Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 165 | Abril 1995



Banana Workers Put Shell on Trial

Is it possible to produce organic bananas? Until now the bananas produced on the plantations of Standard Fruit, abundantly sprayed with Nemagon, have brought only misery and grave illnesses to the workers.

Raquel Fernández

In Galveston County, Texas' District Court 212, one case is astounding US justice because of the magnitude and seriousness of the accusations. Over 16,000 workers from banana plantations in Asia, Africa and Latin America are accusing Shell Oil, Dow Chemical and Occidental Corporation of having caused irreversible damage to their health by exposing them to a chemical substance known as both DBCP and Nemagon.

Of the thousands affected by DBCP, hundreds are Nicaraguan. It is difficult to precisely determine the number, because the effects can take years to emerge and every month new cases appear. When there were 16,398 cases in 1993, there were 195 in Nicaragua. Current investigations in Nicaragua speak of more than 800 people, with the number constantly rising. Up to now, only men have been included in the data because, officially, only men work on the banana plantations.

Original Sin: Dangerous Toxicity

Nemagon is the commercial name of DBCP, or 1.2 dibromo 3 chloropropane, a nematicide whose toxicity is well known by its producers, but they never informed its users of the risks they were taking.

World agriculture needed some product that would control the small worms called nematodes, which eat the roots of plants and destroy crops, and whose rapid reproduction has even at some moments changed the course of history. Two US chemical companies, Shell and Dow, began separate investigations to develop a product, and in the 1950s they developed DBCP, which was marketed under the name of Nemagon. Shell was obliged to carry out certain laboratory toxicity tests to fulfill requisites before putting it on the US market.
Mice in the experiments were exposed to different doses: 5 units per million, 10 per million and 20 per million. The mice exposed to 5 units grew more slowly, suffered organ damage and had smaller testicles. In the second group, the mice who survived developed testicles only half the normal size. Those in the third group suffered sterility and, according to a 1958 internal Dow report, "effects could be expected in the liver, the lungs and the kidneys." In 1961, an internal Shell report recommended keeping concentrations under 1 unit per million and using impermeable protective clothing to prevent contact with the skin, because the product could have undesirable consequences for human reproduction. But Louis Lykken, a high level Shell official whose name will go down in history, decided that the recommendation was "impractical." He ordered the author of the recommendations to "eliminate any speculation about possible damaging effects on man. This is not a treatise about safety during use."

From Banana Republics to the World

Nemagon was put on the market, but enjoyed only moderate use until 1969, when Standard Fruit Company began to employ it massively on its Central American banana plantations. Nobody said anything about the product's toxicity. The illiterate workers were told nothing. Ever.

From Central America the chemical jumped to the rest of the Third World. Wherever there was a Standard Fruit banana plantation, Nemagon was stored and used, raining on the workers from aspersion towers, spraying the faces of operators if they tripped on rocks or roots. It was applied near the houses of peasant families. It contaminated rivers, penetrated everything.

Nemagon can be used different ways. A very frequent method is to inject it directly into the soil, as close to the roots as possible, with a sort of giant needle. This system is very efficient and economical, because almost none of the chemical is lost, but it has one drawback: if the nematicide stream hits any kind of obstacle, like entangled roots or stones which it frequently does the chemical spits in any direction, splattering the operator, who rarely uses protective clothing. Sometimes operators barely have clothes, using only old pants and sometimes a shirt with many holes. Even if they use adequate clothing, they cannot avoid the aggression of the nematicide; it penetrates not only skin and clothing, but also the respiratory tract, causing the same devastation.

Nemagon is also applied by adding it to irrigation water released by aspersion towers. A worker explains that the product is applied this way when the soil is dry and there is no wind. Under these two conditions the plantation is irrigated with water for half an hour, another half hour with the Nemagon and another hour with only water to guarantee penetration. "But when we apply Nemagon this way," he notes, "the smell travels for two leagues [some 11 kilometers]."
When this procedure is used to apply the pesticide, workers are not always on the plantation, because irrigation makes it harder to work. The irrigation usually takes place at the end of the day so that the roots are affected throughout the night. But very early the next day, dozens of semi naked and barefoot workers once again enter the plantations. When the sun rises and heats up the earth, the farms become cauldrons of venomous vapor that, over the years, slowly pickles the workers to death. The long, wide and intercrossed banana leaves form an almost impenetrable roof hindering ventilation.

