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.  


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

At the Cantina

Joe, who works at a cantina in Tiquisate on the South Coast of Guatemala, spoke to me on the night of Feb. 20, 2018,  along with his friend, James Jason.  Both were eager to speak in English.

I don’t know who I am. My parents were killed in Guatemala when I was a baby, so some people brought me to the United Stats and I grew up as a chicano. I lived in Tucson. I still have no papers from anywhere, not from the United States, not from Guatemala. I got deported from the US and now I am here in Tiquisate, working in this cantina.  We only have one girl here because a bunch of the others left. There were like five here. You never know when the money comes in. There is always money around, but who knows when it comes your way.

I got deported after serving 15 years in prison in the US. It was about drugs. I originally got 30 years but served 15. This all happened when I was 13 years old.  I served in the minors (a juvenile detention center) and then in the majors (a federal penitentiary). I also spent time in jail in Guatemala because I got into a fight. In Guatemala, you have to pay to be in jail. It’s not that way in the US. There is no pressure to pay anyone.  But it’s different in Guatemala.  And if you’ve got money, you don’t even go to jail. People with money can buy their way out, because it’s all about the money.

The hardest thing when I got here was the language. I didn’t speak Spanish so I had to learn it. But now it’s fine. And I have settled down.  I am not like what I used to be. That’s all done. I’m 40 years old and don’t want to go back to those places. I stay out of trouble.  I have a two-year old daughter and I am a very good father. But still, I have no idea what to do.  I’m just here.  I may try to get back into the United States in a few months.

James Jason, a young Guatemalan man who was hanging out at the cantina where Joe works.

I lived in Texas, but I was thrown in jail here in Guatemala not long ago, and I spent six months there.  A friend of mine murdered a woman not too far from where we are sitting.  She was a lesbian and my friend thought she was too involved with his wife.  The police know he killed her, but they dragged me into it because I was his friend and I had been with him that night.  I had nothing to do with it.  It was bullshit.  I told them I wasn’t even there.  Anyway, I spent time in a Guatemalan jail.  That sucked.