Nicaragua: Banana Workers May Sue International Firms

Publisher Name: 
Reuters

EL VIEJO, Nicaragua -- Francisca Picado claims her son Juan Carlos is 23.

You would be hard pressed to place his age at more than 13 or 14 because of
the mysterious illnesses that have deformed his limbs and left him looking
like little more than skin and bone.

Picado says her son is just another victim of DBCP, or dibromochloropropane,
one of the pesticides used on Nicaragua's banana plantations in the 1970s.
Workers say it has affected 22,000 people, directly or indirectly, and that
DBCP-related illnesses have already killed at least 83 of their comrades.
In the nation's capital, Managua, some 90 miles (144 km) away, nearly 100
banana workers camped out in front of the national parliament this month to
demand legislative help.

They want to sue companies like the Royal Dutch/Shell Group, for producing
the DBCP, and companies like Standard Fruit Company, Chiquita Brands
International Inc. and Dole Food Co Inc., for using it, said Victorino
Espinales, leader of the Association of Banana Workers and former Banana
Workers.

Picado is a member of that group, although the need to care for her son kept
her from joining her comrades at the doors of Nicaragua's Congress.



Class-action Lawsuits Debated

Nicaragua's banana industry is one of the poor nation's most important. It
employs about 5,000 workers directly and is a top hard-currency earner with
exports in 1999 of $13.6 million.

As a result of the pressure, Nicaraguan legislators in September began
debating a law proposed by banana workers in 1996 that would allow Picado
and other alleged victims of DBCP to bring a class-action lawsuit against
the companies.

If passed, the law would be the first of its kind in the nation's history.
In the 1960s, plantations owned by local producers were leased to Standard
Fruit Company, which produced and marketed the bananas overseas until 1979.
A leftist government then took over and returned the lands to the people.

More than 20 years later, men and women like Picado say they are the victims
of pesticides that growers used on their banana plantations even though
their harmful effects were known.

"The doctors said he (Juan Carlos) was damaged," Picado, 45, said in this
small town in northeastern Nicaragua. "They said that I had passed on the
disease that his father had caught (from the pesticide)."

Picado, who quit the plantations after about 12 years of labour, says her
husband died of DBCP, also known as "nemagoon," just before Juan Carlos was
born.

Now she too suffers from DBCP-related symptoms, including daily fevers and
shooting pains in her bones.

Even if they get to sue, however, the plantation workers may have some
difficulty proving that all of their afflictions were the result of DBCP
exposure, said Charles Siegel, a Texas lawyer who specializes in
environmental lawsuits.

The easiest case may be linking sterility to the pesticide because of
precedence, he said.

"The sterility claim is a very strong claim," Siegel told Reuters. "But
claims beyond that are more difficult to prove."

In the 1980s Siegel successfully represented Costa Rican banana workers who
said the DBCP pesticide made them sterile. Each was awarded "a couple of
thousand dollars."



Disrupt Central Nervous System

By definition, organochlorine pesticides, including DBCP, interfere with
transmissions of nerve impulses across axons and disrupt the central nervous
system.

The immediate effects include hypersensitivity of the skin or face and
extremities, headache, dizziness, nausea, muscle weakness and skin rash,
among other symptoms.

Long-term effects include sterility, testicular damage, eye damage, bladder,
kidney, liver, lung and thyroid damage, anaemia, recurrent asthma, atrophy
of the adrenal cortex and increased mortality in the young, according to the
Rachel Carson Council's Basic Guide to Pesticides.

The pesticide also carries suspect mutagens when transferred from mother to
unborn child.

Sandinista Deputy Victor Hugo Tinoco said he expects lawmakers to approve
the law allowing the lawsuits because, "there is a desire in parliament to
find a way to help the banana workers."

The International Action Network Against the Use of Pesticides in 1984
condemned the utilization of the DBCP, which has long-term effects across
generations.

In a letter to parliament, Walter Gutierez, the lawyer for the workers, said
the pesticide remained in the environment for many years, as it is not
biodegradable, and is transferred to humans through drinking water from
rivers and wells.

Nicaraguan producers say that workers' welfare is now a high priority, even
though some workers reject that claim and say producers are still using
DBCP.

Human rights officials are examining those allegations.

AMP Section Name:Food and Agriculture
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