When it was announced that the government of Fiji would chair this year’s climate talks in Bonn, Germany, expectations were high. As a small island, Fiji sees climate change as an existential threat.

Indigenous peoples demand their rights at climate negotiations in Marrakesh, Morocco, November 2016,

© 2016 Katharina Rall / Human Rights Watch

The talks wrapped up on Friday, and during the last two weeks, advocates for gender equality and indigenous peoples made their voices heard and won hard-fought battles to better respect their rights. Notably, governments agreed to create a platform to promote the participation of indigenous peoples in United Nations climate responses, and adopted a Gender Action Plan that aims to better integrate gender equality in climate change policies.

There was also increased attention given to environmental rights defenders and indigenous people who have been killed, attacked, and threatened for their activism. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights noted that governments often fail to conduct serious and timely investigations.

Just when the talks were nearing their end, human rights were pushed to the fore when Fijian prime minister and president of the climate talks, Frank Bainimarama, convened a high-level event about the importance of rights in climate negotiations. Why was this such a big deal? Because never before has any government presiding over the talks hosted an official event on human rights.

Bainimarama has also long been among those who have been silent on human rights issues. But on Thursday, he announced that integrating human rights in the implementation of the Paris Agreement was an important element of Fiji’s presidency, which will continue through the coming year. Costa Rica’s environment minister, Edgar Gutiérrez-Espelata, also proposed concrete ways to integrate rights into the current negotiations about the so-called Paris Rulebook. For example, governments could reference human rights obligations in climate change action plans and climate negotiators could agree to build capacity among states on promoting human rights in climate action.

Of course, such commitments are worth little unless governments are willing to turn rhetoric into reality. If they are serious about fighting climate change, governments should also do more to integrate the protection of human rights in climate policies, while defending the rights of people working to protect the environment.

Author: Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am
The following organizations - Earthjustice, CIEL, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch - wish to congratulate the Special Rapporteur on hazardous substances and wastes for the work carried out this year on the situation of workers affected by occupational exposure to hazardous substances. The Special Rapporteur documents a serious public health crisis, caused by exposures to hazardous substances at work, that affects workers around the world. This situation is incompatible with the right to safe and healthy working conditions.
 
The rigor of the Special Rapporteur’s legal analysis clarifies many of the linkages between human rights and the use and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes in the workplace, and further highlights the need for their environmentally sound management.
 
We commend the Recommendations formulated by the Special Rapporteur and welcome the 15 principles he proposes to protect workers from toxic occupational exposures. We appreciate the useful structure dividing them into three categories: to prevent exposure; to ensure access to information and participation; and to provide effective remedies.
 
The report allows the Human Rights Council to promote resolute incremental steps in the field. We are concerned however, that the Council’s actions remain weak to respond effectively to the threat of hazardous substances to workers’ health, as well as to human health in general. The Council should respond to the serious public health crisis by continuing its efforts to empower workers to defend their fundamental right to be free from any preventable harmful exposure in the workplace.
 
For these reasons we call on the Council and all UN member states to act on the Special Rapporteur’s recommendations.
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Activists protest construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, Washington D.C., 2017.

© 2017 Vlad Tchompalov via Unsplash

Today in the United States, 18 human rights and environmental groups – including Human Rights Watch – launched a new coalition to confront corporations that file baseless lawsuits in order to punish, intimidate, and silence their critics.

These meritless lawsuits – known as “Strategic lawsuits against public participation,” or SLAPPs – are an abusive legal tactic intended to muzzle a plaintiff’s critics – often activists who speak against destructive corporate practices. The intent is often to entangle civil society organizations in expensive litigation that diverts their resources and attention away from campaigns and mobilization.

Environmental groups in the United States, South Africa, and elsewhere are increasingly denouncing SLAPPs filed against them.

With events taking place in New York, Dallas, and San Francisco, the Protect the Protest task force launches with this promise of solidarity: an attack on one is an attack on all. Its members commit to forcefully contest SLAPPs intended to silence and intimidate those who speak out in defense of the environment.

In a 2017 report on SLAPPs, the former United Nations expert on freedom of assembly wrote that SLAPPs pose significant threats to the rights of activists to freedom of expression, of assembly, and of association.  Respect for these rights is also key to a sustainable development process defined by participatory and informed decision-making.

People the world over are mobilizing to protect the environment against deepening ecological crisis: rampant toxic pollution, climate change, deforestation, biodiversity loss, land degradation, freshwater shortages. At this time more than ever, voices that stand up in defense of the right to a healthy environment and challenge corporate misconduct need to be amplified and defended.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

The South African Human Rights Commission has released a scathing report on the damage mining in the country is posing to human rights. The conclusion paints a dark picture: "[T]he mining sector is riddled with challenges related to land, housing, water, [and] the environment."

What's more, the commission found that the government is responsible for the harm done to mining-affected communities because of its "failure to monitor compliance, poor enforcement, and a severe lack of coordination."

When I interviewed residents of such communities in South Africa's Limpopo, KwaZulu Natal, Mpumalanga, and North West provinces earlier this year, I heard many stories echoing the commission's findings.

Somkhele is a community near one of the coal mines mentioned in the Human Rights Commission's report. Two weeks ago, I spoke with Wandile, a 67-year-old woman who grew up in the area and who was forced by the mine to relocate. I have changed her name for her protection.

"There are so many problems we don't even know where to start," she said. "We used to have land for farming… but the mine took it away and we did not get any compensation for that."

The mining company, Tendele Coal, has said on several occasions that while it compensates for houses and other belongings, it is prevented from paying the villagers for the land when they are evicted because the land is owned by the Ingonyama Trust Board, a traditional body mandated to hold land for communities.

The Human Rights Commission said that this practice of not paying compensation for land is "below what is considered to be appropriate in terms of global industry standards," citing standards of the International Finance Corporation, a World Bank institution that encourages private sector investment in developing countries .

Mining-affected communities across South Africa have said that mining needs to respect the customary rights of the people who have lived on the land for generations, even if they do not have a formal land title.

When Wandile showed me around her new home, built by the company in an area about 1,000 meters from the mine, she pointed to an area where coal dust was visible in the air during operations: "Our kids get sick. They have respiratory illnesses and asthma. When we harvest rain water it is polluted with dust."

The company says that it carries out continuous air pollution monitoring. The report of the Human Rights Commission found concerns about air quality, dust control, and blasting in many communities. It criticizes the lack of regulation around blasting operations and urges the government to enforce air quality standards.

On August 24, the Pietermaritzburg High Court presided over a case on related concerns. Members of the Somkhele community, under the banner of the Mfolozi Community Environmental Justice Network, and the Global Environment Trust argued that Tendele Coal's current operations are unlawful because the company didn't obtain the needed environmental and land use licenses. The community members have also asked the court to order the government to halt the mining operations to protect their constitutional right to a healthy environment.

In its response to the court, the company said that there is "no basis for these claims." A judgment from the court is expected in about three months.

The Human Rights Commission has made it clear that its recommendations and directives to the government to monitor the rights impacts of mining operations are mandatory. Relevant branches of government are required to provide a detailed written report on what action they have taken to the commission in six months, and again in 12 months.

Wandile and many other residents in mining-affected communities have high hopes that their government will finally take concrete steps to protect their rights, including that to a healthy environment.

Katharina Rall is an environment researcher at Human Rights Watch.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Activist Tep Vanny takes part in a land rights protest in Phnom Penh, Cambodia on November 7, 2012.

© 2012 Reuters

(New York) – Cambodian authorities should quash the politically motivated conviction of prominent land rights activist Tep Vanny and unconditionally release her, Human Rights Watch said today. Tep Vanny was arrested on August 15, 2016, and convicted on baseless charges to silence her peaceful activism on behalf of the Boeung Kak Lake community in Phnom Penh.

“Tep Vanny has now spent two years behind bars on fabricated charges and should be released immediately,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “This is just one of many outrageous cases in which the authorities have misused Cambodia’s justice system to harass and imprison peaceful land rights activists.”

Tep Vanny, 38, is a recipient of the 2013 Vital Voices Global Leadership Award for her efforts to defend the Boeung Kak Lake community from government land grabs and to demand respect for basic freedoms.

Since her arrest, Tep Vanny has been held at Phnom Penh’s Correctional Center 2. A week after her arrest, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court sentenced her to six days in prison on spurious charges of insulting a public official at one of the “Black Monday” protests to demand the release of wrongfully detained human rights activists. Having already served the six-day sentence in pretrial detention, Vanny should have been released, but was instead transferred back to prison based on a series of dormant charges reactivated by the prosecutor.

Previous reporting by Human Rights Watch concluded that in this and other criminal trials against Tep Vanny, the charges had no factual basis and were apparently fabricated. Trial judges did not require the prosecution to present evidence to substantiate the charges, unjustifiably disallowed testimony by defense witnesses, and arbitrarily rushed proceedings to prevent cross-examination of prosecution evidence.

In 2013, Tep Vanny joined protesters in front of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s house to peacefully call for the release of a detained fellow community member. Authorities arrested her but did not prosecute her at the time and let the case lie dormant.

However, after the government suddenly activated the case, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court convicted her on February 23, 2017, under article 218 of the criminal code for intentional violence with aggravating circumstances. The judge sentenced her to two and a half years in prison and ordered her to pay a fine of 5 million Cambodian riels (US$1,250). The court also ordered her to pay 9 million riels (US$2,250) in compensation to two security guards who alleged injury. On August 8, 2017, the Phnom Penh Court of Appeal upheld the ruling, as did the Supreme Court on February 8, 2018.

On February 23, 2017, state security officials kicked, shoved, and dragged activists who had gathered outside the courthouse, injuring two Boeung Kak activists and a pregnant woman. Video footage of the incident shows para-police chasing demonstrators into a neighboring mall, and guards repeatedly punching and kicking one of them with evident excessive use of force.

The authorities also prosecuted another long-dormant case against Tep Vanny, relating to her participation in a 2011 protest, but have yet to order her to serve the sentence. On September 19, 2016, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court convicted Vanny and three other Boeung Kak Lake community members – Kong Chantha, Bo Chhorvy, and Heng Mom – for obstructing a public official with aggravating circumstances and insulting a public official under articles 502 and 504 of Cambodia’s Criminal Code. The judge sentenced all four to six months in prison.

On February 23, 2017, the Court of Appeal upheld their conviction and sentence, as did the Supreme Court on December 8. However, the presiding judge of the Supreme Court has left the enforcement of the prison sentence to the discretion of the prosecutor, who so far has not acted.

Other affected land communities who had sought justice and engaged in peaceful activism have also been heavily harassed through arbitrary arrests, detention, and criminal prosecution. One of the more prominent examples is the Borei Keila community, whose activists were also at the forefront of and arrested in response to the Black Monday campaign. Authorities had arrested more than 38 Borei Keila activists by the end of March 2017.

The prosecution of Tep Vanny and other activists violates the rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly, as well as the right to a fair trial, protected under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Cambodia is a party. These rights are also contained in Cambodia’s constitution.

“Tep Vanny’s plight should be at the center of demands by foreign governments and donors to the Cambodian authorities to immediately release all political prisoners,” Robertson said. “The government’s treatment of Vanny and other detained activists is a critical indicator of its engagement with the international community after the widely derided July elections.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Bernardo, a man in his 30s, was born in a quilombo (Afro-Brazilian) community of around 60, men, women, and children in Minas Gerais State, southeast Brazil. Bernardo told Human Rights Watch that he feels powerless against aerial spraying of pesticides. “We’ve registered several complaints at the [local] civil police station and military police,” he said. “No one solves it—there is no justice.”

© 2018 Marizilda Cruppé for Human Rights Watch

 

Across rural Brazil, ordinary people are being poisoned from highly hazardous pesticides sprayed near their homes, schools, and workplaces. This was one of the main findings of a report released by Human Rights Watch on July 20. We talked to people in farming communities, indigenous communities, quilombos, and rural schools—across all regions of Brazil. They told us of experiencing vomiting, nausea, headache, and dizziness, the symptoms of acute pesticide poisoning.

In a few months Brazil’s Congress will consider a bill that would further weaken the regulatory framework for pesticides. Among its many proposals, the bill would substantially reduce the role of the health and environment ministries, the agencies with expertise in the impact of pesticide use, in determining which pesticides can be used in Brazil. Congress should vote against the bill.

But even before that debate takes place in Congress, there’s an urgent need for reform. Brazil lacks a national regulation to require a buffer zone around schools, homes and other sensitive sites for ground spraying.

In most parts of Brazil, it is entirely legal to spray highly hazardous pesticides up to the walls of rural schools or inhabited buildings. Of the 27 states in Brazil, 19 do not have buffer zones for ground spraying.

In comments to the media, the Ministry of Agriculture has indicated that it is willing to do create these buffer zones. Luis Rangel, the director of the Agricultural Defense Secretariat (SDA) told the national news program Jornal Nacional that he would “immediately abide” with the proposal to establish and enforce a nationwide regulation for a buffer zone around sensitive sites for all forms of ground spraying. Similarly, he told CBN radio that this proposal was “perfectly acceptable” and “within [the ministry’s] goals.”

It is within Federal authority to set such standards for a buffer zone for ground spraying. The national Pesticide Law comes under articles 23 and 24 of the Constitution, which give Federal authorities joint jurisdiction along with States. And one of the primary goals of a buffer zone is to protect the human health, an issue also under Federal jurisdiction.

If indeed adopted and enforced, this commitment would make a real difference in the lives of many rural Brazilians.

But laws are not enough. They need to be obeyed. Our research also found that the buffer zone prohibiting aerial spraying within 500 meters of inhabited sites is often ignored. Even in the few states that do stipulate buffer zones for ground spraying, those rules are not routinely respected.

Brazilian authorities do not know how many Brazilians are being sprayed from airplanes over people’s houses, or from tractors beside classroom windows. They know even less about the health and environmental impact.

Brazilian authorities should undertake an urgent, thorough and time-bound review of the impact of pesticides on the health of rural communities. While doing this, Brazil should impose a moratorium on aerial spraying and impose and enforce an immediate prohibition on ground spraying near sensitive sites. The Ministry of Agriculture has made a commitment. Now it should transform the commitment into action.