Selling Their Soul to the Devil

The work on banana plantations is very hard throughout the world. Banana farms are characterized by labor relations resembling slavery. Work days extend up to 16 hours. The food, if provided by the owner, is both bad and sparse; if the worker has to feed himself, it is little better, or more, on wages that rarely reach $2 daily.

To save time, workers frequently live in small communities of shacks belonging to the plantation owner on land adjacent to the farms. The right to live in there is part of the workers' wages. If there is water, it is contaminated with pesticides. If there is electricity, it only serves to better appreciate the blackness of the night. There are no sewerage systems, nor are there sufficient latrines.

Why do these horrifying conditions exist wherever banana cultivation takes place? The answer is found in the origin of the "business," in the procedures traditionally implemented by the transnational banana companies to establish themselves in a country.

It is incorrect to talk about Standard Fruit's farms. Standard Fruit doesn't own a single parcel of land in the whole world anymore. Standard buys not land, but consciences, which is much cheaper and more profitable. When Standard Fruit finds good land for banana production, it loans money to the owner to begin production. If the owner resists, it looks for another who is more willing to collaborate, and gives him a "little help." If the landowner accepts the loan, he might as well have sold his soul to the devil, because from that moment on, he can decide nothing about his farm: not when, how much, what or where to plant, not what treatment to give or not give to the crops. Everything is ordered by Standard Fruit.

The plantation owners can't fight back blow for blow, so they keep what they receive and pass on the losses to the banana workers in the form of miserable wages. It is convenient for them to maintain a form of slavery; if the workers had a little breathing space they would realize that the complex tasks they do on the plantations are highly specialized and they would demand better wages, at which point the price of bananas would shoot up and the business would be brought to an end. This situation has been repeated with slight variations from the Philippines to Ecuador, and in Africa as well.

Warning: Nemagon Produces Cancer

Standard Fruit disseminated Nemagon throughout banana plantations around the world, bringing prosperity to it and a number of landowners, and dire poverty to thousands of workers. In 1975, the US Environmental Protection Agency determined that DBCP was possibly carcinogenic. Analyses of 114 workers at the chemical factory in California that produced Nemagon found that 35 of them were sterile. The EPA prohibited use of the product throughout the United States, except in far off Hawaii, where strict security measures were introduced.

However, the EPA did not prohibit the export of Nemagon to other countries. The two producing companies had considerable quantities warehoused. Dow Chemical considered it prudent to suspend production until the EPA took a definitive position, and informed Standard Fruit of its decision. "If our orders are detained, we will consider it a breach of contract," shot back the transnational fruit company. Dow was finally convinced when Standard Fruit promised to indemnify any demands made for damages caused by Nemagon.

Nemagon continued to be applied on Nicaraguan banana plantations until suddenly one day in 1985, with no explanations, it was no longer used. By that time, many men were already discovering they were sterile.

It was not until 1993 that lawyers from the Nicaraguan Association of Democratic Jurists, invited to Costa Rica for a human rights seminar, learned of a suit that Costa Rican banana workers had brought against Shell for damages suffered from the toxic chemical. On their return to Nicaragua, the lawyers contacted the Banana Workers' Federation of the Farmworkers' Association (ATC) and other analogous organizations. That accidental discovery is how Nicaraguans began to learn about the problem.

Shell committed four irregularities with Nemagon when the product was prohibited in the United States: producing it, transporting it, selling it and applying it. Shell had created a separate subsidiary to develop each of these activities, each of which is being separately sued.

How Much should the Men Get?

It wat not easy to sue Shell. The powerful transnational lashed out like a cornered snake. First, it said the case should be carried out in each affected country, not in the United States, where the weight of so many workers from so many countries would surely gain media attention and affect the company's image. If the case was taken out of the US, the indemnities would likely also be substantially smaller. But the US judges determined that the "most convenient forum" the one that would most favor the claimant was the United States.

With that determined, Shell changed tactics. Its representatives offered "settlements" to individual claimants if they would withdraw the suit. The amount offered started at $10,000 and increased to $20,000. That may seem like a lot for poorly paid workers, many of whom had been out of work for up to two years, but it was negligible in relation to the damages caused and both the wealth and negligence of the company. Workers at the California Nemagon production plant who had suffered from the chemical received settlements of up to $1 million. With the exception of some 20 men, the claimants have thus far resisted the offers.

It was thought at first that the Third World workers would have to demand a much lower settlement than the US citizens, considering the differences in living standards, consumption and customs, but after various discussions, another criterion emerged: it is precisely the view that the lives and health of Third World citizens are worth less than US citizens that allows situations like that generated by Nemagon to develop.

