Following a nine-month investigation, a Peruvian Congressional Subcommittee has issued its final report on the poisoning deaths by the organophosphate pesticide methyl parathion of 24 children in the remote village of Tauccamarca in October 1999. The Subcommittee concluded that there is significant evidence of administrative and criminal responsibility on the part of Ministry of Agriculture, and of criminal responsibility on the part of the agrochemical company Bayer. Headquartered in Germany, Bayer has been a principle Peruvian importer and distributor of both methyl and ethyl parathion. The report recommends that the government and Bayer indemnify the families of the dead children.
The Commission was formed in response to an appeal made by the parents of the deceased children and of eighteen other children who were also poisoned but survived. Initial medical analysis indicates that several of these children will suffer significant long-term health and developmental problems as a result of the poisoning.
Bayer widely promoted its methyl parathion formulation, know as "Folidol", throughout Peru, targeting its marketing on use in Andean crops cultivated primarily by small farmers, the great majority of whom speak Quechua only and are illiterate. Bayer packaged Folidol, a white powder that resembles powdered milk and has no strong chemical odor, in small plastic bags, labeled in Spanish and displaying a picture of vegetables. The labels provided no understandable safety information, such as pictograms, for the majority of users in these remote villages, and little indication of the danger of the product.
The families had previously brought suit against Bayer asserting that the company should have taken steps to prevent the foreseeable misuse of this extremely toxic product, given the severe health risks presented by methyl parathion and the well known socio-economic conditions in the Peruvian countryside. The suit seeks justice for the children that perished, guarantees of medical monitoring for the surviving children, and regulatory reforms to prevent future tragedies. It also names the Ministry of Agriculture for failure to enforce pesticide regulations: uncontrolled sales of "restricted use" pesticides including parathion are common throughout Peru.
The suit was filed on October 22, 2001. In a uncharacteristically fast judicial turnaround, two days later the judge of the Superior Court of Lima issued a resolution finding the case inadmissible on procedural grounds, and concluding summarily -- and illegally -- that the plaintiffs had not adequately made out the underlying substantive case. Under Peruvian law, in the initial stage of litigation the judge is authorized only to review the completeness of the filing papers, and may not decide substantive matters of law. The families successfully appealed the resolution, and are currently waiting for a hearing date to be set for later this year.
The efforts of the Tauccamarca families and allied Peruvian non-governmental organizations have been backed by a wave of public support over the poisonings, and have won important regulatory changes. On February 18, 2002, the Peruvian National Agrarian Health Service issued a resolution (RJ 039 2002) suspending the imports of all pesticides classified by the World Health Organization as Ia (extremely hazardous) or Ib (highly hazardous). The families have also written to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan requesting that he exclude Bayer from the UN Global Compact, a UN partnership with corporations who pledge to abide by human rights and environmental principles, based on Bayer's actions and inactions with regard to the children's deaths and poisonings in Peru. (Please see letter, attached.)
The full text of the Congressional report is available by request.
For more information please contact:
Erika Rosenthal - Pesticide Action Network Latin America (Red de
Acción en Plaguicidas y sus Alternativas en América Latina, RAPAL)
Tel: (510) 550-6752, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Luis Gomero - Red de Acción en Alternativas al uso de Agroquímicos
(RAAA). Lima, Peru. Telefax (511) 3375170 / 4257955, Email: email@example.com
Mr. Kofi Annan
New York, New York
27 August 2002
Dear Secretary General,
Greetings from the village of Tauccamarca, Peru, on the occasion of the World Summit for Sustainable Development.
I represent the families of the twenty-four children in our village who were poisoned and killed on October 22, 1999, after they ate a school breakfast of powdered milk substitute that had been contaminated with methyl parathion, a pesticide made by the company Bayer. Eighteen more children were also poisoned but survived. The early medical tests have shown that several of these children will suffer significant long-term health and developmental consequences.
I have been told that the United Nations sponsors a program called the UN Global Compact, and that corporations including Bayer are members of this partnership because they adhere to the Compact's principles on human rights and the environment. But the grieving parents in my village cannot understand how the United Nations could support a company like Bayer that has continued to sell its most toxic pesticides (classified by the WHO as extremely or highly hazardous) for many years after publicly promising to withdraw them in 1995. Nor can we understand why the United Nations would support a company that allowed methyl parathion to be sold in a region where they knew that the people would not be able to read the label instructions and would therefore be defenseless in the face of deadly poisons like methyl parathion.
Our village is located high in the Andean mountains, over three hours by car from the nearest city. Until last year there was no road that connected us to the nearest village that has a health post. When the children were poisoned, they began to writhe in agony. We tried to carry them down the mountain to get medical help, but they did not survive long enough.
In the intervening years, our families have tried to understand why such dangerous pesticides like methyl parathion (also known by its trade name Folidol) are sold in our region. It is well known that the majority of people in the Peruvian Andes speak only Quechua and that many cannot read or write. It seems to us that the company and the government should have known that people were unable to read and follow instructions and precautions on the label.
We have appealed to the new head of our government, President Toledo, and to the Peruvian Congress, asking them to determine who was responsible for the deaths of our children, and who will help their families and ensure good medical care for the surviving children. Although we know very little about the legal processes in our country, with the help of environmental and human rights non-governmental organizations we also filed a lawsuit against Bayer last year.
In response to our appeal, the Peruvian Congress formed a special Investigating Commission, and early this year held hearings to better understand how the children died and to determine who was responsible. The results of their work have just recently been presented to the public. The Commission found the company Bayer civilly responsible for the death of the children, and also found evidence of criminal responsibility.
Honorable Mr. Anan: Although we seek justice for our children, our most important goal and desire is to prevent future tragedies like the poisonings of our children in Tauccamarca. In respect for our children and children everywhere we appeal to you today to take action on behalf of the United Nations to ask companies like Bayer to withdraw their most toxic pesticides from the market. We also ask you to withdraw the support of the UN Global Compact from Bayer and all other chemical companies that continue to sell these deadly products in regions of the world where they can never be used safely.
Thank you for your attention, Honorable Mr. Anan, and we sincerely wish you and your colleagues a successful Summit at this critical time for all people on earth and for the earth itself.
With fraternal greetings,
Victoriano Huarayo Torres
Representing the Village of Tauccamarca, Peru
August 25, 2002
Note: Two of Mr. Huarayo's children were among the twenty-four fatally