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Court Victory in Paraguay: Delta & Pine Corporation Guilty of Crimes Against the Environment

Posted to the IUF website 25-Aug-2004

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Six years after their land was poisoned by the US-based Delta & Pine Land Company - the world's largest cottonseed producer - the peasants of Rincón-i-Ybycuí in Paraguay have won an unprecedented legal victory in the criminal court system. The court decision marks a turning point in their long struggle for justice, which the IUF has supported throughout. In particular, the IUF Latin American secretariat has provided constant political, organizational and media support in the community's fight against corporate power and judicial and political corruption.*

In a June 1999 press release calling on the company to clean up its toxic waste, the IUF wrote:

Last November, Delta & Pine Paraguay dumped 30 thousand sacks of expired cottonseed – 660 tons - in the area of Rincón-i-Ybycuí, a rural community 120 kilometres from the capital Asunción. The seeds were treated with high concentrations of toxic pesticides, including the organophosphates acephate and chlorpyrifos. Organophosphates are powerful poisons which attack the central nervous system. The label on the seed sacks states that the acephate chemical compound (trade name: Orthene 80 Seed Protectant) “contains material which may cause cancer, mutagenic or reproductive effects based on laboratory animal data. Risk of cancer depends on duration and level of exposure.” This toxic cocktail, extending over one-and-a-half hectares, was covered with only a thin layer of soil. The disposal site is on private land in the center of a rural population of three thousand, less than 170 meters from a primary school with 262 pupils.

Health problems were immediately reported. The well-known symptoms of pesticide poisoning – vertigo, nausea, headaches, neurological disorders, memory loss, insomnia and skin rashes – appeared immediately, and worsened as the first rains brought with them a malevolent odor which hung over the area. Instead of water, toxic sludge oozed from the wells and pumps.

Medical testing of the residents has produced irrefutable evidence of acute pesticide poisoning. The Ministries of Agriculture and of Public Health have acknowledged the results of the tests but have not taken action. The Ministry of Education has refused support for the school organized by the villagers when it became necessary to abandon the polluted schoolgrounds. The IUF has met with the Minister of Health and the president of Paraguay, and has helped to organize demonstrations and support for the victims of the contamination. Still, the government refuses to act…

In response to the IUF’s campaign, the company has denied that the actions of its subsidiary have created any form of soil and water contamination and any form of public health problem. Delta & Pine CEO Roger Malkin has stated that the dumping was carried out in accordance with Paraguayan law using a disposal technique known as “landfarming” which “enhances soil fertility and quality.” According to Malkin, there has not been “a single case in which the health of people or the environment was affected by the disposition of the seed."

The poison claimed its first victim on December 28, the day of the death of Agustín Ruiz Aranda. Ruiz Aranda had been active in the Commission for the Defense of the Environment and Human Rights formed by the local community to draw attention to the dumping and demand government action. His official death certificate states that he was treated by the attending physician for “acute poisoning due to pollution caused by toxins of the Delta & Pine Land seed deposited on the property of Julio Chávez…

Nery Guzmán Rivas, who organized the dumping operation for Delta and Pine, received a two-year sentence in the criminal court of Paraguari for illegal waste disposal and willful environmental destruction. Julio Chavez, on whose land the toxic seed was dumped, was sentenced as an accomplice to 15 months.

The case against Delta & Pine Paraguay chief Eric Lorenz, who fled the country shortly after the dumping became the object of national and international attention, remains open. He is now officially a fugitive from justice.

The court victory is above all a triumph for the tenacious villagers who set up in November 1998 the Commission for the Defense of the Environment and Human Rights. Paragraph 1 of its constitution states that the aim is ‘to denounce Delta & Pine, Eric Lorenz and Nery Rivas [respectively owner and Manager of Delta & Pine Paraguay], among others, for the crime of environmental pollution; to demand that local, departmental and national authorities intervene immediately to punish those responsible for their abominable actions…’

From September to December 1999, the Commission held highly effective public hearings in Asuncion into Delta and Pine's environmental disaster with the goal of bringing the company to justice, decontaminating the region, and gaining medical treatment and compensation for the victims.

Symbolic justice has now been won in the courts. The sentences are the first ever in Paraguay - and possibly in Latin America - for crimes against the environment. It remains to be seen whether the company, which continues to deny responsibility, can be compelled through action in the civil courts to finally compensate the victims and begin a belated cleanup.

At the time of its Paraguayan crime, Delta & Pine was in the process of merging with Monsanto through a share swap, but the merger fell through. Delta & Pine Land jointly holds the patent rights (together with the US Department of Agriculture), and the exclusive licensing rights, to the notorious “Terminator” technology, a technique of genetic modification which ensures that seeds will not germinate if planted a second time. The Terminator patents are designed to ensure that farmers will not be able to save their seed, thus rendering them dependent on the corporate supplier. Monsanto, meanwhile has (at least publicly) renounced the Terminator but found other means of reducing farmers to total dependence on their seeds and chemical products: Roundup Ready GMO seeds.

*Semillas de la muerte (Seeds of Death), a detailed account of the dumping and the community's fight back by Uruguayan journalist Carlos Amorín, is available (in Spanish) from the IUF Latin American regional secretariat.