Author: Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Brazil allows the use of toxic pesticides that are banned in other parts of the world, and spraying is often allowed right up to the doors of rural homes and schools.

© Weberson Santiago/VEJA

I met Yara, a teenager who was 3-months pregnant, a few months ago in an impoverished indigenous community in Mato Grosso do Sul state. I was there to talk to her parents, Irupe and Pinon, about how toxic pesticides sprayed in the large plantation next door impacts their community.

Brazil allows the use of toxic pesticides that are banned in other parts of the world, and spraying is often allowed right up to the doors of rural homes and schools. Pesticide poisoning is a fact of life in many rural areas. Brazil’s regulation of these pesticides is inadequate, but Congress is considering a bill that would further weaken the regulatory framework. Congress should reject the bill.

As I spoke with her parents, Yara was poring over a guide for expectant mothers. But the book did not address how to avoid the acute pesticide poisoning that her community has long suffered.

Yara was afraid the pesticides could harm her and her baby. Research shows that chronic exposure to pesticide is associated with negative impacts on fetal development, and with infertility, cancer, and other serious health effects.

Yara’s parents, told me that their most recent incident was earlier this year, when they felt the spray wetting their backs as a tractor spewed pesticides on the nearby plantation. They felt dizziness, nausea, headache, diarrhea and vomiting, symptoms consistent with acute pesticide poisoning. 

Unfortunately, Yara’s community is not an isolated case. Across all regions of Brazil, ordinary people in rural communities are being poisoned from highly hazardous pesticides sprayed near their homes, schools, and workplaces. Until now, Brazil doesn’t require a buffer zone around schools, homes or other sensitive sites for ground spraying. This could soon change if the Agriculture Ministry keeps a promise made on national TV to introduce a nationwide regulation that would set a buffer zone for ground spraying. For aerial spraying, there is a requirement in an existing regulation by MAPA for a buffer zone but it is seldom enforced.

A new regulation would be just the beginning.  Brazilian authorities do not know how many Brazilians are being sprayed from airplanes or tractors and even less about the health and environmental impact. They need this information, and a system to enforce the buffer zones and other protections.

The bill before congress would weaken protections even further, reducing the Health and Environment Ministries’ roles in approving pesticides for use, even though they have the needed expertise.

Congress should reject the bill and lead a national effort to review the impact of pesticides on the health of rural communities and set the course for providing the needed protection. Yara shouldn’t have to worry that pesticide spraying will harm her or her baby, and people across rural Brazil should be protected from these poisons. 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Andrew Wheeler, the former coal lobbyist who became acting administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) after Scott Pruitt resigned, is weakening rules that protect people who live near coal-fired plants from the toxic ash left from burning coal.

Coal-fired power plants across the United States produce more than 100 million of tons of toxic ash every year. For decades, many states have allowed power companies to dump most of this ash into watery pits that are, on average, the size of nearly 40 football fields.

These pits, created with little or no regulatory oversight, pose a risk of a catastrophic spill flooding nearby communities with toxic sludge and widespread leaching of dangerous heavy metals into groundwater. Half of the U.S. population relies on groundwater for drinking, and private wells near power plants are especially vulnerable to contamination from coal ash.

Three days before Christmas in 2008, a dam broke on a coal ash pond in Kingston, Tennessee, spilling more than a billion gallons of black sludge into the Emory River. The spill, which took five years and cost more than $1 billion to clean up, was a dramatic reminder of the public health threat posed by the more than 1,000 coal-ash disposal sites that dot nearly every U.S state.

Coal ash from the Kingston Fossil Plant spill piles up along an inlet that empties into the Emory River, near Kingston, Tennessee in 2008.

© Brian Stansberry

A subsequent EPA review found that the majority of coal-ash disposal sites are more than three decades old, which poses a problem for their structural integrity. Groundwater tests near ponds found high levels of such hazardous metals as arsenic, lead, mercury, and hexavalent chromium.

In 2015, under President Barack Obama, the EPA finalized new rules for coal ash after receiving 450,000 public comments and conducting eight public hearings. These set protections for people living near coal-fired power stations while allowing coal ash to be sold for reuse in concrete and other materials. And it imposed new monitoring requirements on power companies.

On March 1, power companies revealed for the first time the extent of coal-ash contamination of groundwater. That same day, the EPA, then under Pruitt, released its proposal to weaken the federal coal-ash rule by allowing state regulators to suspend groundwater monitoring and increase maximum permitted contaminant levels, among other measures.

On July 18, Wheeler finalized these rule changes, touting a $30 million annual savings in regulatory costs. For the multibillion-dollar power industry, these savings hardly seem like a plausible reason to eviscerate existing rules. Perhaps the greater motive is keeping the extent of pollution hidden from public view.

In the single public hearing the EPA held before finalizing this rule change, Lee McCarty, the mayor of a small town in Alabama that has a leaking coal-ash pond, exhorted the EPA not to weaken the rule. “My county voted 72 percent for the Republican administration,” he told the EPA representatives, “yet I have not had a single person” who supports this rule change. “If this is the best that the Environmental Protection Agency can do, I would say please, at least for transparency reasons, change your name to the UPA, the Utilities Protection Agency.”

In announcing the final rule, the EPA has promised even more changes to the coal-ash rule later this year. Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle should protect the health of the people they represent and insist that the EPA safeguard their constituents’ drinking water and ensure their right to information about possible contamination.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Jovana, a woman in her mid-20s, with her young daughter. They live in Minas Gerais State and, along with other residents, said that airplanes often spray over the houses in their community. She described being sprayed by pesticides from airplanes, along with her children, and experiencing symptoms including headaches, nausea, dizziness and vomiting. Children are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of toxic exposures as their brains and bodies are still developing. 

© 2018 Marizilda Cruppé for Human Rights Watch

Five years ago, an airplane sprayed pesticides over a rural school, São José do Pontal, located among the vast corn and soy plantations extending around Rio Verde, a city in Goiás state. About 90 people—mostly children studying at the school—were hospitalized. The incident shocked the nation, and, in the immediate aftermath, Brazil was concerned about pesticide poisonings in rural areas.

Not only has the attention to this case dissipated ever since, but also little has changed. Rural people throughout the country are repeatedly poisoned by pesticides. A new report by Human Rights Watch finds that ordinary people going about their daily routines face toxic exposures from pesticides sprayed in immediate proximity to their homes, schools, and workplaces.

They are poisoned when pesticide spray drifts off target crops during application, or when pesticides vaporize and drift to adjacent areas in the days after spraying. We talked to people in seven sites, including farming communities, indigenous communities, quilombos, and rural schools—across all regions of Brazil. They told us of experiencing vomiting, nausea, headache, and dizziness, the symptoms of pesticide poisoning.

For example, I visited a rural school in Primavera do Leste municipality in Mato Grosso to talk to teachers and students. There plantations begin about 15 meters from the closest classrooms. I talked to a woman who told me about being poisoned in late 2017 when she went to night school classes.

“I started vomiting many times, until I had thrown up all I had in my stomach and was just retching,” she said. Classes were cancelled that night and students were sent home.

Brazil’s response to pesticide drift is failing. While a Ministry of Agriculture regulation prohibits aerial spraying within 500 meters of inhabited sites, this buffer zone is often ignored in practice. There is no corresponding national regulation limiting ground spraying.

Acute pesticide poisoning and chronic exposure are invisible to Brazil’s broader public and policymakers. One of the most insidious reasons is a fear of reprisals from wealthy and politically powerful landowners that grips many rural communities. Members of five of the seven rural communities we visited said they had received threats or were afraid of retaliation if they reported pesticide drift.  In 2010, a farmer who was an anti-pesticide activist was shot and killed because he pushed the local government to ban aerial spraying that year.

Our findings are timely, as Brazil’s Congress will consider a bill to further weaken the regulatory framework for pesticides over the next few months. Among its many proposals, the bill would substantially reduce the role of the health and environment ministries, the agencies with expertise in the impact of pesticide use, in determining which pesticides can be used in Brazil.

Brazil should not allow pesticide spraying from airplanes over people’s houses, or from tractors beside classroom windows. Urgently, Brazilian authorities should undertake a thorough and time-bound review of the impact of pesticides on the health of rural communities. While doing this, Brazil should impose a moratorium on aerial spraying and impose and enforce an immediate prohibition on ground spraying near sensitive sites. And Congress should vote against the bill that would further weaken the regulation of pesticides in Brazil.

--

Richard Pearshouse is associate environment and human rights director at Human Rights Watch.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

 

Summary

In May 2013 an airplane sprayed pesticides over a rural school, São José do Pontal, located among the vast corn and soy plantations extending around Rio Verde, a city in Goiás state in Brazil. Around 90 people—mostly children studying at the school—were immediately hospitalized. The incident shocked the nation, and, in the immediate aftermath, Brazil was concerned about the issue of pesticide poisonings in rural areas.

Although this attention has long since dissipated, little has changed: rural people throughout the country continue to be poisoned by pesticides. Ordinary people going about their daily routines face toxic exposures from pesticide applications that frequently occur in immediate proximity to their homes, schools, and workplaces. They are exposed when pesticide spray drifts off target crops during application, or when pesticides vaporize and drift to adjacent areas in the days after spraying.

Video

Brazil: Pesticide Poisonings in Rural Areas

Of the 10 most widely used pesticides in Brazil in 2016, four are not authorized for use in Europe, indicating how hazardous other governments consider some of them.

From July 2017 to April 2018, Human Rights Watch interviewed 73 people affected by pesticide drift in seven sites across rural Brazil, including farming communities, indigenous communities, quilombos (Afro-Brazilian communities), and rural schools.[1] The sites are located throughout the five major geographic regions of Brazil.

In all seven sites, people described symptoms consistent with acute pesticide poisoning after seeing pesticide spraying nearby, or smelling pesticides recently applied to nearby fields. These symptoms commonly include sweating, elevated heart rate, and vomiting, as well as nausea, headache, and dizziness.

There is no reliable government data on how many people in Brazil suffer pesticide poisoning. The Ministry of Health acknowledges that under-reporting of pesticide poisoning is a concern and it seems clear that official data grossly understates the severity of this problem.

While this report documents cases of acute poisonings, chronic exposure to pesticides—repeated exposure to low doses over an extended period—is also a serious public health concern. Chronic pesticide exposure is associated with infertility, negative impacts on fetal development, cancer, and other serious health effects, and pregnant women, children, and other vulnerable people may face elevated risks.

In many cases, there are no national, state, or municipal laws to protect people from pesticide drift. There is no national regulation establishing a buffer zone around sensitive sites in which ground spraying of pesticides is prohibited, and most states do not have such a law on their books.[2] Human Rights Watch has found that even in the few states that do stipulate buffer zones for ground spraying, those rules are not routinely respected.

There is a national norm prohibiting aerial spraying of pesticides within 500 meters of villages, cities, communities, neighborhoods, and water sources. But, as with state-level buffer zones for ground spraying, this regulation is not consistently observed.

By and large, acute pesticide poisoning and chronic exposure is invisible to Brazil’s broader public and policy makers. One of the most insidious reasons for this invisibility is a fear of reprisals from large landowners that grips many rural communities. In 2010, a rural farmer and anti-pesticide activist was shot and killed after pushing the local government to ban aerial spraying that year. In the course of researching this report, threats or fear of retaliation were mentioned in five of the seven sites visited. 

Brazil urgently needs to introduce measures to limit pesticide exposure that is harmful to human health. The Brazilian authorities should undertake a thorough and time-bound review of the health and environmental impacts of the current approach to pesticides. While undertaking this review, Brazil should impose a moratorium on aerial spraying and impose and enforce an immediate prohibition on ground spraying near sensitive sites.

 

Recommendations

To the Ministry of Agriculture

  • Establish and enforce a nation-wide regulation for a buffer zone around sensitive sites, including human habitation and schools, for all forms of ground spraying;
  • Establish a moratorium on aerial spraying of pesticides until the Ministry, in conjunction with the Ministries of Health and Environment and as part of a nation-wide review of current pesticide policies, undertakes a study on the human health impacts, environmental impacts, and associated economic costs of aerial spraying (including an analysis of the viability of alternative forms of application);
  • In conjunction with the Ministries of Health and Environment, develop a comprehensive national action plan to reduce the use of highly hazardous pesticides in Brazil, via binding and measurable reduction targets with time limits, and accompanied by incentives to support alternatives to, and reductions of, highly hazardous pesticides.

To the Ministry of Health

  • As part of a nation-wide review of current pesticide policies, conduct a review on the major health effects and associated costs of acute and chronic exposure to pesticides among people living in rural areas, including pregnant women, children and other vulnerable people;
  • In conjunction with the Ministries of Agriculture and Environment, develop a comprehensive national action plan to reduce the use of highly hazardous pesticides in Brazil, via binding and measurable reduction targets with time limits, and accompanied by incentives to support alternatives to, and reductions of, highly hazardous pesticides;
  • Develop and implement a protocol to receive complaints about pesticide spraying around sensitive sites, including human habitation and schools, including detailed measures related to:
    • ensuring health authorities conduct follow-up health monitoring and monitoring of drinking water supplies;
    • informing agriculture authorities in order to ensure pesticide spraying is carried out in accordance with the law.  
  • Ensure existing legislation on testing drinking water is applied, particularly the requirement of water service providers to submit two tests a year on all 27 of the pesticides listed in the Ministry of Health’s regulation on drinking water quality;
  • Monitor the presence of pesticides in drinking water in indigenous communities;
  • Provide technical support to states and municipalities to carry out the surveillance of drinking water in rural and quilombo communities;
  • Ensure that the national network of health surveillance laboratories that monitor pesticide residues in water and food have adequate equipment and training of staff to carry out the pesticide residue testing on food and drinking water;
  • Amplify, in terms of the number and type of food products and the breadth of tests, the testing of food for pesticide residues under the Program on Pesticide Residue Analysis in Food (PARA);
  • Publish annual bulletins of the results of pesticide monitoring in water and food;
  • Increase professional training of healthcare workers in pesticide poisonings, including training in clinical diagnoses of acute poisonings and chronic pesticide exposure and their notification requirements;
  • Improve the information available to healthcare workers on types of pesticides and their acute and chronic health impacts, including through an online database with toxicological information for the most widely-used pesticides in Brazil and clinical management of acute and/or chronic health effects;
  • Increase technical support to state health surveillance programs on populations exposed to pesticide;
  • Elaborate awareness-raising campaigns on pesticides, its health-related risks, and how to proceed in case of exposure and/or poisoning.

