[Updated] Right-Wing agrobusiness plays down pesticide-Kidney disease link in face of massive health crisis
Update: On September 6, deputies in the Legislative Assembly from all parties except ARENA banned 53 active pesticide ingredients. The ingredients must be taken off the market in a year or two, and importers must now ensure that their clients understand how to use permitted pesticides safely. While CAMAGRO and COENA, an ARENA body, maintain that the ruling will negatively affect crop production, those most directly affected by kidney disease celebrate this positive step taken towards addressing El Salvador’s massive health crisis. For the past three weeks, La Prensa Gráfica, one of the country’s largest news sources, has been reporting on El Salvador’s catastrophically high levels of kidney disease. The news stories in La Prensa have primarily centered on the municipality of San Luis Talpa, located an hour east of El Salvador’s Bajo Lempa region, which since the beginning of this year reports nearly 60 deaths as a result of kidney failure. El Salvador’s high levels of kidney disease began making daily headlines on Augsut 14th, when the soil and water-quality testing process undertaken by the regional Institute of Legal Medicine (the national forensics institute) confirmed the presence of contaminants in San Luis Talpa. Much less mention is made in the media, however, of the connection with dangerous pesticides imported by right-wing political figures and a proposed pesticide regulation bill introduced by the Ministry of Health as an effort to fight this major health crisis. San Luis Talpa Mayor Salvador Menéndez states that an average of eight out of every ten families has a member suffering from kidney disease. “I’m not asking for anything drastic,” said Menéndez, “I’m just asking for help for my constituents.” A 2009 study indicates that 18% of workers in the nearby Bajo Lempa region suffer from chronic kidney disease. Kidney failure is also currently the number one cause of admissions at Rosales National Hospital, and is the number one cause of death among men nationwide. The nearby Bajo Lempa region has historically been an area of high agricultural production, particularly of cotton, and more recently, of sugar cane. Cotton cultivation requires use of heavy pesticides, and many that have been used in El Salvador are highly toxic and heavily regulated or banned internationally. In addition to pesticide contamination in the soil due to agricultural production in neighboring regions, Menéndez also sites the presence of 19 tons of an improperly-stored pesticide, Toxafeno, at a former chemical plant as a major contributing factor to his population’s ill health. Though eager to sensationalize the deaths, major news outlets have paid much less attention to a renewed effort to introduce a pesticide regulation bill at the National Assembly by the Ministry of Health within the next few weeks. Lourdes Palacios, a legislator from the Frente Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), warns that although the UN Food and Agriculture Organization has offered its support, such a bill is unlikely to pass, stating, “The economic interests at play are too strong.” Alfredo Cristiani, president of the right-wing National Republican Alliance (ARENA), is one of El Salvador’s main pesticide importers. Both ARENA and CAMAGRO, the Farming and Agribusiness Chamber of El Salvador, insist that there is no conclusive evidence linking pesticide usage with kidney disease.