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On the 17th April 2012, around 8.30 am, Silvia Nobelasco, a teacher at Rural School number 30 in Puntas de Rolon, Rio Negro (Uruguay), saw that in the soy field that was next to the school the “fly” took off and started to fumigate. Nobelasco went out to talk to the operator of the device to make him realize that he was fumigating right by a school and in those few seconds “the liquid in the air” wetted her clothes and her skin.
In Uruguay it is forbidden to fumigate in an area less than 300 meters (328 yards) from an urban area (fumigation in land) and less than 500 meters (546 yards) in cases of air fumigation.
The teacher walked seven blocks. When she got to a phone booth, she called the Police Department, the Services from the Cattle, Agriculture and Fishing Department (MGAP in Spanish) and the Schools Inspectorate. When she was coming back to her workplace, a friend of hers called her from Fray Bentos, the capital of the Department. In an interview with Radio Mundo Real, Silvia said that her reply was “I’ve just been fumigated”.
Her friend was listening in one of the local radio networks to the Mayor of Rio Negro, Omar Lafluf. She called him to let him know about Silvia’s problem. The Mayor made a personal call to the teacher in order to confirm what he had heard and around 10 am the police arrived at the school.
“First of all, one of the things why this case is different is that it was not me. I was not the one who lodged a complaint directly to Tabare Aguerre, the minister of MGAP. Mayor Lafluf did”, said the teacher.
Inspectors from MGAP also arrived soon at the school in Puntas de Rolon. They found out which company did it, who was the person responsible for that matter and the product that was being used. The company was Agronegocios del Plata (ADP), a subsidiary company of the Argentinean soy group Los Grobo (from Gustavo Grobocopatel). The product that was used was glyphosate, a weed killer which is used for genetically-modified soy crops. This product can cause severe problems to human health, according to many scientific researches. Inspectors took witness statements from ADP engineers and made them sign an affidavit.
At that time, every part of Silvia’s body had already been itching for three hours. Workers from MGAP called a poison center (Centro de Toxicología del Hospital de Clínicas) which said that Silvia should take a shower. She did so, but she decided to spend the night at the school, since it is very far from Fray Bentos and her home. She did not want to leave without making sure that all students had been treated.
The next day Silvia woke up with pink-colored marks on her legs, especially in her groin and also on her breasts. She went to the nearest medical facility, 23 km (14 miles) away and the professional there notified in writing of the poisoning symptoms she was experiencing.
“Some weeks after that, I met with my doctor. It is real fortunate that he is my doctor. His name is Gerardo Valiero, the Director of Public Health of the Rio Negro Department. He saw that I was still poisoned and helped me prepare a complaint to the Ministry of Public Health [Ministero de Salud Pública or MSP in Spanish]”. Valiero told her that staying at the school after being poisoned was irresponsible, because she did not know how her body would react to glyphosate.
Right after that, Silvia decided to contact two lawyers and file a lawsuit at the court of Young city for the damages caused. In October 2012, a conciliation hearing was held and ADP denied responsibility, so the case would go on in 2013.
“But some 20 days ago, lawyers of the company started to contact my lawyer to try to get to an economic understanding. It was my lawyer who asked the sum of money and the one who made the agreement, which is almost half of what he had been asking”. Silvia’s legal advisors had asked a sum of 7,000 dollars and settled for 3,800 dollars. A similar case, in other parts of the world, or maybe with other lawyers, would have meant a compensation of hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions.
“For four months I was poisoned. Every time I washed myself the itching would come back. But I never stopped going to work, so Primary School authorities started saying that I was actually not that ill. But I did it on ethical grounds, I did not want to leave children alone”, she said.
Silvia also said that MGAP and MSP continue to pursue ADP. “We hope that they will receive a fine by the end of the year at the latest”.
A reality at the Department
During 2012, Silvia stayed at School number 30 in Puntas de Rolon. She was informed (because this information was used during the trial against ADP), that fumigation works had been taking place next to the school center since 2009. The teacher is now at School number 33, in Punta de Averias (same Department), but things seem to be very similar there.
In fact, Silvia knows similar cases. One month after she was “fogged” by ADP’s “fly”, in a school of Santa Isabel, just a two or three miles away from the city of Young through route number 3, some fumigation works had been done and a teacher inside the center saw that flies and mosquitoes were dying while she was given her class. “This teacher had an asthma attack and had to be hospitalized in Fray Bentos, but she did not want to lodge any complaint. She only called the Police”. MGAP’s inspector went to the school and, after taking some samples, he saw that the water had agrotoxics.
“Lots of people have called to tell me that it is horrible in Guichon, Paysandu, and that they have lodged many complaints. But until now they have not been able to stop the fumigation. Guichon is surrounded by constantly-fumigated areas”, highlighted Silvia. “That is why I am making this public, because it is a unique legal precedent, according to public prosecutor Enrique Viana, who I was in contact with”. Neighbors and groups from different areas of the country say they have also complained about the fumigation to MGAP and MSP but that they have not even received an answer.
Silvia never got a call from ADP, not even to apologize. Even though some operators and representatives of the company went often to the field next to the School in Puntas de Rolon, nobody talked to her. She had to take care of the medical expenses, with the support of lawyers. “Yes, I would like to remind everybody that I am a member of the Uruguayan Federation of Teachers. The Union of Fray Bentos was always by my side, and also the Plenary Inter-Union Association of Rio Negro which also helped with my complaints, since I have lodged another one in the Ministry of Labour”.
Silvia regretted that many people in areas of Rio Negro see that fumigations are occurring, but they do not resolve to denounce them. “When those mothers brought their children (that 17th April 2012) they were not surprised at all, because in the school where I was, as in the school where I am now, people now see that as a normal thing”. “People say ‘Oh, this smell is horrible!’, but nobody calls, nobody complains. It’s all normal to them”, she explained.
She believes there is a lack of information and collective awareness about how dangerous and illegal these fumigations next to schools and populated areas are. But she also said that one of the main reasons why people do not complain is that “most of them know somebody at the fields, or they even work there. They do not want to lose their jobs or fight against neighbors”. “As Uruguayan citizens, we must all stop thinking things like ‘that’s not my business’ or ‘forget it’. We are trying to make my case public to raise awareness of the problem and so that people will denounce it. This way, all the authorities will be aware of the problem too”, Silvia concluded.
“Este triunfo de Uruguay debe ser un llamado urgente a analizar, revisar, renegociar o anular cuando corresponda todos los tratados bilaterales de comercio y de protección de inversiones que ha suscrito el país, antes de exponernos a nuevas demandas en las que podemos correr con distinta suerte que en la recién finalizada”.
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