To the Ministry of the Environment

  • As part of a nation-wide review of current pesticide policies, conduct a review of the major environmental impacts of current pesticide policies;
  • In conjunction with the Ministries of Health and Agriculture, develop a comprehensive national action plan to reduce the use of highly hazardous pesticides, via binding and measurable reduction targets with time limits, and accompanied by incentives to support alternatives to, and reductions of, highly hazardous pesticides.

To the Ministry of Education

  • In conjunction with the Ministry of Health, conduct a nation-wide assessment of schools particularly at risk of exposure to pesticide spraying;
  • In conjunction with state and municipal secretariats of education, direct school headmasters and headmistresses to notify pesticide poisoning cases of students, including suspected cases, to health authorities as prescribed in the Ministry of Health’s list of diseases requiring compulsory notification;
  • Work in collaboration with health authorities at federal, state and municipal levels to monitor exposure and health impacts on the school populations exposed to pesticide spraying;
  • Work in collaboration with agricultural authorities at federal, state and municipal levels to reduce exposure to pesticides, including implementing buffer zones around schools for both ground and aerial spraying;
  • Include education on the harms of pesticides and protection strategies in the curriculum, as part of environmental education.

To National Congress

  • Reject bills that would weaken Brazil’s regulatory framework for pesticides, including bill 6299/2002;
  • Designate appropriate financial support to the Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office, the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of Environment, the Ministry of Education, and the Ministry of Human Rights to implement the respective recommendations of this report. 

To the Federal and State Public Prosecutor’s Offices

  • Promptly investigate and prosecute alleged cases of spraying within buffer zones or health or environmental damages resulting from pesticide spraying;
  • Promptly investigate and prosecute alleged cases of threats against residents or community leaders for complaining about the health effects of pesticides or pushing for better protections against pesticide exposure; 
  • Develop guidelines on how to investigate and prosecute cases of acute or chronic pesticide poisonings, including detailed measures related to:
    • a referral pathway for public health officials or environmental officials to refer alleged cases of unlawful pesticide usage that has led to public health or environmental impacts;
    • coordination with specialized health services for people exposed;
    • protecting complainants and witnesses from threats and acts of retaliation;
    • collecting evidence of transgressions of norms and regulations related to pesticides.
  • Train public prosecutors to investigate and prosecute cases related to unlawful pesticide spraying.

To Ministry of Human Rights

  • Protect people at risk for denouncing pesticides-related issues under the existing human rights defenders program and other programs;
  • Designate and train experts to specialize in pesticide-related cases.

To State Secretariats of Agriculture

  • If established by the Ministry of Agriculture, rigorously enforce the proposed buffer zone for ground spraying;
  • In the absence of action by the Ministry of Agriculture, establish and rigorously enforce the proposed buffer zone for ground spraying;
  • Provide support to municipalities in pesticide regulation, including the enforcement and monitoring of buffer zones.

To State Secretariats of Health

  • Ensure existing legislation on testing drinking water is applied, particularly the requirement of water service providers to submit two tests a year on all 27 of the pesticides listed in the Ministry of Health regulation on drinking water quality;
  • Develop and implement the state health surveillance program on populations exposed to pesticides, including detailed measures related to:
    • surveillance on drinking water including all 27 pesticides listed in the Ministry of Health regulation on drinking water quality, as well as other pesticides intensively used in the state;
    • monitor pesticide residues in food;
    • identification and monitoring of rural and quilombo communities, schools and other sensitive sites exposed to pesticide spraying.
  • Monitor and publicly report on incidents of exposure and any adverse health impacts of pesticide spraying in rural communities, schools, and other sensitive sites, as well as any measures taken or not taken by local authorities to reduce exposure pesticide spraying.

To Municipal Secretariats of Agriculture

  • If established by the Ministry of Agriculture or the State Secretariat of Agriculture, rigorously enforce the proposed buffer zone for ground spraying;
  • In the absence of action by the Ministry of Agriculture or the State Secretariat of Agriculture, establish and rigorously enforce the proposed buffer zone for ground spraying;

To Municipal Secretariats of Health

  • Ensure existing legislation on testing drinking water is applied, particularly the requirement of water service providers to submit two tests a year on all 27 of the pesticides listed in the Ministry of Health regulation on drinking water quality;
  • Develop and implement the municipal health surveillance program on populations exposed to pesticides, including detailed measures related to:
    • surveillance on drinking water including all 27 pesticides listed in the Ministry of Health regulation on drinking water quality, as well as other pesticides intensively used in the state;
    • identification of and surveillance on rural and quilombo communities, schools and other sensitive sites exposed to pesticide spraying.
  • Monitor and publicly report on incidents of exposure and any adverse health impacts of pesticide spraying in rural communities, schools and other sensitive sites, as well as any measures taken or not taken by local authorities to reduce exposure pesticide spraying.

 

Methodology

While pesticide drift is an issue of serious concern in many parts of the world, Human Rights Watch undertook research in Brazil based on a number of considerations, including the globally significant amount of pesticides used in the country; that many of the pesticides used in Brazil are highly hazardous; and that there is intense political pressure to further weaken Brazil’s regulatory system for pesticides.

From July 2017 to April 2018, Human Rights Watch spent a total of seven weeks travelling in rural areas of Brazil, interviewing people about the effects of pesticides sprayed on nearby farms. Some people we approached did not want to talk, either not providing a reason or, on other occasions, expressing fear of retaliation if they speak out.

From those who agreed to share their experiences, Human Rights Watch interviewed 73 affected people in seven sites, including farming communities, indigenous communities, quilombos (Afro-Brazilian communities), and rural schools.

The sites are located throughout the five major geographic regions of the country. The communities are all located in rural settings, as agricultural pesticide exposure is a predominantly rural phenomenon. The communities were located after consultations with people knowledgeable about pesticide issues in Brazil and represent a range of different profiles of people exposed to pesticides. Rural schools were included as research sites because children are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of toxic exposures as their brains and bodies are still developing.[3]

Human Rights Watch also interviewed 42 people knowledgeable about pesticide issues in Brazil, including government officials working in the health and environment entities of state and local government authorities, prosecutors, lawyers, academic researchers, activists, and representatives of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). In total, Human Rights Watch interviewed 115 people for this report.

We also obtained videos or photographs of pesticide spraying in four of the seven sites.

Interviews were conducted in Portuguese, at times through an interpreter. Human Rights Watch informed all interviewees of the purpose of the interview, its voluntary nature, and the ways in which the information would be collected and used. Interviewers assured participants that they could end the interview at any time or decline to answer any questions, without any negative consequences. All interviewees provided verbal informed consent to participate. Human Rights Watch did not provide anyone with compensation or other incentives for participating.

To protect the confidentiality and safety of interviewees, their names and the names of the communities featured in this report and other identifying information have been withheld. In some cases, interviewees requested that, despite assigning pseudonyms to each individual, we should not mention the threats they had received.

 

Background

A Boom in Pesticides

Brazil is one of the world’s largest consumers of pesticides: annual sales are around US$10 billion.[4] In 2014, some 1,550 thousand tons were sold to Brazilian purchasers.[5] This corresponds to around 7.5 kilograms of pesticides used per person in Brazil each year.[6]

The agriculture (and related livestock) industry in Brazil drives the national economy. Over the last four decades the lands used for grains increased by more than 60 percent, and the productivity increased three-fold. As a result, Brazil produced 238 million tons of grains in the 2016/2017 harvest.[7] The main crops—soybeans, corn, and sugarcane—corresponded to 61.2 percent of the value of agriculture production.[8] One of the characteristics of the industry is cultivation on large plantations: extensions of over 1,000 hectares account for less than 1 percent of farms in the country but cover 45 percent of all agricultural land.[9]

The introduction of mechanized farming techniques and new technologies, such as genetically modified organisms—including soybeans, corn, and cotton resistant to glyphosate—coupled with the intensive use of fertilizers and pesticides, have driven gains in productivity.[10] However, agricultural expansion has also driven deforestation, especially in the Amazon and Cerrado regions of Brazil.[11]

The massive amount of pesticides used in Brazil is driven by Brazil’s expanding large-scale, monocrop agriculture. Of all pesticides sold in Brazil, about 80 percent are used on plantations of soybeans, corn, cotton, and sugarcane.[12]

Many of the pesticides used in Brazil are highly hazardous.[13] Of the 10 most widely used pesticides in Brazil in 2016, 9 are considered highly hazardous pesticides by the NGO Pesticide Action Network International.[14] Of these 10, 4 are not authorized for use in Europe, indicating how hazardous several are considered by some standards.[15]

Most pesticides are applied on the ground, often by tractor-mounted “boom sprayers”. A smaller, but significant amount is sprayed by airplanes. In 2012, around 70 million hectares of land were sprayed by airplanes in Brazil, representing around a quarter of all land sprayed with pesticides that year.[16] While the amount of pesticide drift depends on factors such as windspeed, the chemical formulations of the pesticide, and sprayer parameters (such as nozzle type, orientation, and hydraulic pressure), aerial spraying often results in higher rates of pesticide drift than ground spraying.[17]

Around half of the pesticides used in Brazil are supplied by foreign-based companies. In 2012 Brazil imported $5.4 billion worth of pesticides, representing 55.6 percent of the market that year. Companies based in the US and China were the largest suppliers, accounting for approximately 22 percent each of the total volume Brazil imported, while other main suppliers were based in England, Switzerland, and India.[18]

Buffer Zones and the Role of Authorities

In Brazil, jurisdiction over pesticide issues is shared between national, state, and local authorities. Existing regulation by MAPA (Brazil’s ministry of agriculture) prohibits aerial spraying within 500 meters of villages, cities, communities, neighborhoods, and water sources.[19] The prohibition of aerial spraying within this space is intended to create a buffer zone between the area of application and these sensitive sites, supposedly preventing pesticide drift reaching them.[20] 

There is no corresponding national regulation establishing a buffer zone around sensitive sites when ground spraying, even though ground spraying is the most common method of pesticide application, and despite it generating considerable pesticide drift. States also have jurisdiction over pesticides and some of them have buffer zones for mechanized ground spraying (ranging from 50 to 600 meters).[21]

States, usually state secretariats of agriculture, are responsible by law for overseeing the use of pesticides, including compliance with buffer zones where they exist.[22] In some cases, municipal environmental and agriculture authorities also conduct inspections. Federal and State public prosecutor offices often play an active role in investigating and enforcing pesticide laws and regulations.[23]

Pesticide use in violation of federal, state, and municipal laws and regulations constitutes a criminal offence, sanctioned with two to four years in prison and a fine. Any employer or service provider who doesn’t take measures necessary to protect health and environment is subject to the same penalty.[24] In addition to criminal liability, the public prosecutor can demand reparation and compensation for damage to the environment and collective interests.[25]

In practice, there are a number of problems with the system of pesticide buffer zones around sensitive sites in Brazil. In relation to ground spraying, the absence of a national regulation establishing a buffer zone around sensitive sites has led to inconsistent approaches by states and a lack of regulation in most of the country. Of the 27 states in Brazil, 19 do not have buffer zones for ground spraying.[26]

Exposure to pesticides can have severe impacts on the enjoyment of human rights, including the rights to health, to adequate food, to safe drinking water, and the right to a healthy environment.[27] Brazil is obligated to protect its citizens from human rights abuses, including those connected with business activity. In practical terms, the obligation to protect human rights in the context of business activity requires taking “appropriate steps to prevent, investigate and redress such abuse through effective policies, legislation, regulation and adjudication.”[28]

Brazil urgently needs to introduce measures to limit pesticide exposure that is harmful to human health. The Brazilian authorities should undertake a thorough and time-bound review of the health and environmental impacts of the current approach to pesticides.[29] While undertaking this review, Brazil should impose a moratorium on aerial spraying and impose and enforce an immediate prohibition on ground spraying near sensitive sites.

A Monitoring System Overwhelmed

Due to the wide range of pesticides and their toxicities, the health effects of acute pesticide poisoning vary significantly.[30] People commonly experience sweating, elevated heart rate, and vomiting, as well as nausea, headache, and dizziness. At the same time, chronic exposure—repeated exposure to low doses over an extended period—is associated with infertility, negative impacts on fetal development, cancer, and other serious health effects.[31] Pregnant women, children, and other vulnerable people may face elevated risks.[32]

No one knows how common the problem of pesticide poisoning is in Brazil.

Healthcare providers are obliged to register any incidents—including suspected cases—in the Ministry of Health’s compulsory disease reporting system.[33] School headmasters and headmistresses should also notify pesticide poisoning cases of students, including suspected cases, to health authorities.[34] According to the Ministry of Health, there were 4,003 cases of agricultural pesticide poisoning in Brazil, or almost 11 a day, in 2017. One hundred and forty-eight people died from pesticide poisoning that year.[35]

However, it seems clear that official data grossly understates the severity of this problem.[36] Individuals may not seek health services or, if they do, are not diagnosed as cases of poisoning. The Ministry of Health acknowledges that under-reporting is a concern that “leads to invisibility of the [pesticide poisoning] problem and a lack of access to information by workers and exposed populations.”[37]

One likely indication of the extent of underreporting is that, according to the Ministry of Health’s data, 32 percent of the municipalities considered as priorities for health monitoring of people exposed to pesticides did not register a single case of pesticide poisoning from 2007 to 2015.[38]

Diagnosing acute pesticide poisoning is challenging because it can lead to a wide diversity of health effects. Nevertheless, diagnosis is possible: there is a standard definition and classification scheme available for acute pesticide poisonings to enable identification and diagnosis at the field level, rural clinics, and primary healthcare systems.[39]

There are also health effects—often more serious—associated with low-level pesticide exposure over time. The Ministry of Health reports that from 2007 to 2015, there were just 1,141 cases of chronic exposure to pesticides but concedes that “it is possible that chronic exposure [to pesticides] is under-notified, due to the low capacity of health services to recognize and capture this type [of exposure].”[40]

Brazil’s national cancer institute (INCA), a governmental agency, has taken a public position against current pesticide policies in Brazil. Its concerns include the introduction of genetically modified organisms (as genetically modified seeds require intensive use of pesticides), the widespread use of aerial spraying, and Brazil’s approval, for use in the country, of pesticides prohibited in other countries.[41] It also highlights the risks to health, including cancer, from chronic exposure. It states:

The adverse effects of chronic exposure to pesticides might appear a long time after the exposure, making it difficult to link to the agent. The effects associated with chronic exposure to active substances of pesticides include infertility, impotence, miscarriage, malformations, neurotoxicity, hormonal dysregulation, effects on immune system and cancer.[42]

Pesticide Residues in Food and Water

The people whose testimony is included in this report are on the front lines of exposure to pesticides. But it would be a mistake to think that exposure is limited to them: chronic exposure can also occur through pesticide residues in food and drinking water. 

