Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Chemical Herbicide Under Scrutiny in Argentina, Colombia

Glyphosate, the herbicide at the center of a political controversy in Colombia, has recently come under attack in Argentina as well, where its uncontrolled application in farming regions has been linked to a wave of health problems.

On Monday, the Associated Press published a report documenting the mounting evidence that an increased use of pesticides in Argentina, combined with lax regulations, have caused health problems in the country’s farm belt. Citing anecdotal indicators as well as academic research, the AP reported that the widespread use of chemicals like glyphosate -- a key ingredient in the Monsanto-owned weed killer “Roundup” -- could be responsible for increases in cancer rates, birth defects, infertility and skin problems. 

The news agency also takes this a step further, raising questions about Argentina’s status as “one of the first countries to adopt new biotech farming methods promoted by Monsanto and other U.S. agribusinesses.”  While the Argentine agricultural industry experienced a major boom over the past decade, this shift eventually caused farmers to apply higher concentrations of chemicals as weeds and pests developed resistance. As a result of this trend, and a lack of regulation, certain populations have been exposed to alarmingly high levels of pesticides. According to the AP, for instance, a government survey in Cordoba’s Ituzaingo Anexo neighborhood suggested that 80 percent of children there had traces of pesticide in their blood.

Today, the AP has a follow-up story giving Monsanto’s response to the report. While the agribusiness giant criticized the initial story as lacking hard data, it also urged the Argentine government to institute stronger restrictions on its use. “If pesticides are being misused in Argentina, then it is in everyone’s best interests - the public, the government, farmers, industry, and Monsanto - that the misuse be stopped,” the company said in a statement.

Additionally, Monsanto took issue with the AP’s representation of glyphosate, calling it “overbroad in indicting all ‘pesticides’ when we know that glyphosate is safe.”

This is not the first time that concerns about the chemical have been raised in Latin America, however. Last month, the Colombian government agreed to pay $15 million to Ecuador to compensate for health problems caused to Ecuadorean farmers by glyphosate spraying along the border as part of an aerial coca eradication campaign.  The fact that this same chemical is widely used in aerial spraying across the Colombian interior raised questions about its associated risks, questions which -- as Andres Molano writes for Razon Publica -- the government seems intent on ignoring.

Meanwhile, as noted last week, the administration of President Juan Manuel Santos has been accused of attempting to censor and discredit a study showing that glyphosate may be less effective than advertised. The study was authored by Daniel Mejia, the head of the Santos administration’s advisory commission on drug policy, who threatened to resign in protest of what he saw as an attack on the commission’s independence. Since then, Mejia has been stepping up his criticism of the government’s use of glyphosate in the Colombian press. In the days following the scandal, both El Colombiano and El Espectador have published interviews with Mejia, and the debate over glyphosate has been profiled in Semana and Vanguardia.

It remains to be seen how the fallout from the AP article in Argentina will play for the scandal in Colombia, but it is likely that calling on the Argentine government to implement tighter control over the chemical’s use will fuel doubts about its safety, despite Monsanto’s claims.

News Briefs
  • Yesterday, the government of Cuba announced that it would phase out its dual currency system, which has been unpopular on the island since it began in 1994. The Miami Herald reports that an official communiqué yesterday said that the government had approved a “chronology” to change the system, though it did not offer specifics of the timeline.
  • Prosecutors in Rio de Janeiro have charged an additional 15 police officers in the torture and murder of bricklayer Amarildo Dias de Souza, whose name has been invoked repeatedly by advocates of police reform in the city following his July disappearance.
  • Last week, three United States congressmen sent a letter to the Obama administration raising concerns about the potential for fraud in Honduras’ presidential elections next month. Asserting that “the ruling party, and its presidential candidate Mr Juan Orlando Hernandez, now dominates all the key institutions of the government,” Congressmen Raul Grijalva, Hank Johnson and Michael Honda called on the U.S. State Department to “speak forcefully against” attacks on human rights advocates and the opposition in the Central American country.  Following the letter, on Monday an anonymous embassy official told the AFP that the U.S. was calling on all candidates and electoral authorities “to ensure that Hondurans' democratic engagement is fully respected through a fair and transparent electoral process.”
  • RAJ of Honduras Culture and Politics provides a look at the latest poll numbers in Honduras, with an October Paradigma survey showing Partido Nacional candidate Juan Orlando Hernandez ahead of the center-left LIBRE party candidate Xiomara Castro de Zelaya for the first time. The blog points out that this may be due in part to strong-arm campaign tactics of the ruling Partido Nacional, which allegedly included printing false LIBRE flyers portraying the party as having links to the Venezuelan and Cuban governments.
  • The United Nations Human Rights Council has begun an analysis of Mexico’s adherence to human rights norms as part of its second Universal Periodic Review. In his presentation to the HRC, Mexican Foreign Minister Antonio Meade cited a reduction in violence, the passage of a new victims’ law and a drop in complaints filed against the armed forces as indicators of progress, El Universal reports. According to Animal Politico, ending impunity for military abuses and the country’s controversial practice of allowing preventative detention are among the issues that are likely to come up in the UN body’s recommendations to Mexico.
  • While the government of Mexico has been criticized for responding somewhat mildly to reports about the NSA’s surveillance of leading politicians, Meade told reporters in Geneva that he had been instructed by the president to summon the U.S. ambassador to Mexico to clarify the revelations.
  • Yesterday, a Chilean judge charged 79 former members of the Pinochet regime’s secret police with the disappearance and murder of eight Communist Party members between May 1976 and January 1977, Cooperativa and BBC Mundo report.
  • Following yesterday’s  mixed messages regarding Uruguay’s marijuana regulation bill,  La Repulica reports that the ruling Frente Amplio coalition will move ahead with plans to vote on the bill in the Senate next month. It is still unclear, however, whether the concerns about the bill’s constitutionality raised by El Pais represent a legal threat to its implementation.
  • The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, has met with the daughter of deceased Cuban rights activist Oswaldo Paya. The two discussed calls for an investigation into Paya’s death, which the AP notes was one of the first causes that Power championed upon taking her post.
  • In response to this weekend’s attack on a coca eradication crew in Bolivia’s northern Apolo region, La Razon reports that President Evo Morales is strengthening the military presence in the area. According to the paper, six more were arrested in connection with the attack yesterday, including four Peruvians, which would appear to confirm the government’s claims that foreign drug trafficking networks are operating in the area. 

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