Argentine activist Sofia Gatica (above) did not win the Goldman Environmental Prize this year for a small reason: for more than a decade, she has been leading a joint complaint with neighbors from her town Ituzaingo, in Cordoba province, against producers who were spraying agrochemicals too close to the community, making people sick. (The public attorney claimed 169 people from the 5,000 neighbors got cancer from pollution from 2002 until 2010.)
Argentina being the third largest exporter of soybeans and a consumer of over 50 million gallons of glyphosate and endosulfan, her efforts were not small. In fact, she became the voice for a problem nobody wants to talk about.Since the government depends on soy exports to collect taxes and keep the economy alive, the subject is not one eagerly discussed politically. There was a call by president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner to create a commission to investigate agrochemicals in 2009, but its final recommendation, as IPS notes, was, "Because there is not enough data in Argentina on the effects of glyphosate on human health, it is important to promote further research.”
The media is not crazy about it either, and you can see why by flipping the pages of the Country supplements from the nation's major newspapers, filled with ads from Monsanto et al. In 2009, a local scientist presented a study with evidence of the impact of glyphosate on amphibious embryos and received death threats plus an agressive discredit campaign.
But this afternoon, Gatica and other environmental movements pushing the issue were preparing to receive a pat in the back. A court in Cordoba Province was going to give its final ruling on whether two farmers and an aviator were guilty of causing environmental damage and potential health hazards to the people of Ituzaingo.
Five hours after the initial time of the announcement, the verdict was in: one farmer was absolved due to lack of evidence, but the other and the aviator were found guilty and sentenced to three years of jail. Well, actually, conditional jail. Which means they can very much get out of doing any time, although they will be obliged to do social work.
Reactions were a mix of indignation and hope, highlighting the ruling sets precedent since it was confirmed there was offense. Though considering the fact that the Argentine Agriculture Minister was congratulating Monsanto for a new transgenic soy seed this afternoon as judges were deliberating, I'm inclined to the first feeling.
The ruling was never expected to even start a conversation to phase out agrochemicals from the country. The focus was on the fact farmers were "transgressing current norms" and not that agrochemicals are dangerous to humans. Even Argentina's Human Rights Secretary, Martin Fresneda, emphasized this while participating of the court session: "Agrochemicals can be used as long as dimensions and places where society and the community live are respected. We have to improve the normative conditions to regulate the activity in regard of these new times, in function of agricultural, industrial and community life."
However, the case could be the starting point for tighter regulations and for other communities to sue irresponsible farmers. It also sets a precedent for the region: according to the plaintiffs, this is the first case of its kind to reach a verdict in Latin America.