ANVISA is Brazil’s health protection agency. ANVISA’s Program on Pesticide Residue Analysis in Food (PARA) monitors 25 common foods such as fruits, vegetables, and cereals for 232 types of pesticides. Of the 12,000 samples collected in 2013-2015, about 20 percent contained pesticide residues that either exceeded permitted levels or contained unauthorized pesticides.[43] PARA acknowledges its monitoring does not currently include the two most commonly used pesticides in Brazil, glyphosate and 2,4-D (2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid), because they require different testing methods from those employed at the laboratories used by PARA.[44]

The government’s monitoring system for contamination in drinking water is also weak. According to a Ministry of Health regulation, water suppliers—whether state or municipal governments or private companies—are responsible for testing for 27 designated pesticides every six months in the water systems they manage and reporting those results to the Ministry of Health’s drinking water monitoring database.[45]

But each year, an average of 67 percent of municipalities across the country do not submit any information to the federal government. When they do submit, most municipalities do not submit complete data. Of the test results submitted in 2014, only 18 percent were full tests for all 27 pesticides conducted twice a year as required by the law.[46]

Even with this woefully incomplete monitoring system, the Ministry of Health manages to identify some municipalities where drinking water has pesticide residues above the legal limits. Of the small number of municipalities that submitted test results during this four-year period, 15 percent reported at least one substance above the legal limit.[47]

The limited monitoring for pesticide residues in water and food is partly due to a scarcity of laboratory facilities. In 2016, ANVISA assessed that only seven public laboratories were able to test food for pesticide residues in Brazil, and only six public laboratories were adequately equipped to test for pesticide residues in water. Only one reported having capacity to test water for glyphosate, the most commonly used pesticide in Brazil.[48]

A Population in Fear

Those exposed to pesticides are often from poor communities while the neighboring large-scale, monocrop plantation owners are wealthy and politically powerful. People who raise concerns about pesticide exposure can face threats and experience fears of retaliation. While such fears are difficult to quantify, they are very real for many individuals and communities.

A number of states and municipalities have moved to establish laws banning aerial spraying and/or establishing buffer zones around human habitations and other sensitive sites.[49] The community organizing required for such initiatives to be successful often brings threats and intimidation into sharp focus.

In April 2010 a rural farmer and anti-pesticide activist, Jose Maria Filho, was shot 25 times with pistol when driving home one night in Limoeiro do Norte, in Ceará state. He had been instrumental in pushing the local municipal government to ban aerial spraying that year, over the opposition of big landowners. A month after his murder, the ban was overturned. The public prosecutor believes that he was killed as a consequence of his denunciations of aerial spraying and water contamination by pesticides in the region.[50] The public prosecutor filed a criminal case against four suspects in 2010, although, at the date of publication, no one has been tried.[51]

As noted in the summary of this report, in May 2013 an airplane sprayed pesticides over the school São José do Pontal in the rural settlement Pontal dos Buritis, in Rio Verde, Goiás, poisoning around 90 children and adults. The distance between the school and the corn plantation is around 20 meters. Students stayed at the hospital for some days with symptoms ranging from dizziness, diarrhea, severe headaches to skin, liver, kidney, and breathing problems.[52]

The teacher of the school at the time of the spraying who pushed for health care for those affected and for more stringent controls of pesticides in the municipality told Human Rights Watch that he received numerous threats. These included telephone calls telling him to “take care of what you talk about,” and “You can hide, I will kill you.” [53]

In 2017, local activists and civil society organizations began to advocate for a ban on aerial spraying in the municipality of Boa Esperança in the state of Espírito Santo. A priest who helped organize a local petition against aerial spraying told Human Rights Watch that he received disturbing messages: “Initially I received messages warning me to take care. Then, agronomists started sending me pornographic videos…. Then I received calls threatening ‘you won’t last longer than December.’”[54] He reported the threats to the civil police, but to his knowledge, the police didn’t take any steps to investigate them.[55]

Political Pressure

As weak as the government’s regulatory system is, there is political pressure to weaken it further. According to the Pesticides Law, ANVISA, IBAMA (Brazil’s environmental protection agency), and MAPA (Brazil’s ministry of agriculture) are responsible for approving the use of new pesticides. ANVISA and IBAMA carry out hazard assessments, determining potential harm to humans and the environment respectively; while MAPA analyzes agronomic performance and registers products.[56] Three consenting opinions are required for a product to be registered.[57]

Since the Pesticides Law was adopted in 1989, dozens of bills have been introduced in Congress by the rural caucus—a group of lawmakers that represent rural districts—and supported by pesticide industry lobbyists, to further weaken the regulatory framework.[58]

The most recent bill, introduced in 2002 and approved by a Special Commission of Congress in June 2018, would substantially reduce the role of ANVISA and IBAMA in the process to authorize new pesticides, thereby limiting the involvement of agencies with specialized expertise on health and environmental impacts of pesticides.[59] The draft bill also proposes replacing the legal term agrotóxicos (pesticides) with produtos fitosanitários (phytosanitary products), masking the health and environmental hazards of pesticides.[60]

The bill would also weaken criteria for authorizing pesticides. Under the Pesticides Law, pesticides that are carcinogenic (cancer-causing), harm the development of the embryo or fetus, cause genetic mutations, or that harm the endocrine or reproductive systems cannot be registered.[61] However, the bill would allow more leeway in pesticide approval, limiting prohibition of use to those pesticides whose risk is considered “unacceptable to human beings and environment” after the adoption of risk management measures.[62]

Several government institutions, such as the national cancer institute (INCA), the Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office, and the public health institution Fundação Oswaldo Cruz, have positioned themselves against these changes.[63] In June 2018, five United Nations special rapporteurs on human rights wrote to the Brazilian government expressing concerns over the bill.[64]

 

Findings

One of the key findings of this research is that in all seven sites, people described symptoms consistent with acute pesticide poisoning after seeing pesticide spraying nearby or smelling pesticides recently applied to nearby fields. These symptoms include vomiting, nausea, headache, and dizziness. They often described experiencing such symptoms on a number of occasions, rather than just once, coinciding with the regular spraying events on nearby plantations.

Another key finding of this research is that, even where aerial and/or ground buffer zones are established by law, such buffer zones are often not respected in practice. In relation to aerial spraying, Human Rights Watch documented four cases in the seven sites where the aerial buffer zone of 500 meters was not respected.[65] In relation to ground spraying, Human Rights Watch visited three of the eight states that do have buffer zones for mechanized ground spraying—Goiás, Mato Grosso and Paraná—and documented four cases of ground spraying within five meters from schools.[66]

Also, the fear of reprisals from large landowners grips many rural communities exposed to pesticides. Threats or fear of retaliation were mentioned in five of the seven sites visited.[67] In the course of researching this report, seven people described threats or fears of retaliation after having mobilized against the health impacts of pesticides.[68]

Site A (Mato Grosso)

Site A is a rural school in Primavera do Leste municipality in the state of Mato Grosso in the mid-west region. The school has just over 100 students, with classes for students around 15-16 years old during the day and for adults in the evening. There are plantations immediately beside the school grounds, with the closest classrooms about 15 meters from the fields. Human Rights Watch interviewed five students and teachers in the school.

Unusually for Brazil, both Mato Grosso’s and Primavera do Leste’s legislation establish a buffer zone for ground spraying.[69] Currently, the municipal buffer zone is 250 meters from urban zones, but there is a bill under discussion reducing it to 90 meters, the same distance established by state legislation.[70]

Site A school has been subject to some enforcement action by authorities: the municipal secretary of development of industry, trade, agriculture, and environment repeatedly notified the farmer that he should comply with the legislation and issued a fine of 100,000 reais (around US$25,000) in 2014, and the Mato Grosso state court issued an interim injunction establishing a buffer zone of 250 meters around the school and rural community in 2015. [71] However, according to interviews with teachers at Site A, spraying during the cotton harvest in mid-2017 occurred frequently close to the school, so school staff subsequently complained to the municipal environment department. Teachers at Site A told Human Rights Watch there had been no response or visit in reaction to the most recent complaint.[72]

Carina is an adult woman who studies at the school in the evening. She described an incident of acute poisoning that occurred in 2017:

That night there was a strong smell when I arrived. I could taste it in my mouth. I started feeling sick, nauseous. I tried to drink water to get better, but it didn’t help. I started vomiting many times, until I had thrown up all I had in my stomach and was just retching. The classes were cancelled for everyone and I went home. I felt sick the day after with nausea and headache. I was taking something for my headache, but it didn’t help. The morning after I took milk and began to feel better but even my school uniform had the smell of pesticides.[73]

Site B (Mato Grosso do Sul)

Site B is located a few hours’ drive from Campo Grande, the capital city of Mato Grosso do Sul state in Brazil’s mid-west region. It is a community of a few hundred indigenous Guarani-Kaiowá people who live in huts and houses in a small forest around a stream.[74] A plantation begins approximately 50 meters from the community’s main hall and several houses located on the margins of the forest. The adjacent field alternates between growing soy and corn.

Human Rights Watch spoke to 11 Guarani-Kaiowá men, women, and children living in site B. They described numerous incidents of acute poisoning by pesticides in recent years from both aerial and ground spraying.[75] In some cases, the residents treat the symptoms of pesticide poisoning with a natural solution based on lemon juice, while in more serious cases, they described going to the local hospital (about a 45 minutes’ drive away).

Jakaira is a man in his 40s who has lived in site B for 10 years. He is married and the father of three adult children. He described an acute poisoning that had occurred around October 2017:

It was early in the morning, around 8 a.m., the tractor was spraying, and I smelt it. One could see the white liquid [in the air]. Even smelling it, it goes to your brain. You feel a bitterness in the throat. You don’t want to breathe poison anymore—you want to breathe another type of air—but there isn’t any. Then you feel weak—you cannot get up, because the poison is very strong—and get a fever and headache…. You put the hand on your head and feel it throbbing. I have had this headache many times, I can’t stand it. On that day, I had diarrhea and vomiting. Everyone that lives on the edges of our community felt sick. While I waited for the ambulance, I was lying on the bed and feeling weak. At the hospital I explained what I had and the cause. They gave me saline solution and medicine and I was discharged on the following day. When I was discharged from the hospital, the doctor told me to protect myself, but there isn’t a way.[76]

Site C (Paraná)

Site C is a rural school in Cascavel municipality in Paraná state in Brazil’s south. The school has approximately 200 children, ranging from 4 to 18 years old. Human Rights Watch interviewed 16 staff and students in site C.

Teresa is a 10-year-old girl who attends a school at site C. She described an incident of spraying at the school when she was five.

The yellow tractor started spraying suddenly: we heard the noise of the machine, we could see it through the [classroom] windows. I had a strong headache, stomachache, and the feeling I would vomit. [The teacher] said: “Let’s leave the classroom because the smell is too bad.” We went home early. I got home with nausea, feeling sick, a strong headache. I vomited at home twice: the first time I was eating with my family. I left my plate and ran to the bathroom. I didn’t eat anymore. I laid on the bed, fell asleep, and after a while I vomited again.[77]

In 2015, a municipal law in Cascavel established a buffer zone around schools, health units, and rural communities prohibiting any type of spraying within 300 meters or 50 meters in case there is a barrier of trees.[78] Prior to this law, classrooms at site C were around 50 meters distant from the plantation; at the time of interview, the nearest classrooms were approximately 100 meters away from the plantations with trees planted in between. Interviewees at site C said that since the law’s introduction, the situation has improved.[79]

However, Human Rights Watch visited other schools in Cascavel municipality, including two schools where teachers and students told Human Rights Watch that there were ongoing health problems caused by pesticide spraying. At both schools, staff told Human Rights Watch that spraying has occurred close to the schools, within the buffer zone established by the municipal law. [80]

Site D (Minas Gerais)

Site D is a quilombo (Afro-Brazilian) community of around 60 men, women and children. It is located a few hours’ drive from Belo Horizonte, the capital of the state of Minas Gerais in Brazil’ south-east region. Houses are simple, set beside a few mango and banana trees, and residents grow beans, pumpkins, corn, and okra at small vegetable plots. Some of the houses in site D are around 20 meters away from the adjacent sugarcane plantation.

Human Rights Watch interviewed 21 men, women, and children. Residents said airplanes often spray over the houses of the community and that spraying interrupts daily activities—such as farming, cleaning of the garden, or just playing.[81]

Bernardo is a man in his 30s who was born in site D. He is married and has a young child. Bernardo described feeling particularly powerless against aerial spraying and expressed his frustration after years of spraying, formal complaints and authorities’ neglect:

[Spraying causes] headache, nausea, shortness of breath, irritated eyes, skin, and nose. Spraying by airplane is worse than tractor: one can avoid tractors, can notice them from far away because of the noise. One cannot try to stop an airplane as it flies over the community. If an airplane comes, I go inside. This week, it flew over [a neighbor’s] house with the [spray] duster on. One feels [pesticides] falling on the skin. Whenever there is spraying, it is like that. We have had problems with aerial spraying for around 10 years. We’ve registered several complaints at the [local civil] police station and military police. No one solves it—there is no justice.[82]

Site E (Goiás)

Site E is a rural school a couple of hours’ drive outside of Goiânia, the capital city of Goiás state in the mid-west region of Brazil. The school has some 200 students from pre-school (ages around 3 years) to middle school (around 15-16 years old). It also has some adult students. Classes are taught during the day and night. There are plantations adjoining school classrooms: in the closest direction, fields begin 5 meters from the classroom.

