. Peña himself had extensive knowledge of Tiquisate, having worked in city planning and having access to the municipality’s archives and records. He also had a lifetime of listening to the stories of earlier generations; his own father had worked at Tiquisate both in the banana and cotton eras.   

 

The chemicals that were made during the cotton era were very strong.  In those times they fumigated by air: they would use planes to apply the pesticides. The chemicals they dropped were too powerful, and those who prepared or sprayed them can tell you that, and their children can relay the stories about it that their fathers told them.  The chemicals they dumped would completely contaminate the ground below. Cotton had pests, insects that would damage the cotton plant, and they were trying to kill those pests. They used the chemicals in such fierce doses to preserve the cotton. It was the only way they believed they could do it. 

When they sprayed the chemicals onto the cotton they would say that no one was down below, but on the farms there were always workers and employees there.  In any case, the soil would absorb  the chemicals and the chemicals would get trapped there.  The pesticides would start to sink into the subsoil.   What we can see today in this region, not only in Tiquisate but other towns nearby like Nueva Concepción and Río Bravo, is that certain illnesses like kidney disease have become common.  These illnesses are here and not in other places. 

Kidney disease is normally related to diabetes and aging, in people over 60 years old.  But in this region, the majority of cases are children or young people. They are not elderly people nor diabetics. They are born with this disease.  Some would think it might be genetic, but when they do studies on the patient’s family history, there is no precedent for it, not in the mother nor the father.  They’re clean for some 3 or 4 generations. But the cases do have something in common.  And what is common to the patients is that their fathers, grandfathers, or great grandfathers worked in the cotton era: they cut cotton or were in some way connected to cotton. Now you see the problems three generations afterwards, principally with kidney disease, in all its phases.  Also, you see children with an expanded heart and high blood pressure. Then you see encephalitic problems, problems with the brain. Kids have a brain that is very large.  They sometimes have hydrocephalus, another type of complication (a condition in which fluid accumulates in the brain, enlarging the head and sometimes causing brain damage). And you also see problems with the lungs.  Babies are born with a lung that doesn’t function. 

So three generations afterwards, we get these problems. So, why is it that the only connection is to cotton?  Academics have done studies on this and research shows that there is much more contamination in the air, in the water, and in the soil here than they have in other places in Guatemala or even in the department capital of Esquintla  (about 90 kilometers away).  It shouldn’t be like that, but they’ve demonstrated this.  

We have an aquifer here and should have enough water to supply massive populations, but it hasn’t been easy to make our water potable (drinkable). There is contamination in the water, and the rivers are also polluted. When they extract water from the subsoil, there is contamination and it’s not that easy to cleanse.  

This is the most powerful theory about why our children are afflicted with chronic illnesses: the contamination of the subsoil.  Over time, the chemicals have formed into elements that are now harming our children. The only way for the body to filtrate the chemicals is in the blood through the kidneys.  So it damages the kidneys.  The contamination gets captured in the kidneys and it degrades them. It generates a bodily deformity, and the deformity is chronic.  

And remember, the majority of the cases, unlike in other places, are made up of children and teenagers.  And we don’t have the funds necessary from the state to be able to investigate this further.  And if the money is raised, it is spent on the patients, but we need money to understand more about the causes of this problem and its source, to be able to combat it.  

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The late Marvin Giovanni Peña, Feb. 20, 2018.

Author: storiesfromguatemala

Dr. Stephen O'Brien is a historian who resides in both Guatemala and New Haven, CT collecting oral testimony to gain insight into various historical and cultural forces. He has a PhD from Yale University in History, with a concentration in modern Latin America, and is a Fulbright-Hays scholar. He has taught at Trinity College in Connecticut and at Saint Louis University in Madrid, Spain. Before that time, he was a reporter and anchorman in local tv news in the United States.

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