Request for Minimum Standards for Agrochemical Use with cursory analysis on a November 19, *2013 Law Project received from the Rural Society of Argentina
Masters (Degree) Políticas Públicas UNSAM/Georgetown University.
This is a formal request for minimum standards of environmental protection law (Ley de Presupuestos Mínimos de Protección Ambiental para el uso de productos fitosanitarios) that will govern the approval, commercialization and use of pesticides in Argentina. Despite being one of the world’s great breadbaskets and a leading exporter of agricultural products, Argentina lacks a national law regulating pesticide use, and whatever legislation might exist at the provincial and municipal level goes unenforced. As pesticides are used widely and heavily throughout the country inadequate legislation and enforcement has placed significant parts of the population at risk of toxic substances. While passing such a law is a necessary first step in the goal of providing a safe environment to all citizens, the passing of a law alone will not guarantee that agricultural workers and the families living in Argentina’s countryside are safe from the health risks posed by pesticides. That will only come with the proper implementation and enforcement of such legislation, which will likely require that the national government lead on the issue. It can lead constructively, coordinating implementation and enforcement with provincial and municipal governments so as to respect the federalism enshrined in Argentina’s constitution, but it must show the way, for provincial and municipal governments have so far failed to protect their citizens from pesticides.”
Pesticide use and the accompanying risks vary across the country, depending largely on the agricultural profile and the socio-economic makeup of a given region. Any national legislation must address these differences. In its extensive report, Atlas del Riesgo Ambiental de la Niñez de Argentina, the Environmental Office of the National Ombudsman created several maps that measure the presence of pesticides throughout the country, and classify those levels according to the level of health risks they pose, as well as people’s vulnerability to them. Due to extensive cultivation of soy and corn with technological packets that involves pesticides, much of the Pampas has a middle-level of risk (Defensoría del Pueblo de la Nación, 2012). In these areas, people who live on the edge of soy and corn fields are at risk of coming into contact with pesticides, as a result of ground and areal sprayings that can enter their water supply as well. The areas of highest toxicity occurred where fruits, vegetables and tobacco are cultivated, as those products require higher amounts and concentrations of pesticides and herbicides. Those products are often grown in areas that suffer significant poverty, and many farm workers lack basic equipment to protect themselves from the dangers of such products (Casadinho, 2011; Dávila, 2012; Defensoria del Pueblo de la Nación, 2009). While the health risks that workers and their families face in provinces like Misiones, Chaco and Corrientes face require more study, the agronomist Javier Souza Casadinho has carried out a field study in which he documented how some of the most toxic pesticides penetrate the daily life of tobacco farmers and farmhands in Misiones. The products they use frequently come in containers with improper or no labeling, the dosages they must distribute are generally well above the suggested amount, and the farmhands apply them without protective equipment. The pesticides also penetrate their domestic life, as they are kept in patios and often come into contact with drinking water (Casadinho, 2011).
Opponents of a national law might point out that many provinces have legislation governing the use of pesticides, as do some municipalities. While true, such laws are rarely enforced, and in some provinces, even proper enforcement of that legislation would provide insufficient protection. In 2012, a district attorney in Cordoba, Carlos Matheu, led the first successful prosecution of farmers for having violated municipal laws governing pesticide spraying. The case is better known for the neighborhood, Ituzaingo Anexo, it dealt with, and the woman, Sofia Gatica, who fought for years for justice. Cordoba’s lower court found the defendants guilty of having violated municipal laws that establish minimum distances from human populations for the areal and ground spraying of pesticides (Salguero, 2012). In accordance with minimum sentencing for violating article 200 of Argentina’s Civil Code, two of the defendants received three-year sentences. However, the defendant who was tried for having violated the National Law of Hazardous Substances was found not guilty. These verdicts strengthen the case for minimum standards of environmental protection law on pesticides use because it would provide a clear legal tool for the prosecution of violators.
The issue has yet to occupy the attention it deserves, but a couple of legislative projects are currently in the works. The most advanced project comes from a group of agricultural organizations, led by the Sociedad Rural. Among its positive points, their bill provides details for the labeling, commercialization and use of such products, with particular emphasis on how agricultural workers are to be trained and equipped to handle them. Considering the risks that agricultural workers, particularly those working with fruits, vegetables and tobacco, face, this is of the utmost importance. Nonetheless, the bill has several serious shortcomings that could prevent it from achieving several of its stated goals; it requests that the Ministry of Agriculture be the authority of application; fails to include clear limits on spraying pesticides near human populations; and only allows for the national authority of implementation to inspect farms and properties if it has a well-founded reason for doing so.
Although the Ministry of Agriculture has a presence throughout the country, it would be a mistake to make it the national authority of implementation for such a law. Argentina’s General Environmental Law, which provides the framework for environmental legislation and policy, clearly entrusts environmental matters to the national authority of environmental policy, which is currently the Secretary of the Environment and Sustainable Development (SAyDS) (Dávila, 2012). Further, the SAyDS is the institution whose mission most closely overlaps with article 41 of the National Constitution, which guarantees every citizen the right to a safe environment. Entrusting the national environmental authority with the regulation of pesticides is also backed up by the experience of other major agricultural producers, such as France, Germany, the United States.
The lack of clear limits on pesticide spraying in the bill proposed by the Sociedad Rural is unacceptable, and makes even less sense when one considers that the first successful prosecution of an agricultural producer who had knowingly sprayed pesticides over the homes of civilians was based on such legislation, albeit at the municipal level. Without clear limits on the spraying of pesticides, how are producers supposed to know what they can do and how are citizens living by farms to know their rights? Finally, it is unclear why a regulating agency would have to provide a well-founded reason to carry out an inspection of the industry it is supposed to regulate. The SAyDS is staffed by professionals, and can be expected to carry out their obligations properly. On top of that, random inspections can be effective precisely because the possibility of receiving a visit that could result in a sanction or fine forces businesses to adopt practices they might not otherwise adopt.
As a final note, it is impossible to overemphasize that the passing of a national law governing pesticide use will only matter if that law is properly implemented and enforced. As the cases of the Riachuelo and the Ley de Bosques show, proper enforcement of environmental legislation remains deficient. All too often, well-written environmental laws and court rulings fail to be properly implemented and enforced, leaving the citizens they were intended to protect angered by the large and unacceptable gulf between what should be and what is. This is a question of a social justice, of making sure that the workers and families who help make Argentina one of the world’s great bread baskets are protected from health risks that can easily be eliminated.
Casadinho, Javier Souza. 2011. Utilización de agrotóxicos en las producciones agrícolas desarrolladas en el Paraje “el Lavarropas” Misiones. Prácticas cotidianas y percepción de enfermedades. VII Jornadas de Estudios interdisciplinarios Agrarios y Agroindustriales. Ciudad Autónoma de Buenos Aires.
Dávila, Mabel. 2012. Las políticas sobre el uso de agroquímicos en Argentina y Uruguay. Documentos de trabajo Nº 277. Departamento de Investigaciones. Área de Estudios Agrarios. Universidad de Belgrano.
Defensoría del Pueblo de la Nación. 2009. Atlas del Riesgo Ambiental de la Niñez de Argentina. Área de Medio Ambiente y Desarrollo Sustentable. Dirección de Derechos Sociales.
Salguero, Ana Laura Mera. 2012. Los fundamentos del fallo de juicio por las fumigaciones clandestinas en Córdoba. Diario Judicial. http://www.diariojudicial.com/contenidos/2012/09/06/noticia_0009.html