Human Rights Watch interviewed seven people at the site E school, including four students from 13 to 16 years old. They described frequent pesticide applications immediately adjacent to the school, leading to bouts of nausea, dizziness, vomiting, and headaches among students.[83]

Danilo, a 13-year-old boy and student at site E school told Human Rights Watch:

From the classroom it’s possible to see them [spray] and hear the noise, both ground spraying and [from] airplanes. You can see the tractor spraying and white water coming from the big arms. They spray very close, but even if they spray a bit further away, the wind blows [the pesticides here]. [Pesticide spraying] disturbs us, and it causes nausea; it gives me a headache. I try to sit on the other side of the classroom [from the side closest to where they spray]. We have a fan [in the classroom], it helps a bit, but the smell remains. I’ve felt nausea, dizziness. It’s bad because you want to vomit but it gets trapped in the throat. Sometimes my mother comes [to pick me up from school] and we go to the hospital.[84]

 

Site F (Pará)

Site F is a rural community a few hours’ drive from Santarem in the state of Pará in Brazil’s northern region. Site F is home to approximately 600 people who live in a small community of houses beside a highway, with large plantations adjacent to it in the other direction. The plantation extends up to people’s houses, their small gardens, and a small soccer (football) field. The fields end only 5 meters from the well the community uses for drinking water.

Human Rights Watch interviewed eight residents of site F who told Human Rights Watch that pesticides affected their health and, in the case of small-scale farmers, the viability of their crops.[85] A community member who organized a petition to the state environment authorities to reduce nearby pesticide spraying said that the farmer who owned the surrounding plantation had threatened him one day by making the gesture of a gun as they passed in public. He reported the threats to the civil police, but to his knowledge, police didn’t take any step to investigate them. [86] According to another local resident: “We are concerned about the pesticide spraying but we are also concerned about being threatened, so we need not talk about it too much. That’s what we face here.”[87] 

Eduarda is a woman in her 20s who lives in a house located approximately 100 meters from the edge of a soy field in site F. When interviewed by Human Rights Watch, Eduarda was expecting to give birth to her first child within a few weeks.

Last month I was at home, doing housework. It was a terrible smell, very strong, like something rotten and chemical. I felt ill and with nausea and headache. I vomited a lot, once I started I couldn’t stop. I had to call my husband for help. I am pregnant and my main concern was for my son, I was worried it might affect his health. It’s my first pregnancy, I hadn’t vomited before or after this incident, [I was ill] from the pesticides. On the drive to the hospital we stopped about 3 times [for me] to vomit. At the hospital, they gave me some saline solution and something for a headache and nausea. I said it was because of pesticides, but they ignored this. They treated it like a virus, it wasn’t registered as an intoxication.[88]

Site G (Bahia)

Site G is a rural community in the south of Bahia, in Brazil’s northeast region. The area is dominated by plantations of eucalyptus trees. Approximately 100 families live in site G in a community centered around a small school and health unit. Houses and small vegetable plots belonging to the residents are interspersed with eucalyptus tree plantations; in some cases, houses are 20 meters from the plantations.

Human Rights Watch interviewed five residents. Community members said that ground spraying is more common, but that aerial spraying also occurs. Local residents told Human Rights Watch that they had experienced symptoms such as nausea, headache, diarrhea, burning and watering eyes, and numb lips following pesticide applications.[89]

Marelaine, a woman in her 20s who is a school teacher and small-scale farmer described an incident in 2015, when she was heading to school:

I was still close to my house when the airplane sprayed over the eucalyptus trees and the wind blew the pesticides towards me. I got wet and had to go back home and take another shower. Arriving at school, a headache began, and I felt my nose burning, itching, tingling. The airplane was spraying beside the school and the wind blowing to the school. One couldn’t smell it, but could feel the drift entering through the window. The children, between 4 and 7 years old, were complaining that their gums and eyes were burning. I released them around 9 a.m. and sent a message to the parents saying that we wouldn’t have classes while they were spraying.[90]

 

Acknowledgments

This report was written by Richard Pearshouse, associate director of the Environment and Human Rights Program, and João Bieber, consultant in the Environment and Human Rights Program. It was reviewed and edited by Marcos Orellana, Environment and Human Rights director; Amanda Klasing, senior researcher in the Women's Rights Division; Diederik Lohman, director of the Health and Human Rights Division; Maria Laura Canineu, Brazil director; César Muñoz, senior Brazil researcher; Juliane Kippenberg, associate director of the Children's Rights Division, Christopher Albin-Lackey, senior legal advisor; and Babatunde Olugboji, deputy program director.

Production assistance was provided by Matthew Parsons, coordinator in the Environment and Human Rights Program; Fitzroy Hepkins, administrative manager; and Jose Martinez, senior administration coordinator. Hugo Arruda translated this report into Portuguese.

Human Rights Watch is deeply grateful to the many individuals who shared their knowledge and experiences with us. Without their testimony this report would not be possible.  

 

 

[1] Drift occurs when pesticide spray drifts off target crops during application onto soil and areas adjacent to the field. See Agricultural Research Corporation (Embrapa), Government of Brazil, Tecnologia de Aplicação de Defensivos Agrícolas, (Fortaleza: Government of Brazil, 2006), p. 34.

[2] A buffer zone is a space between the area of application and sensitive sites, supposedly preventing pesticide drift reaching them. See João Paulo Arantes Rodrigues da Cunha, “Simulação da deriva de agrotóxicos em diferentes condições de pulverização,” Ciência e Agrotecnologia, vol. 17, no. 5 (2008), p. 1617; Maria Cecília de Lima e Sá de Alencar Rocha, “Efeitos dos agrotóxicos sobre as abelhas silvestres no Brasil,” (Brasília: IBAMA, 2012), http://www.ibama.gov.br/sophia/cnia/livros/efeitosdosagrotoxicossobreabe... (accessed July 10, 2018), p. 70.

[3] See, for example, Catherine Karr, “Children’s Environmental Health in Agricultural Settings,” Journal of Agromedicine, vol. 17, no. 2 (2012), p. 128.

[4] “Sindiveg: Setor de defensivos agrícolas registra queda nas vendas em 2016,” SINDIVEG news release, April 3, 2017, http://sindiveg.org.br/sindiveg-setor-de-defensivos-agricolas-registra-q... (accessed May 31, 2018).

[5] Ministry of Health, Government of Brazil, Relatório Nacional de Vigilância em Saúde de Populações Expostas a Agrotóxicos, (Brasilia: Government of Brazil, 2018) volume 1, book 2, http://bvsms.saude.gov.br/bvs/publicacoes/relatorio_nacional_vigilancia_... (accessed June 18, 2018) p. 18.

[6] In making this estimate, the 2014 national population estimate of 204, 213, 133 is taken from United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, World Population Prospects: the 2017 Revision (United Nations: 2017), http://esa.un.org/unpd/wpp/Download/Standard/Population/ (accessed June 18, 2018).

[7] Confederação da Agricultura e Pecuária do Brasil, Agribusiness Overview, (Brasilia: Confederação da Agricultura e Pecuária do Brasil, 2018), http://www.cnabrasil.org.br/estudos/visao-geral-do-agro (accessed June 14, 2018).

[8] Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística, Government of Brazil, Produção Agrícola Municipal: Culturas Temporárias e Permanentes, (Rio de Janiero: Government of Brazil, 2016), volume 43, https://biblioteca.ibge.gov.br/visualizacao/periodicos/66/pam_2016_v43_b... (accessed June 14, 2018).

[9] Oxfam Brazil, “Terrenos da desigualdade: terra, agricultura e desigualdades no Brasil rural,” November 2016, https://www.oxfam.org.br/sites/default/files/arquivos/relatorio-terrenos... (accessed June 18, 2018).

[10] “Melhora da produtividade é responsável por 80 % do crescimento da agropecuária,” Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Food Supply press release, February 28, 2018, http://www.agricultura.gov.br/noticias/melhora-da-produtividade-e-respon... (accessed June 27, 2018); Anay Cury, “Transgênicos são 93% da área plantada com soja, milho e algodão,” O Globo, August 17, 2016, http://g1.globo.com/economia/agronegocios/noticia/2016/08/transgenicos-s... (accessed June 27, 2018).

[11] “IBGE: Agricultura é maior responsável por desmatamento de florestas no país,” UOL Notícias, September 25, 2015, https://noticias.uol.com.br/meio-ambiente/ultimas-noticias/redacao/2015/... (accessed June 18, 2018).

[12] Fernando Ferreira Carneiro et al., Dossiê ABRASCO: um alerta sobre os impactos dos agrotóxicos na saúde, (Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo: Escola Politécnica de Saúde Joaquim Venâncio, 2015), p. 454.

[13] According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and World Health Organization (WHO), “highly hazardous pesticides” means “pesticides that are acknowledged to present particularly high levels of acute or chronic hazards to health or environment according to internationally accepted classification systems such as WHO or GHS or their listing in relevant binding international agreements or conventions. In addition, pesticides that appear to cause severe or irreversible harm to health or the environment under conditions of use in a country may be considered to be and treated as highly hazardous.” FAO and WHO, International Code of Conduct on Pesticide Management – Guidelines on Highly Hazardous Pesticides, (Rome: FAO, 2016), p. 6.

[14] While FAO and WHO have developed the criteria for highly hazardous pesticides, they do not provide a list of such pesticides. The Pesticide Action Network, a civil society organization that calls for effective international action on the elimination of hazardous pesticides, has published lists of highly hazardous pesticides based on classifications by recognized authorities since 2009. In 2016, the 10 most-used pesticides (by their active ingredients) in Brazil were as follows (in decreasing order): glyphosate, 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid, mancozeb, atrazine, mineral oil, acephate, vegetal oil, carbendazim, paraquat, and imidacloprid. Of these 10, all pesticides but vegetal oil are listed by the Pesticide Action Network as highly hazardous. See Pesticide Action Network International, PAN International List of Highly Hazardous Pesticides, (Hamburg: Pesticide Action Network International, 2016), http://www.panna.org/sites/default/files/PAN_HHP_List%202016.pdf

[15] Of these 10, atrazine, acephate, carbendazim, and paraquat are not approved for use in the European Union. See EU Pesticides Database at http://ec.europa.eu/food/plant/pesticides/eu-pesticides-database/public/... &language=EN; A fifth pesticide, imidacloprid, will be prohibited from outdoor use in the EU from the end of 2018. See Josh Gabbatiss, “EU votes to ban bee-harming pesticides,” The Independent, April 27, 2018, https://www.independent.co.uk/environment/bee-harming-pesticides-eu-ban-... (accessed June 19, 2018).

[16] Ulisses R. Antuniassi, "Evolution of agricultural aviation in Brazil," Outlooks on Pest Management, vol. 26, no. 1 (2015), pp. 12-15.

[17] See, for example, John Maybank, Ken Yoshida and Raj Grover, "Spray drift from agricultural pesticide applications," Journal of the Air Pollution Control Association, vol. 28(10) (1978), pp. 1009-1014.

[18] Bain & Company and Gas Energy, Potencial de Diversificação da Indústria Química Brasileira: Relatório 3 – Defensivos agrícolas, (Rio de Janeiro: Bain & Company, 2014), https://www.bndes.gov.br/wps/wcm/connect/site/a056bf33-7b92-44c8-ace1-8a7ca65d8286/6_chamada_publica_FEPprospec0311_Defensivos.pdf?MOD=AJPERES&CVID=lz-GKwI&CVID=lz-GKwI&CVID=lz-GKwI&CVID=lz-GKwI&CVID=lz-GKwI&CVID=lz-GKwI&CVID=lz-GKwI&CVID=lz-GKwI&CVID=lz-GKwI&CVID=lz-GKwI (accessed June 12, 2018).

[19] Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Food Supply Norm (Instrução Normativa) No. 2 of 2008.

[20] In her January 2017 report to the Human Rights Council, the special rapporteur on the right to food expressed concern about how intensive industrial agriculture, which is heavily reliant on pesticides, has very detrimental consequences on the enjoyment of the rights to food and to health. Among her recommendations, the special rapporteur called for states to create buffer zones around plantations and farms. See Human Rights Council, Report of the Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Hilal Elver, A/HRC/34/48, January 27, 2017, http://ap.ohchr.org/documents/dpage_e.aspx?si=A/HRC/34/48 (accessed June 19, 2018), para 107. The International Code of Conduct on Pesticide Management – Guidelines on Highly Hazardous Pesticides recommend that states “introduce procedures to limit environmental exposure (e.g. timing of application, buffer zones, etc.)” FAO and WHO, International Code of Conduct on Pesticide Management – Guidelines on Highly Hazardous Pesticides.

[21] The states of Acre (State Law 2,843 of 2014), Ceará (State Decree 23,705 of 1995), Goiás (State Law 19,423 of 2016), Mato Grosso (State Decree 1,651 of 2013), Paraná (State Secretary of Interior Resolution 22 of 1985), Piauí (State Law 5,626 of 2006), Rio Grande do Norte (State Law 8,672 of 2005), and Tocantins (State Law 224 of 1991) have buffer zones for mechanized ground spraying.

[22] Pesticide Law, No. 7,802 of 1989, art. 10; Pesticide Law Implementing Decree, No. 4,074 of 2002, art. 71.

