Producer of "Huicholes and Pesticides"
Rendez-vous with . . . Patricia Diaz-Romo
Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico
By Philippe Boucher
Tuesday August 28 2001
PB: Thank you Patricia for accepting our rendez-vous.
May I ask you to introduce yourself?
Patricia Diaz-Romo: I was born in Guadalajara, in the state of Jalisco, in Mexico. The Huichol Indians live in the Mexican part of the Sierra Madre Occidental, in the states of Nayarit, Durango, Zacatecas and in the north of Jalisco. They have kept their own forms of social organization and their own religious beliefs. During part of the year many Huichol families migrate to work as daily laborers in the tobacco fields of the state of Nayarit, along the Pacific Coast. That is the main tobacco production area in Mexico.
In 1983 a group of people founded in Guadalajara AICAW a non-profit organization to help the Huichol Indians. AICAW means Asociacion para la Investigacion, Capacitacion y Assistencia Wixarika. Part of the revenues of AICAW fund a health clinic where medical assistance is provided. The Huichols are very good craftsmen and with the sale of their artefacts they cover part of the costs of the clinic. I studied design in Italy so I was put in charge of organizing the craftsmen. We noticed that people started to visit the clinic with diseases that had been previously quite rare among the Huichols: a few cancer cases, children with congenital malformations, etc.
At first we were surprised and we could not find an explanation. But all those people were working in the tobacco fields of Nayarit and we wondered about this coincidence. Without any prior knowledge about the pesticides I went to visit the tobacco fields. I was horrified: the Huichols were working in sub-human conditions, without any information about the pesticides, without any protection. They slept in a camp close to the tobacco leafs impregnated with pesticides, they were drinking the water out of the irrigation canals full of the pesticides spread by the spraying airplanes. I started to collect information from a few people and organizations like the Pesticide Action Network based in San Francisco. They suggested that I made a video to document this terrible situation and I thought it could be a useful tool to testify and protest. This video "Huicholes and pesticides" was produced in 1994 with the collaboration of Hector Bonilla, a famous Mexican actor for the Spanish version, and the actor Peter Coyote for the English version. A version in the Wixarika language, the Huichol language, was made in 1996. The film has been widely showed in Mexico and won awards in film festivals in Spain and Cuba. We have also been contacted by many other organizations working with indigenous people to produce versions in other native languages: unfortunately the fate of the Huichols is common to all the indigenous agricultural workers obliged to migrate from their land to work on the big agri-industrial properties in the North East of Mexico and in the USA.
Each time I got more and more involved. Our small team tries to inform the public opinion about the problems caused by the pesticides as well as to explain how dangerous these products are to the daily workers while most of them don't speak Spanish.
Q1. Your 27 minute documentary Huicholes and pesticides was produced in 94. You were again recently in this part of Mexico. Can you describe the situation now, 7 years later? Are the indigenous workers better protected from pesticides in the tobacco fields? Are children still working with their parents and exposed to deadly toxic chemicals?
PD-R: During those 7 years we have launched, as much as we could with our limited means, numerous campaigns to inform about the risks associated with pesticides. The video has been translated in 12 indigenous languages and we have also produced radio spots but the federal law prohibits using any other language than Spanish! We have started a petition drive to change this regulation. We hope that the new government headed by Fox will give the indigenous people their full rights, including culture and labor practices.
We have also written factsheets for journalists and articles that have been published in the Mexican press. We have published calendars with recommendations for the workers and their families. We have participated in many meetings, organized workshops about the rights of the daily workers. But we have to be realistic. We are confronting the economic interests of the biggest multinational corporations, the tobacco producers and the pesticide manufacturers, and their million dollar advertising campaigns. A few limited initiatives have started from the state and the tobacco companies like the program "Clean fields" ("Campo limpio") to collect the empty cans of pesticides. The BAT subsidiary, La Moderna, has declared that they have reduced their use of pesticides but they have not provided any documents about it. The agricultural corporations and the government have just started a program, "Florece", to bring to school the children of the daily workers: the first experience involved 150 children, a very small number considering all the children who work in the tobacco fields. The tobacco companies and the growers association (Asocacion Rural de Interes Colectivo) also started to air radio spots, in the indigenous languages, to improve the use of pesticides.
Those initiatives are important because they are the first taken by the government and the tobacco industry but they remain very limited compared with the magnitude of the problem.
Q2. In the film little is said about the tobacco companies that buy the crops. I noticed one truck with a Marlboro sign. Is Philip Morris involved in the management of those farms? Are other multinationals involved in the abuse of toxic pesticides and deadly practices?
In the tobacco growing area of Nayarit, the main one in Mexico, there are about 10.000 tobacco growers and 94% of the land belong to "ejidatarios", communal land owners. The tobacco company has a contract with the "ejidatarios". The company commits to buy their harvest but the company is imposing its conditions: the company decides what pesticides are to be used, in what quantity. The growers hire the daily workers (mostly indigenous people) and have to figure out how to cover their expenses. The growers are not the ones who decide as far as the pesticides are concerned. The tobacco companies impose their standards: which pesticides to use and in what quantity. They are also organizing the sale of the pesticides which represent another sizable source of profit for them. During the last years, after long negociations, the tobacco growers association has obtained that the tobacco companies partially pay for the social security of the daily workers: on average the tobacco grower hires 6 daily workers to tend one hectare while the tobacco company will only pay for two workers per hectare.