If, in 1993, when there were 16,398 claimants worldwide, there had been an average settlement of some $300,000 per person an adequate, though conservative amount, according to experts Shell would have had to pay out some $5 billion. Since then, the number of claimants has multiplied, because the damaging effects take so long to appear. People who felt sick three or four years ago but did not know why, now do know and want the guilty party to compensate them for their sterility, the testicular, abdominal and ocular pain, as well as a higher risk of dying from cancer.

These are all physical ills with social and psychological repercussions, particularly sterility. It is perhaps hard for some in the United States to imagine what it means to be able to have children in poor countries. The ability to create life is highly valued and the inability to do so receives ridicule from others. The fact that poor men, with little economic capacity, can generate life within a woman makes them respectable and respected members of the community. Shell took this power away from them.

And the Women?

Officially, women do not go to the fields, because the work there is not considered appropriate for them. They mainly work in the packing areas, fitting the bunches of bananas into the crates in which they will be shipped to the cold countries in the North. It is not an easy job either, nor is it risk free. The women handle and wash the toxic covered fruit with bare hands. Their skin, too, absorbs the chemicals, and their lungs, too, breathe the poisoned air. Up to 10,000 crates are sometimes packed daily, according to demand.

Their wages are minimal and the exhausting workday in the packing section does not even come with guaranteed meals. Since there are not always shipments to be made, money must be made in other areas. This leads the women to work outside in the fields.

Sometimes they work there after finishing up in the packing section; sometimes it is their only job. When banana production began in western Nicaragua in the 1960s, there were outrageous workdays of 96 consecutive hours, recalls Tomasa Varela, who worked in the plantations for 28 years. "They gave us some pills and had us work four days straight, without a rest. Then they sent us home for two days and we returned for four more days."

Nicaragua: Three Stages

Banana plantations started up in the Pacific shortly after cotton, many of them on almost the same lands in northwest Chinandega. The banana arrived just in time to absorb the surplus labor force from cotton and sugar cane, with one advantage over those two crops: bananas offer year round work.

The banana workers have lived through three stages in Nicaragua. At first the plantations, as in the rest of the world, were like concentration camps. The second stage began with the revolution, when Standard Fruit pulled out of Nicaragua. The Sandinista government, trying to conserve the traditional income from bananas and jobs for the 5,000 banana workers, sought new markets in Europe for the nationalized plantations, now state farms.

After workers complained to the Council of State (the partially grassroots legislative body that functioned for the first four years of the revolution) about their horrendous living conditions in 1980, the new government built houses, opened health centers and schools, and notably improved diets, providing the workers free meals. But it did not eliminate the toxic chemicals. As the war worsened, and the majority of men were mobilized, women had to take over almost all the tasks, even the hardest ones.

The third stage began in 1990, with the Chamorro government's neoliberal policy, which brought massive layoffs in the name of profitability and cuts in social spending in the name of competitiveness. It also brought the privatization of state assets, including the banana industry. On the banana plantations, as elsewhere, women were the first to be laid off, either to make way for privatization or as a result of it. Many of these women had already given 15 to 25 years or more of their life to the plantations, but they were fired with no severance pay; the Nicaraguan Social Security Institute has few of them on its list of beneficiaries. When they are on the list, their monthly pensions do not exceed $40. And, like the men, they are sick.

"Nobody Cares About Us"

"First I got headaches, and then respiratory illnesses," explains Rosita Rubí, who worked 22 of her 45 years in the banana plantations. "Now I have gastritis and I can't pay for the medicine because it's so expensive. Nobody cares about us." She also had problems in one breast and it had to be removed. Then the same happened in the other, but she did not have the money to pay for chemotherapy so she put up with the horrible pain with no medical relief. Even in the midst of her pain and poverty, she decided to adopt a child, because she could not have any of her own.

After working in the banana plantations for 22 years, Rosario Nuñez was left with no work but with a gastric ulcer. A bottle of one of the medicines she needs to relieve the pain costs the equivalent of $80.00. How can she buy it if she has no pension or other help? Mercedes Valladares, 52 years old, with 28 of those years in the banana plantations, was given 100 córdobas ($12.00) in severance "benefits" when she was fired. She has miscarried twice thanks to the toxic chemicals in the plantations. Nidia Quezada, 45, has suffered strange fungus in her legs for seven years. The fungus produces huge sores that flare up often and are hard to heal. The only solution the doctors have offered is to amputate her legs, but she refuses: "They want to humiliate me even more."
Some workers do not even want to give their name, because their illnesses shame them. They have fungus and burns in their genitals, which they got from stooping down to urinate on chemically infested soil. Some women suffer from sigatoca, a plant fungus common to bananas. The pain this fungus can cause humans is unimaginable. It penetrates to the uterus and even farther, destroying the woman's reproductive capacity and generating almost intolerable suffering when she tries to have sexual relations with her husband. He often seeks out other women, only adding to her suffering.