[23] The public prosecutor’s office is responsible for ensuring constitutional rights are upheld. See Federal Constitution of the Republic of Brazil, 1988, art. 129. Since 2001, federal and state public prosecutor offices have been involved in state and national forums against the impacts of pesticides. The forums consist of several institutions, including government ministries, federal and state public prosecutor offices, civil society organizations, labor unions, and universities. See for example, “MPT lança Fórum Nacional de Combate aos Efeitos dos Agrotóxicos,” Terra de Direitos press release, October 29, 2009, http://terradedireitos.org.br/noticias/noticias/mpt-lanca-forum-nacional... (accessed June 26, 2018); “Tocantins cria o Fórum de Combate aos Impactos dos Agrotóxicos,” Tocantins State Public Prosecutors Office press release, May 26, 2017, https://mpto.mp.br/web/forum-combate-agrotoxicos/2017/05/26/482817-tocantins-cria-o-forum-de-combate-aos-impactos-dos-agrotoxicos (accessed June 26, 2018).

[24] Pesticide Law, No. 7,802 of 1989, arts. 15-16.

[25] Civil Public Action Law, No. 7,347 of 1985, art. 1.

[26] The states of Acre (State Law 2,843 of 2014), Ceará (State Decree 23,705 of 1995), Goiás (State Law 19,423 of 2016), Mato Grosso (State Decree 1,651 of 2013), Paraná (State Secretary of Interior Resolution 22 of 1985), Piauí (State Law 5,626 of 2006), Rio Grande do Norte (State Law 8,672 of 2005), and Tocantins (State Law 224 of 1991) have buffer zones for mechanized ground spraying.

[27] The right to the highest attainable level of health obligates States to take measures to improve all aspects of environmental and industrial hygiene. International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), adopted December 16, 1966, G.A. Res. 2200A (XXI), 21 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 16) at 49, U.N. Doc. A/6316 (1966), 993 U.N.T.S. 3, entered into force January 3, 1976, acceded to by Brazil on January 24, 1992, art 12(b). Access to safe drinking water and adequate food are human rights and include the right of people to know what is in their food and drinking water. UN General Assembly Resolution, The human right to water and sanitation, U.N. Doc. A/RES/64/292, July 29, 2010 and ICESCR, art. 11. In 2018, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights affirmed in 2018 that the American Convention on Human Rights protects the right to a healthy environment. See The Environment and Human Rights (State Obligations in Relation to the Environment in the Context of the Protection and Guarantee of the Rights to Life and to Personal Integrity – Interpretation and Scope of Articles 4(1) and 5(1) of the American Convention on Human Rights), Inter-American Court of Human Rights, OC-23/17, Advisory Opinion, November 15, 2017, http://www.corteidh.or.cr/docs/opiniones/seriea_23_esp.pdf (accessed July 2, 2018).

[28] Special Representative of the Secretary-General on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises, “Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights: Implementing the United Nations 'Protect, Respect and Remedy' Framework," U.N. Doc. A/HRC/17/31, March 21, 2011, principle 1.

[29] Reviews in other jurisdictions, such as the European Union, have led to consolidated plans for the training of users, advisors and distributors of pesticides, inspection of pesticide application equipment, the prohibition of aerial spraying, limitation of pesticide use in sensitive areas, and information and awareness raising about pesticide risks. The EU Directive that was developed as a result of this review process noted: “Aerial spraying of pesticides has the potential to cause significant adverse impacts on human health and the environment, in particular from spray drift. Therefore, aerial spraying should generally be prohibited with derogations possible where it represents clear advantages in terms of reduced impacts on human health and the environment in comparison with other spraying methods, or where there are no viable alternatives, provided that the best available technology to reduce drift is used.” See “Directive 2009/128/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 21 October 2009 establishing a framework for Community action to achieve the sustainable use of pesticides,” European Parliament, Council of the European Union, November 25, 2009, https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/ALL/?uri=CELEX:02009L0128-200... (accessed June 19, 2018).

[30] Acute pesticide poisoning can be defined as “any illness or health effect resulting from suspected or confirmed exposure to a pesticide within 48 hours.” See Josef Thundiyil et al., "Acute pesticide poisoning: a proposed classification tool," Bulletin of the World Health Organization, vol. 86(3) (2008), pp. 205-209.

[31] See, for example, Linda A. McCauley et al., “Studying Health Outcomes in Farmworker Populations Exposed to Pesticides,” Environmental Health Perspectives, vol. 114, no. 6 (2006), p. 953; K.L. Bassil, et al., “Cancer Health Effects of Pesticides: Systematic Review,” Canadian Family Physician, vol. 53 no. 10 (2007), pp. 1704-1711; F. Kamel, et al., “Pesticide Exposure and Self-reported Parkinson’s Disease in the Agricultural Health Study,” American Journal of Epidemiology, vol. 165 (2007), pp. 364–374.

[32] See, for example, James R. Roberts, Catherine J. Karr, and Council on Environmental Health, “Pesticide Exposure in Children,” Pediatrics, vol. 130, no. 6 (2012), p. e1765- e1788; Brenda Eskenazi et al., “Pesticide Toxicity and the Developing Brain,” Basic & Clinical Pharmacology & Toxicology, vol. 102 (2008), pp. 228–236; Maryse F. Bouchard et al., “Prenatal Exposure to Organophosphate Pesticides and IQ in 7-Year-Old Children,” Environmental Health Perspectives, vol. 119 (2011), pp. 1189-1195; Jose R. Suarez-Lopez, et al., “Acetylcholinesterase Activity and Neurodevelopment in Boys and Girls,” Pediatrics, vol. 132, no. 6 (2013), pp. 1649-1658; Sarah Mackenzie Ross, et al., “Neurobehavioral Problems Following Low-Level Exposure to Organophosphate Pesticides: A Systematic and Meta-Analytic Review,” Critical Reviews in Toxicology, vol. 43, no. 1 (2013), pp. 21-44.

[33] The obligation to register all cases, including suspected cases, is established by Ministry of Health Consolidating Ordinance No. 4 of 2017, annex V, chapter 1, art. 3.

[34] Ministry of Health Consolidating Ordinance No. 4 of 2017, annex V, chapter 1, art. 3.

[35] Ministry of Health, Government of Brazil, “Sistema de Informação de Agravos de Notificação,” http://www2.datasus.gov.br/DATASUS/index.php?area=0203&id=29878153 (accessed June 25, 2018).

[36] Neice Müller Xavier Faria, Anaclaudia Gastal Fassa, and Luiz Augusto Facchini, “Intoxicação por agrotóxicos no Brasil: os sistemas oficiais de informação e desafios para realização de estudos epidemiológicos,Ciência & Saúde Coletiva, vol. 12(1) (2007), pp. 25-38.

[37] Ministry of Health, Government of Brazil, Relatório Nacional de Vigilância em Saúde de Populações Expostas a Agrotóxicos, (Brasilia: Government of Brazil, 2018) volume 1, book 2, http://bvsms.saude.gov.br/bvs/publicacoes/relatorio_nacional_vigilancia_... (accessed June 18, 2018) p. 30.

[38] As part of the health surveillance on populations exposed to pesticides, the Ministry of Health oriented the states to identify priority municipalities based on the following criteria: agricultural production; sales and consumption of pesticides; size of the population exposed to pesticides; number of poisoning cases registered; and presence of pesticide residues in drinking water. Ministry of Health, Government of Brazil, Relatório Nacional de Vigilância em Saúde de Populações Expostas a Agrotóxicos, (Brasilia: Government of Brazil, 2016) volume 1, book 1, http://portalarquivos2.saude.gov.br/images/pdf/2016/dezembro/05/Relatori... (accessed June 18, 2018) p. 60..

[39] See, for example, Josef Thundiyil et al., "Acute pesticide poisoning: a proposed classification tool," Bulletin of the World Health Organization, vol. 86(3) (2008), pp. 205-209.

[40] Ministry of Health, Government of Brazil, Relatório Nacional de Vigilância em Saúde de Populações Expostas a Agrotóxicos, (Brasilia: Government of Brazil, 2018) volume 1, book 2, http://bvsms.saude.gov.br/bvs/publicacoes/relatorio_nacional_vigilancia_... (accessed June 18, 2018), p. 51. For an example of a state-led protocol addressing chronic exposure to pesticides, see Paraná State Health Secretariat, Protocolo de Avaliaçao das Intoxicações Crônicas por Agrotóxicos, (Curitibia: 2013, Paraná State Health Secretariat), http://www.saude.pr.gov.br/arquivos/File/CEST/Protocolo_AvaliacaoIntoxicacaoAgrotoxicos.pdf (accessed July 3, 2018).

[41]Posicionamento do Instituto Nacional de Câncer José Alencar Gomes da Silva acerca dos Agrotóxicos,” National Cancer Institute statement, April 5, 2015, http://www1.inca.gov.br/inca/Arquivos/comunicacao/posicionamento_do_inca... _os_agrotoxicos_06_abr_15.pdf (accessed July 2, 2018).

[42] Ibid.

[43] Health Regulatory Agency (ANVISA), Government of Brazil, Programa de Análise de Resíduo de Agrotóxicos em Alimentos. Relatório de atividades de 2013 e 2015, (Brasília: Anvisa, 2016) http://portal.anvisa.gov.br/documents/111215/0/Relat% C3%B3rio+PARA+2013-2015_VERS%C3%83O-FINAL.pdf/494cd7c5-5408-4e6a-b0e5-5098cbf759f8 (accessed July 3, 2018). The environmental NGO Greenpeace also found alarming pesticide residues in fruits, vegetables and other staple foods: see Greenpeace, Segura esse abacaxi: os agrotóxicos que vão parar na sua mesa, (São Paulo: Greenpeace, 2017) http://greenpeace.org.br/agricultura/segura-este-abacaxi.pdf (accessed May 31, 2018), and Greenpeace, Dossiê Alimentação Escolar e Agrotóxicos, (São Paulo: Greenpeace, 2016) http://www.greenpeace.org/brasil/Global/brasil/ documentos/2015/Dossie_Alimentacao_Escolar_Agrotoxicos.pdf (accessed May 31, 2018).

[44] Health Regulatory Agency (ANVISA), Government of Brazil, Programa de Análise de Resíduo de Agrotóxicos em Alimentos. Relatório de atividades de 2013 e 2015, p. 21.

[45] Ministry of Health Consolidating Ordinance No. 5 of 2017, exhibit XX, art. 13.

[46] Human Rights Watch obtained the data concerning pesticide residue in water from 2014 to 2017 of the national water monitoring system SISAGUA (Drinking Water Quality Surveillance Information System) through a Freedom of Information request. Data on file with Human Rights Watch.

[47] Richard Pearshouse and João Guilherme Bieber (Human Rights Watch), “Brasileiros não sabem se tem agrotóxicos na água que bebem,” El País, March 22, 2018, https://www.hrw.org/pt/news/2018/03/22/316145.

[48] Health Regulatory Agency (ANVISA), Government of Brazil, Perfil Analítico da Rede Nacional de Laboratórios de Vigilânca Sanitária 2016, (Brasilia: 2016, ANVISA) http://portal.anvisa.gov.br/documents/33860/266831/Rede+Nacional+de +Laborat%C3%B3rios+da+Vigil%C3%A2ncia+Sanit%C3%A1ria+por+perfil+anal%C3%ADtico/2819dd39-4f87-48d7-97fa-78225e1ba08b (accessed July 3, 2017).

[49] As noted above, eight states have enacted buffer zones prohibiting ground spraying around sensitive sites. The municipalities of Vila Valério (Municipal Law No. 550 of 2011), Nova Venécia (Municipal Law No. 3,121 of 2011), and Boa Esperança (Municipal Law No. 1,649 of 2017), in Espírito Santo state, enacted laws banning aerial spraying. In the municipality of Cascavel (Municipal Law No. 6,484 of 2015), in Paraná state, established buffer zones around schools, health units, and rural communities.

[50] “Justiça conclui julgamento da morte de ambientalista de Limoeiro do Norte,” State Court of Ceará press release, March 22, 2017, https://www.tjce.jus.br/noticias/justica-conclui-julgamento-da-morte-de-ambientalista-de-limoeiro-do-norte/ (accessed June 27, 2018).

[51] Ibid. One suspect died after being charged. In March 2017, a state court dismissed charges against two suspects for lack of evidence and accepted charges against a fourth suspect, who will be tried by jury. Edwirges Nogueira, “Acusados pela morte de líder comunitário no Ceará irão a júri popular,” Agência Brasil, August 24, 2015, http://agenciabrasil.ebc.com.br/geral/noticia/2015-08/acusados-pela-mort... (accessed May 31, 2018).

[52] Ministry of Health, Government of Brazil, Relatório Nacional de Vigilância em Saúde de Populações Expostas a Agrotóxicos p. 51. In March 2018, a local court ordered the company that had produced the pesticide used in the spraying and the company that had undertaken the aerial spraying to compensate the local population for the collective moral damages caused by the spraying. The resources will be allocated in local health programs. There is an appeal pending. See “Empresas que contaminaram 92 pessoas com uso irregular de agrotóxicos são condenadas por danos morais coletivos,” Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office press release, March 19, 2018, http://www.mpf.mp.br/go/sala-de-imprensa/noticias-go/empresas-que-contam... (accessed May 31, 2018).

[53] Human Rights Watch interview with Hugo Alves dos Santos, Rio Verde municipality (Brazil), February 21, 2018. See also, “‘Crianças atingidas por chuva de agrotóxicos estão abandonadas’, denuncia professor,” Rádio Brasil Atual, July 24, 2017, https://soundcloud.com/redebrasilatual/professor-e-ameacado-de-morte-por... (accessed May 29, 2018).

[54] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Father Romário Hastenreiter, April 20, 2018. See also, Fernanda Couzemenco, “Manifesto denuncia ameaças a lideranças mobilizadas contra agrotóxicos em Boa Esperança,” Século Diário, December 14, 2017, http://seculodiario.com.br/36940/10/comissao-estadual-de-producao-organi... (accessed May 29, 2018).

[55] A group of associations promoting organic agriculture in Espírito Santo wrote an open letter denouncing the threats against Father Romário Hastenreiter and demanding an investigation. See “Manifesto denuncia pressão em lideranças contra agrotóxicos em Boa Esperança,” Associação dos Servidores do Incaper, December 15, 2017, http://www.assin.org.br/assuntos-gerais/manifesto-denuncia-agrotoxicos-em-boa-esperanca/ (accessed June 27, 2018).