3. At one point you mention the possibility of a lawsuit but it is immediately dismissed. Still the number of victims is quite high: more than 1500 deaths in 1993. Do you have more recent statistics? Is there no way to got to court to defend the victims?
In Mexico, unlike in the US, people are not used to go to court. Besides, most of the victims are daily workers (most of them indigenous people) and small farmers who are afraid of a possible repression and are extremely poor: they are in no position to file any lawsuit. Another factor is religious and cultural. Many of the workers, especially the Huichols, don't think their diseases are caused by the pesticides: they think they come because they have sinned against their gods, because they have not respected their religious obligations. It is very difficult to convince them that they got sick because of the pesticides. There are statistics that reflect the number of people intoxicated. But there are problems with those statistics. We have direct information from public health professionals who work in the hospitals within the tobacco growing area about the fact that there are pressures to register poisonings due to pesticides under other causes like sunburn or epilepsy. Those pressures come from the officials within the public administration and from the representatives of the tobacco companies: the gifts can be cigars, free meals or even computers.
4. Most of the pesticides used in Mexico have been banned in the US and other western countries. Are those products still allowed in 2001? Does the World Health Organization have a position on those issues?
I think that the USA are not a good example as we have seen with the Reagan and Bush -the father- administrations (and presumably with Bush -the son-). They have re-authorized pesticides that had finally been prohibited after much effort.
The pesticide trade is based on two principles: business and hypocrisy. Hypocrisy because most of the countries that produce pesticides allow exporting dangerous products that are not authorized at home. It is the case for the USA, Japan, Germany, the Netherlands, France, the United Kingdom and Switzerland: the big producers. With such a policy it is not surprising that while the industrialized countries use 80% of the world's pesticides they only suffer 1% of the deaths. Meanwhile the less industrialized countries, like Mexico, use 20% of the world's pesticides but suffer 99% of the deadly cases officially registered.
In Mexico, lots of pesticides are officially authorized. Others, that are officially regulated one can buy without any type of control. The few that are banned can be smuggled into the country and used without any risk of being controlled by any of the administrations that are part of CICOPLAFEST, the Interministerial Commission for the Control of the manufacture and use of pesticides, fertilizers and toxic substances. This Commission, created in 1987 has unfortunately never succeeded to be efficient or even visible in this matter: it does not have the staff or the budget to enforce the law. If you add the corruption there is in fact a wide deregulation of the use of pesticides and widespread abuse.
The World Health Organization is not involved in the control of pesticides as far as tobacco growing is concerned. They are exclusively concerned with food products. So you wouldn't expect them to be effective in this area.
5. We read about protests organized during the annual general assemblies of tobacco corporations. Have the issues of the chemical poisoning of tobacco farmers been raised at such meetings? What about the chemical and often pharmaceutical companies that manufacture those pesticides? Did you get some support in more industrialized countries?
I don't have any concrete information but I believe that the anti-tobacco groups if they care about the health problems caused by tobacco are hardly concerned with the health problems caused by pesticides for the people working in the tobacco fields. Last year we came to speak about the pesticides problems during the 11th World Conference on Tobacco or Health, in Chicago. We were the only ones among thousands of participants (with the exception of the Brazilian sociologist Angela Cordero) to say there was a problem. She spoke about the Green Tobacco Sickness. Many of its symptoms can be mistaken with those linked to pesticides. That makes it more difficult to identify and accept the damages caused to the workers by the pesticides. We have received some moral and financial support from Medico International, a German ONG as well as from PAN-NA (Pesticide Action Network North America) and a few other North American foundations like Global Greengrants Fund. The Tobacco Free Coalition (the city based program in San Francisco) has helped us attend the conference in Chicago and used part of our video for TV spots in California to raise the awareness about the health problems of the migrant workers. Recently we have been contacted by the Campaign for Tobaccofree kids: they wanted to use some of our pictures of children working in the tobacco fields to inform young smokers.
Most of our funding for this project comes from Mexican Non-Governmental Organizations like the Mexican Association for art and popular culture and the Association for the health of the indigenous infants in Mexico. We have been able to manage this program thanks to many volunteers and with the help of the center for Human Rights Miguel Agustin Pro Juarez and the University ITESO of Guadalajara, Jalisco. The International Labor Rights Fund of Washington DC has asked for our collaboration to produce a documentary that will include a short segment about the Huichol children working in the tobacco fields. I believe that the tobacco industry and the pesticide industry have done nothing to prevent the poisoning of millions of people and the thousands of deaths caused each year by those toxic products. They are the ones responsible although they claim on the labels of their bottles of pesticides that they cannot be held responsible about the damages their products could cause, trying to blame the victims.
6. Is there anything else you would like to add?
I want to emphasize the situation of the children of the migrant workers families in the tobacco fields. They are the most vulnerable to the pesticides and the most affected.
We are in the process of finalizing an epidemiological study about the tobacco workers in Nayarit but I am afraid the results will not be ready in time to be included in this interview.
Thank you Patricia for taking the time to be with us today.
P.S: the video can be ordered ($35) from www.panna.org/shop/shop.html
Rendez-vous is supported by a contract from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation
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