Until Death, Against Life

Many of these women cannot conceive, and those who can often miscarry. If the pregnancy is brought to term, the baby is born with acute respiratory problems or skin problems, or with epilepsy in families without a history of it, or, in the most serious cases, with monstrous deformities: babies with two heads, or just one eye, or various ears. While we were in Chinandega, a baby was born with a third arm coming out of his back, with fingers that moved and fingernails, a perfect arm. The media was not informed of this because the baby had good vital signs and it seemed relatively easy to correct the situation surgically.

In Nicaragua, Chinandega is the department with the greatest concentration of agrochemicals per inhabitant. One baby in every 500 live births has deformities, a statistic far higher than the world norm. If to this are added the "acceptable malformations" such as a harelip or six fingers, the statistic multiplies. And not only those who work directly with the bananas suffer Nemagon's deforming impact. Heirs of important landowners have also been born with defects. The difference is that these powerful families travel to the United States or Europe for medical treatment to seek a doubtful normalcy for their children, while the affected children of the poor simply do not live very long.

The pesticides not only destroy life at birth; they also cause death. In Chinandega, suicide inexplicably started taking on almost epidemic proportions; it is now known that Nemagon affects the mind, provoking suicidal tendencies. Chinandega doctors suspect that the presence of pesticides in the environment, Nemagon in particular, affects the will to live. Psychologist Ramiro Pomares is beginning a multidisciplinary investigation to test the veracity of this hypothesis, and also find out if the suicidal tendency is produced with greater frequency in the second generation exposed to the toxic chemical, as initial studies seem to indicate.

Nemagon's vicious cycle is complete in Chinandega: a person takes in a portion of it every day by drinking "potable" water and breathing microscopic grains of soil permeated with it. Baths are taken with the contaminated water to remove the Nemagon that has stuck to the skin together with the Nemagon saturated dust. When people think they are putting on clean clothes, the clothes were surely washed with Nemagon contaminated water and when they eat fruit, they wash it with Nemagon water to remove the Nemagon on its skin. The pesticide has appeared in hair samples taken from Chinandegans who do not even work in the banana plantations, or around any other dangerous crop, but in offices supposedly far away from the contamination. When Chinandegan women's breast milk is analyzed, it has agrochemical concentrations ten times higher than those considered tolerable for human health.
Nemagon is a long lasting toxic. It will be many years before its effects are totally eliminated. The suit should be decided in several more years. Meanwhile, the lawyers are still taking depositions, and Shell is still trying to buy off banana union leaders around the world. Will Shell and its subsidiaries have enough money to pay one single tear of the many it has forced others to shed?

And Organic Bananas?

The final and most important question. Is it necessary to use products so harmful to humans and the environment to produce bananas on an industrial scale? Banana workers and Roberto Ruiz, coordinator of ATC's banana workers in Chinandega, say no. Ruiz says it is possible to grow bananas organically, though it is very hard to do in Chinandega, where the land is so contaminated. There have already been successful experiments in Costa Rica. Everyone knows that the organic produce market is growing, and that it includes organic bananas, which is encouraging such production.

There are still no experiments with organic banana production in Nicaragua. As with all organic crops, the bananas will need more labor, but in a country like Nicaragua, with massive unemployment, this is an advantage.
Given current experiences, it appears that the organic banana loses a little bit in its appearance. It is no longer a "golden" fruit; its skin has less color. But what it loses in color it gains in aroma and flavor, and in the health of all involved. Workers think a broad advertising campaign should be developed in consuming countries to explain why the banana has changed its appearance.

Plantation owners do not seem very interested in carrying out experiments that are a risk for their pocketbook. They are no position to do this, mortgaged as they are to Standard Fruit, which sees no advantages in organic crops. What would it do with its huge agricultural inputs factories?
Workers are interested in experimenting in this area, but they have no financing. Sick, penniless and landless, they face a difficult task of being pioneers in this experiment that offers light for the future.

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