[56] Pesticide Law, No. 7,802 of 1989, art. 3; Pesticide Law Implementing Decree, No. 4,074 of 2002, arts. 2-8. 71.

[57] Victor Pelaez, Letícia Rodrigues da Silva, and Eduardo Borges Araújo, “Regulation of pesticides: a comparative analysis,” Science and Public Policy, vol. 40(5) (2013), pp. 644-656.

[58] Brazil’s rural caucus advocates for public policies fostering the development of the national agribusiness. It is formally represented by the Frente Parlamentar da Agropecuária, comprising in mid-2018 of 228 representatives and 27 senators.

[59] Bill No. 6,299 of 2002 to Amend Pesticide Law, No. 7,802 of 1989, art. 4, http://www.camara.gov.br/proposicoesWeb/prop_mostrarintegra?codteor=1654... (accessed May 31, 2018). See also Dom Phillips, “‘Toxic Garbage will be sold here’: Outcry as Brazil moves to loosed pesticide laws,” The Guardian, June 26, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jun/26/toxic-garbage-will-be-sold... (accessed June 26, 2018).

[60] Bill No. 6,299 of 2002 to Amend Pesticide Law, No. 7,802 of 1989, arts. 2-3.

[61] Pesticide Law, No. 7,802 of 1989, art. 3.

[62] . See Bill No. 6,299 of 2002 to Amend Pesticide Law, No. 7,802 of 1989, art. 4. See also Jenny Gonzales, “Brazil’s fundamental pesticide law under attack,” Mongabay, February 20, 2018, https://news.mongabay.com/2018/02/brazils-fundamental-pesticide-law-unde... (accessed June 18, 2018).

[63] “Nota técnica: Análise do Projeto de Lei nº 6.299/2002,” Oswaldo Cruz Foundation statement, September 28, 2015, https://portal.fiocruz.br/sites/portal.fiocruz.br/files/documentos/nota_... (accessed May 29, 2018); “Nota pública acerca do posicionamento do Instituto Nacional de Câncer sobre o projeto de lei nº 6.299/2002,” National Cancer Institute statement, May 11, 2018, http://www1.inca.gov.br/inca/Arquivos/nota-publica-inca-pl-6299-2002-11-... (accessed May 29, 2018); “Nota técnica 4ª CCR nº 1/2018 sobre o Projeto de Lei nº6.299/2002,” Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office statement, May 3, 2018, http://www.mpf.mp.br/pgr/documentos/4ccr_notatecnica_pl-6-299-2002_agrot... (accessed May 29, 2018).

[64] Joint Communication from the Special Rapporteur on the issue of human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment; the Special Rapporteur on the right to food; the Special Rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes; the Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health; and the Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation, to Her Excellency Ms. Maria Nazareth Farani Azavêdo, Permanent Representative of Brazil to the United Nations Office and other international organizations in Geneva, OL BRA 5/2018, June 13, 2018, https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Issues/ToxicWastes/Communications/OL-BRA... (accessed June 18, 2018).

 

[65] Sites B, D, E, and G.

[66] Sites A, E, and two schools in Cascavel municipality, Paraná state. Site A: Human Rights Watch interviews with Camila and Gabriela, Primavera do Leste municipality (Brazil), October 30, 2017; Site E: Human Rights Watch interviews with Luciano, Talita, Danilo, Juliana, Miguel, and Adriana, Goiás state (Brazil), February 22, 2018. Two schools in Cascavel municipality, Paraná state: Human Rights Watch interviews with Rosa and Jorge, Cascavel municipality (Brazil), December 1, 2017, and Déborah, Cascavel municipality (Brazil), November 30, 2017.

[67] Sites A, C, D, E, and G.

[68] Threats against two people included in this report (Hugo Alves dos Santos and Father Romário Hastenreiter) have previously been publicly reported. Human Rights Watch interview with Hugo Alves dos Santos, Rio Verde municipality (Brazil), February 21, 2018; See also, “‘Crianças atingidas por chuva de agrotóxicos estão abandonadas’, denuncia professor,” Rádio Brasil Atual, July 24, 2017, https://soundcloud.com/redebrasilatual/professor-e-ameacado-de-morte-por... (accessed May 29, 2018). Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Father Romário Hastenreiter, April 20, 2018; see also Fernanda Couzemenco, “Manifesto denuncia ameaças a lideranças mobilizadas contra agrotóxicos em Boa Esperança,” Século Diário, December 14, 2017, http://seculodiario.com.br/36940/10/comissao-estadual-de-producao-organi... (accessed May 29, 2018). A further six people reported threats or fears of retaliation: Human Rights Watch interviews with Camila, Primavera do Leste municipality (Brazil), October 30, 2017; Déborah, Cascavel municipality (Brazil), November 30, 2017; Pedrina, Minas Gerais state (Brazil), January 27, 2018; Pedro, Santarem municipality (Brazil), February 18, 2018; Antônio, Santarem municipality (Brazil), February 19, 2018; Andressa, Bahia state (Brazil), April 25, 2018.

[69] Mato Grosso State Decree No. 1,651 of 2013; Primavera do Leste Municipal Law 1,007 of 2007.

[70] Bill No. 810 of 2017 to Amend Primavera do Leste Municipal Law 1007 of 2007.

[71] Copies on file with Human Rights Watch.

[72] Human Rights Watch interviews with Camila and Gabriela, Primavera do Leste municipality (Brazil), October 30, 2017. 

[73] Human Rights Watch interview with Carina, Primavera do Leste municipality (Brazil), October 30, 2017. 

[74] The Guarani indigenous people are divided into three groups: the Mbyá, Kaiowá and Ñandeva. There are an estimated 43,000 Guarani in Brazil, and most Kaiowá and Ñandeva live in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul. See Survival International, Violations of the Rights of the Guarani of Mato Grosso do Sul state, Brazil (London: 2010, Survival International), http://assets.survivalinternational.org/documents/207/Guarani_report_English_MARCH.pdf (accessed June 29, 2018). 

[75] Human Rights Watch interviews with Arandu, Kerana, Arami, Karai, Jakaira, Amambay, Panambi, Mbyja, and Maitei, Campo Grande municipality (Brazil), November 21, 2017. 

[76] Human Rights Watch interview with Jakaira, Campo Grande municipality (Brazil), November 21, 2017. 

[77] Human Rights Watch interview with Teresa, Cascavel municipality (Brazil), November 29, 2017. 

[78] Cascavel Municipal Law No. 6,484 of 2015.

[79] Human Rights Watch interviews with Olga, Marcos, Paulo, Bianca, Roberto, Diogo, Fernando, Carolina, Larissa, Amanda, Sofia, Teresa, and Natália, Cascavel municipality (Brazil), November 27 and 28, 2017. 

[80] Human Rights Watch interviews with Rosa and Jorge, Cascavel municipality (Brazil), December 1, 2017, and Déborah, Cascavel municipality (Brazil), November 30, 2017.

[81] Human Rights Watch interviews with Estevo, Bernardo, Inacio, Kiania, Pedrina, Uiara, Canciana, Manoel, Delma, Nerea, Jovana, Guadalupe, Mirelli, Serena, Fidel, Lucina, Bastian, and Gervaso, Minas Gerais state (Brazil), January 27 and 29, 2018. 

[82] Human Rights Watch interview with Bernardo, Minas Gerais state (Brazil), January 27, 2018.

[83] Human Rights Watch interviews with Luciano, Talita, Danilo, Juliana, Miguel, and Adriana, Goiás state (Brazil), February 22, 2018.

[84] Human Rights Watch interview with Danilo, Goiás state (Brazil), February 22, 2018.

[85] Human Rights Watch interviews with Pedro, Vicente, Alice, Ana, Eduarda, Bruno, Antônio, and Verônica, Santarem municipality (Brazil), February 18 and 19, 2018. 

[86] Human Rights Watch interview with Pedro, Santarem municipality (Brazil), February 18, 2018. 

[87] Human Rights Watch interview with Antônio, Santarem municipality (Brazil), February 19, 2018. 

[88] Human Rights Watch interview with Eduarda, Santarem municipality (Brazil), February 19, 2018. 

[89] Human Rights Watch interviews with Gustavo, Marelaine, Andressa, and Joaquim, Bahia state (Brazil), April 25 and 27, 2018. 

[90] Human Rights Watch interview with Marelaine, Bahia state (Brazil), April 25, 2018. 

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Bernardo, a man in his 30s, was born in a quilombo (Afro-Brazilian) community of around 60, men, women, and children in Minas Gerais State, southeast Brazil. Bernardo told Human Rights Watch that he feels powerless against aerial spraying of pesticides. “We’ve registered several complaints at the [local] civil police station and military police,” he said. “No one solves it—there is no justice.” © 2018 Marizilda Cruppé for Human Rights Watch

(São Paulo) – Rural residents are being poisoned in Brazil from pesticides sprayed near their homes, schools, and workplaces, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Many rural communities fear reprisals from wealthy and politically powerful farmers if they denounce such poisonings or advocate more protective laws and regulations.

The 50-page report, “‘You Don’t Want to Breathe Poison Anymore’: The Failing Response to Pesticide Drift in Brazil’s Rural Communities,” documents cases of acute poisoning from pesticide drift in seven sites, located across Brazil, including farming communities, indigenous communities, quilombo (Afro-Brazilian) communities, and rural schools. Exposure occurs when pesticide spray drifts off target during application, or when pesticides vaporize and drift to adjacent areas in the days after spraying.

Video

Brazil: Pesticide Poisonings in Rural Areas

Of the 10 most widely used pesticides in Brazil in 2016, four are not authorized for use in Europe, indicating how hazardous other governments consider some of them.

“Pesticides sprayed on large plantations poison children in their classrooms and villagers in their backyards all across rural Brazil,” said Richard Pearshouse, associate environment and human rights director at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. “The Brazilian authorities need to stop this toxic exposure and ensure the safety of those who speak out against the harm the pesticides are causing to their families and communities.”

Human Rights Watch found that people in many exposed communities fear reprisals from large landowners. Members of five of the seven rural communities Human Rights Watch visited said they had received threats or were afraid of retaliation if they reported pesticide drift that they believed poisoned them. In 2010, a farmer who was an anti-pesticide activist was shot and killed after pushing the local government to ban aerial spraying that year.

Large plantation owners often ignore a national “buffer zone” regulation that prohibits aerial spraying of pesticides near housing. There is no corresponding national “buffer zone” for ground spraying. Official data on pesticide poisonings grossly understates the severity of this problem. The government’s monitoring system for pesticide residues in drinking water and food is also weak.

In acute pesticide poisonings, people suffer from symptoms such as vomiting, nausea, headache, and dizziness during or immediately after nearby pesticide applications. At the same time, chronic exposure to pesticides, including to low doses, is associated with infertility, negative impacts on fetal development, cancer, and other serious health effects. Pregnant women, children, and other vulnerable people may face elevated risks.

“I had a strong headache, stomachache, and the feeling I would vomit,” said a 10-year-old girl who attends a school in Cascavel municipality in Paraná state. “[The teacher] said, ‘Let’s leave the classroom because the smell is too bad.’ We went home early. I got home with nausea, feeling sick, a strong headache. I vomited at home twice.”

Brazil should not allow pesticide spraying from airplanes over people’s houses or from tractors beside classroom windows, Human Rights Watch said. As a matter of urgency, Brazil should impose a moratorium on aerial spraying and create a buffer zone for ground spraying near sensitive sites.

Over the next few months, Brazil’s congress is to consider a bill to further weaken the regulatory framework for pesticides. A special parliamentary commission approved the bill in June 2018, and the full lower house needs to vote on it before it goes to the senate.

Among its many proposals, the bill would substantially reduce the role of the Health and Environment Ministries, the agencies with expertise in the impacts of pesticide use. The bill also proposes replacing the legal term agrotóxicos (pesticides) with produtos fitosanitários (phytosanitary products), masking the health and environmental hazards of pesticides.

Brazil is one of the world’s largest consumers of pesticides: annual sales are about US$10 billion. The massive amount used is driven by Brazil’s expanding large-scale, monocrop agriculture. About 80 percent are used on plantations for soybeans, corn, cotton, and sugarcane. Many of the pesticides used in Brazil are highly hazardous to human health. Of the 10 most widely used pesticides in Brazil in 2016, four are not authorized for use in Europe, indicating how hazardous other governments consider some of them.

“Rather than weakening laws, Brazil needs tighter controls and a national action plan to reduce the use of pesticides,” Pearshouse said. “Congress should vote against the current bill and instead ask the relevant ministries to carry out a country-wide review of pesticides’ major impacts on human health and the environment.”

Selected Statements:

“I felt ill and with nausea and headache. I vomited a lot, once I started I couldn’t stop. I had to call my husband for help. I am pregnant, and my main concern was for my son. I was worried it might affect his health.” – Eduarda, a pregnant woman in her 20s who lives in a rural community a few hours’ drive from Santarem in Pará state.

“The airplane was spraying beside the school and the wind was blowing it to the school. One couldn’t smell it but could feel the drift entering through the window. The children, between 4 and 7 years old, were complaining that their gums and eyes were burning.” – Marelaine, a woman in her 20s who is a teacher in a rural community in the south of Bahia.

“I started feeling sick, nauseous. I tried to drink water to get better, but it didn’t help. I started vomiting many times, until I had thrown up all I had in my stomach and was just retching.” – Carina, an adult woman who studies at a rural school in Primavera do Leste municipality in Mato Grosso state.

“One could see the white liquid [in the air]. Even smelling it, it goes to your brain. You feel a bitterness in the throat. You don’t want to breathe poison anymore – you want to breathe another type of air – but there isn’t any.” – Jakaira, a Guarani-Kaiowá man in his 40s in an indigenous community a few hours’ drive from Campo Grande in Mato Grosso do Sul state.

“This week, [an airplane spraying pesticides] flew over [a neighbor’s] house with the [spray] duster on. One feels pesticides falling on the skin. Whenever there is spraying, it is like that. We have had problems with aerial spraying for around 10 years. We’ve registered several complaints at the [local civil] police station and military police. No one solves it – there is no justice.” – Bernardo, a man in his 30s from a quilombo community a few hours’ drive from Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais state.

“[Pesticide spraying] disturbs us, and it causes nausea; it gives me a headache. I try to sit on the other side of the classroom [from the side closest to where they spray]. We have a fan [in the classroom], it helps a bit, but the smell remains. I’ve felt nausea, dizziness. It’s bad because you want to vomit, but it gets trapped in the throat.” – Danilo, a 13-year-old boy and student at a rural school a few hours’ drive outside of Goiânia, the capital city of Goiás state.

***Please note, all names have been changed to protect people’s identities

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Rural residents are being poisoned in Brazil from pesticides sprayed near their homes, schools, and workplaces. Many rural communities fear reprisals from wealthy and politically powerful farmers if they denounce such poisonings or advocate more protective laws and regulations.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A man walks down a street at Codrington on the island of Barbuda, October 7, 2017.

© 2017 Reuters
(Washington, DC) – A draft law before the Antigua and Barbuda Senate would deprive Barbudans of communal land where they have lived for generations, Human Rights Watch said today. The Antigua and Barbuda government should consult with the people of Barbuda to determine the impact of repealing communal land ownership on their human rights, and to reach an agreement that fully respects and safeguards those rights.

Since 1834, when the British emancipated their slaves, Barbudans as a community have owned all their island’s land. Barbuda, the smaller of the two biggest islands of Antigua and Barbuda, with a population of approximately 2,000, codified this long-existing communal ownership in 2007 in the Barbuda Land Act. The law states, “All land in Barbuda shall be owned in common by the people of Barbuda,” and, “No land in Barbuda shall be sold.”

“A change in land ownership in Barbuda could harm Barbuda’s most vulnerable people, including women, children, and the elderly,” said Juliana Nnoko-Mewanu, researcher on women and land at Human Rights Watch. “The government needs to consult with Barbudans before any such drastic change to make sure that their rights are protected.”

Barbudans who oppose the change have for months been battling Prime Minister Gaston Browne, a businessman from Antigua, over communal ownership. Browne wants to repeal the Barbuda Land Act to open the palm-fringed island to foreign investment to ease post-Hurricane Irma recovery. With only one of 19 members of the House of Representatives representing Barbuda, the House passed the repeal bill on May 3, 2018. It is now before the Senate.

If the Senate passes it, Barbudans have retained a law firm to challenge it in court.

Browne has called the Barbuda Land Act unconstitutional – and denigrated Barbudans who defend it to the media as “deracinated Imbeciles, Ignorant [sic] elements.”

Lawmakers had already weakened the Land Act. In 2017, a set of amendments watering down protections related to communal ownership sped through both the House and the Senate. Barbudans who opposed the changes urgently sought the intervention of Antigua and Barbuda’s High Court and lost.

Proponents of those amendments – and this year’s repeal effort – assert that Barbudans do not actually own the land, that collective tenure is not viable, and that individual freehold – in which the individual will have rights only to the land they use and not common areas – is the only route to modernity. These arguments gathered force after Hurricane Irma devastated the island in September 2017. Repeal advocates contend that Barbudans need to own only the land on which their individual homes and businesses sit to get the loans needed to rebuild.

However, there is no evidence that Barbudans have been previously denied such help or would be unable to access necessary recovery financing from the World Bank as a community, in accordance with their communal ownership.

Opponents contend repealing communal ownership is unlawful and that the government should consult Barbudans on any changes to their communal land structure.

“The Barbuda and Antigua government should introduce safeguards to protect in full residents’ rights in the event of a repeal,” Nnoko-Mewanu said. “If the Barbuda Land Act is to disappear, it cannot be arbitrary and needs to happen on Barbudans’ terms, with their rights guaranteed.”

Approximately half the world’s land mass is subject to some sort of communal ownership, and almost a third of the world’s population – some 2.5 billion people – live on such land. Fourteen countries in Africa enshrine community-owned land in their laws, and seven more are debating doing so. China has a million rural cooperatives that hold land in common for the use of the people who live on it.

Globally, investors frequently seek to wrest valuable pieces of community-owned land into private ownership to extract natural resources or develop the land for industry or tourism, although those who once held the land in common usually only get minimal benefits. Weak protections for customary and indigenous lands expose the most vulnerable groups, such as women and children, to human rights violations.

Research from Human Rights Watch in Zambia, Malawi, Sierra Leone, Uganda, and Mozambique has consistently shown that taking away land used by communities – without due process and without adequate compensation and rehabilitation – results in serious risks to people’s rights to food, water, housing, health, and education.

“Barbuda may be small, but the rights of its people are as important as anyone else’s,” Nnoko-Mewanu said. “The government shouldn’t shortchange the people it is supposed to serve by snatching their land out from under them.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

The top of a water tower is seen at the Flint Water Plant in Flint, Michigan January 13, 2016.

© 2016 Reuters

Choices by Flint and Michigan’s government officials led to massive contamination of drinking water – some tests showed water had more than 100 times the legal level of lead. The poisoning of Flint’s water was an unmitigated disaster.

Now, as government attorneys argue in court to dismiss the massive lawsuit leveled against these officials, the state of Michigan and city of Flint want to argue that clean water is not a constitutional right. This would mean they would not be liable for the lead-poisoned water, when they decided in 2014 to draw the city’s water supply from the Flint River without having the water propertly treated. It would also mean they are not liable for the impact the dangerously tained water had on people in Flint, including the 9,000 children known to have been exposed to it.

While US standards allow for small levels of lead, from a public health perspective there is no safe level of lead.

The US government and its state and municipal authorities have stubbornly refused to acknowledge people’s right to water. In 2014, a US federal judge in Michigan ruled that there was “no enforceable right” to water after the city of Detroit started massive shut-offs of household water supplies if people did not pay their water bill. 

For years at the United Nations, the US tried to distance itself from the global recognition of this human right. In 2015, it finally joined the consensus at the UN General Assembly in acknowledging that the right to water entitled everyone “to have access to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic use.” But it hasn’t ratified the major treaty addressing the right to water and has sidestepped the idea that the right could apply to US citizens.

Water is a human right. And the disaster in Flint is just one of many ways the right to water has been jeopardized in the US. The victims of Flint have a right to remedy for the harms suffered. Government authorities at the national, state, and local levels need policies that both guarantee safe drinking water.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Then President Anote Tong of Kiribati in Paris to advocate with world leaders around climate change. Kiribati’s islands may become uninhabitable as ocean levels rise due to climate change.

© Matthieu Rytz

The whole thing started on Panama’s San Blas islands, which are expected to be covered by rising sea water due to climate change. I went there on assignment from the New York Times to cover the issue, and I was so upset by it. And I thought, where else on the planet are people experiencing this? So I looked at a world map, and I heard about Kiribati. I wasn’t even aware of its existence. Here was a country whose ocean territory was as wide as the United States, in the middle of the Pacific, and I never heard of it. I was just amazed. I went there for two weeks to work as a photographer. I didn’t plan to make a movie.

How did you meet President Tong?

I had chartered a plane to take aerial photographs, and the pilot was a close friend of his, and he introduced us. I was quite shy. He was a head of state that knew that within a century, he won’t have a state anymore. What’s a bigger challenge than that? I just spontaneously asked him about making this movie. And he said yes. I had never made a movie before, never even done a short film. So I figured, “OK let’s do this, let’s figure out how to make a film.” It was the start of a four-year journey.

Throughout the movie, Tong eloquently speaks to world leaders about climate change and his country. What was it like to film this?

Anote's Ark

Anote's Ark

What if your country was swallowed by the sea? This film explores the idyllic Pacific nation of Kiribati which will be submerged within decades due to climate change. As President Anote Tong passionately embarks upon a race against time to save his people and 4,000 years of Kiribati culture, islanders are already feeling the pressure to relocate.

When I learned he would meet with the pope, I flew to the Vatican and met him. I did that whenever he met heads of state, was at the UN Human Rights Council, or any important moment. I basically covered every important meeting he had for the whole three years. I can tell you, in this political arena, the action is really fast and extremely boring. You go there, shake hands with Obama, and that’s it. It’s waiting hours and hours for the next meeting.

What’s your relationship like with Tong?

I was a one-man show, and because I was just a regular guy with a camera, I got more and more access. It got to the point where I was sharing dinner and having wine with him. Now we have almost like a grandfather-grandson relationship.

When I look back over the past five years, I see how I tried to keep my professional distance from the story, and I wonder, what just happened? How in the world did a Swiss white guy just become so close to the president of Kiribati?

What is Tong like in person?

You go to his home, what you’ll discover is that he is a traditional fisherman, living in a simple house with his grandchildren. There is only cold water. He spends his days on the lagoon fishing, and at night he spends time with his family and tells stories. He’s an elder respected by the community, and he drinks Kava, a traditional drink, and has a very important relationship to the spiritual world. So, he’s a mix of a traditional fisherman and something like a shaman. You would never ever think of him as the same guy hanging out with the pope. It’s an incredible contrast.

Video

Anote's Ark Trailer - Sundance 2018

Trailer for the movie Anote’s Ark, an official selection of the Sundance Film Festival 2018.

Your story also focuses on a Kiribati woman named Tiermeri  Tiare, known as Sermary, who was able to get a visa to live in New Zealand with her family. Why did you choose her?

Through Sermary you can understand the legacy of the people in Kiribati and what they’re going through. They have this program called “Pacific access category.” Every year they pick 75 people from Kiribati, a bit like a lottery, and those people can migrate to New Zealand. I basically got in touch with one of my friends in Kiribati who had contacts with the high commissioner, and from them I got the list of people who had won. All people still living in Kiribati who in a year or two would be in New Zealand. Sermary She was the first person I called. I just knew she was perfect.

Sermary and her children in Kiribati. Sermary and her family, who move to New Zealand, are featured in the movie Anote’s Ark.

© Matthieu Rytz

In the movie, you see Sermary struggling to adjust to life in New Zealand. In one scene you see how, right after she landed in Auckland, she’s completely overwhelmed by the airport’s parking lot.

There is only one road in Kiribati, and it’s 23 kilometers long. That’s the only place on Kirbati with a few cars. In another scene we cut from the movie, Sermary and her friend drive out of the airport and into an Auckland suburb. Sermary looks at the houses and asks,  “Why are there so many classrooms in this country?” In Kiribati, the only buildings with walls are classrooms, built by the church. People there don’t live in houses. And I think that’s an important perspective. All their lives they didn’t have walls. And they don’t have worry about the rent or buying food. There’s nothing to buy on the islands, although they do trade some coconuts for tea or sugar. When I was there, I wanted a cup of tea, and the vendor asked me for half a coconut. I only had an Australian dollar and offered it to him, but he had no use for the money. And I thought, ”Wow.” Leaving this culture is an incredible life change.

Before she left for New Zealand, Sermary’s home flooded for the first time in an unusual storm. But when she talked to her friends of the rising water and the need to leave Kiribati, no one agreed. President Tong also spoke of people in Kiribati not believing climate change endangered their islands. Were you surprised to find those views there?

An aerial view of one of Kiribati’s islands.

© Matthieu Rytz

For me, this is the very point of the movie. Tong says again and again, “Climate change should not be a political issue.” Meanwhile, politicians play their electoral games. In Australia, in Kiribati, politicians deny the existence of climate change to win some votes, and they’re playing with the future of this planet. The story of Kiribati is a warning to the rest of humanity. It’s too late for Kiribati. It’s too late for Manhattan, too. It’s just a question of time. And a very important question is, how are you going to deal with that? For me, the main point about the movie is not “Kiribati is going under water so I should take action and buy a Tesla and it’s going to be better.” It’s way deeper than that. What we need now is a real paradigm shift. It’s a question of re-connecting to our land and the nature around us. And that’s something Tong is deeply concerned with. We are basically disconnected and the climate is in crisis.

Anote’s Ark is a quiet film with many meditative shots of water, as opposed to the dramatic floods shown in other climate change films. Why did you choose to make the film this way?

Men construct a seawall in Kiribati, located in the Pacific Ocean. Kiribati’s islands may become uninhabitable as ocean levels rise due to climate change.

© Matthieu Rytz

Because I respect nature. For me, the first director of this film is nature and the island itself. It has its own voice. Climate change movies in general are dramatic and fast and show destruction. It’s easy to show these powerful images. But they don’t resonate for me. For me, climate change is much more subtle. Like erosion. It takes time, but it’s happening. Take the example of Manhattan. Every day, every single day, some rock is worn away. It’s not dramatic. And it will eventually destroy everything. It’s deep and subtle and unstoppable.

Meanwhile, though, Kiribati has a new president who has undone many of Tong’s climate-oriented policies.

This new government doesn’t really believe that people of Kiribati will have to move away from the islands, but rather that God will eventually take care of them. I think they took that position to get elected. I went with my partner to Kiribati over Christmas, and I took my projector and my laptop and started showing the movie in different communities. The people loved the movie. But I was stopped by immigration and the police and they took my laptop and projector, and we were deported. I cannot go back now. But the thing is, when this happened the UN Ambassador from Kiribati in New York sent an official letter to the Sundance Film Festival, claiming the content movie was a lie. Obviously, Sundance didn't take this request into account and instead premiered the film. 

How is Sermary now?

Sermary plays with her baby in Kiribati. Sermary and her family, who move to New Zealand, are featured in the movie Anote’s Ark.

© Matthieu Rytz

Sermary is good. The Kribati have such a powerful community, they just stay together and hang out together in Auckland. I was with them two weeks ago, and it was beautiful. It could be better of course, but they have a good life there. If I had scripted the movie, and said at the end, Sermary would have a baby in New Zealand, and we would film her saying to her baby,  “Are you a Kiwi?” I would say it’s too much. But that happened. I didn’t want the movie to have a positive end, but it’s just life, and it goes on.

Is there anything else you’d like to say?

For me, the next question will be climate justice, and who has access to these funds and resources. Which is why this movie belongs in a human rights film festival.

You can see Anotes Ark at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in NY June 15-18 https://ff.hrw.org/film/anotes-ark?city=New%20York

 

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am