Zucar de Matamoros, Mexico - "People want to get rid of the factory. It has to go. There's already been an accident," a taxi driver said on the drive to the pesticide plant belonging to the Agricultura Nacional company in this southern Mexican city.
On the night of Mar. 24, life changed for the 70,000 people of this municipality in Puebla state, about 200 kilometres south of the Mexican capital.
An explosion at the Dragon Group's factory, which makes pesticides, weedkillers and fungicides, spewed out 300 kilograms of dimethoate, an organophosphate insecticide, that had toxic effects on some 750 people.
"The factory was shut down by the city council on the day of the accident, and after what happened we don't want it to operate again," retired high school teacher José Rincón, a member of the Citizen's Council of Izúcar de Matamoros, formed in response to the accident, told IPS.
Prolonged exposure to dimethoate can cause eye irritation, nausea, dizziness, respiratory failure and even death, according to the pesticide catalogue produced by the Interministerial Commission for the Control of the Production and Use of Pesticides, Fertilisers and Toxic Chemicals.
The industrial complex manufactured about 130 products containing dangerous active ingredients like pentachlorophenol, 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D), endosulphan and paraquat.
Fourteeen of the company's products were classified as highly dangerous, 30 as moderately toxic and 37 others as somewhat harmful, according to the Federal Commission for Protection against Health Risks (COFEPRIS).
COFEPRIS has authorised 7,313 brands of pesticides made by about 200 companies, including transnational corporations like Germany's Bayer and the U.S. Dow Chemical.
"It's a disgrace that these chemicals are still being used and that the government is doing nothing about them," Fernando Bejarano, head of the non-governmental Centre for Analysis and Action on Toxins and Their Alternatives (CAATA), told IPS.
"They are examples of backwardness and the lack of preventive public policies in regard to toxic substances. We have been left with the idea of letting industry regulate itself, a neoliberal approach," he said.
CAATA is pressing for the Mexican government to comply with the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, signed in 2001 and in effect since 2004, which seeks to eliminate or reduce pollutants like dioxins, chlorinated pesticides or furans.
Endosulphan is authorised for use on 42 different crops, including maize, cotton, beans, vegetables and coffee, according to CAATA. In 2006, 731 tonnes of the insecticide were imported by Mexico.
After the accident at its plant, Agricultura Nacional, which employed 200 people in Izúcar, transported 3,500 tonnes of materials to factories around the country.
Just a few hours later, protesters blocked the entrance to the plant. A few tents remain to testify to that demonstration. Yellow closure notices seal the doors of the factory.
"We didn't know anything about these things. We have had to learn about them along the way, in the process of our struggle," Rincón said.
The Citizens' Council is organising a public consultation, and planning a protest march for Sunday Aug. 1.
The Dragon Group, which owns Agricultura Nacional, became established in the area in 1986, producing powdered stone and rock for fertilisers to remineralise soils. In 1992 it added insecticide and pesticide manufacturing to its operations.
Around that time a group of local residents began a resistance movement, in response to an accident that occurred many kilometres away from Izúcar.
On May 3, 1991, there was a fire and explosion at an Agricultura Nacional insecticide factory called Anaversa in Córdoba, a city in the state of Veracruz, 354 kilometres southeast of the Mexican capital. The accident released and spread 18,000 litres of methyl parathion, 8,000 litres of paraquat, 1,500 litres of pentachlorophenol and 3,000 litres of 2,4-D.
2,4-D was a major ingredient in Agent Orange, a defoliant used by the United States armed forces to spray jungles during the Vietnam war in the late 1960s and early 1970s, with serious environmental and health consequences.
Although there were no immediate deaths from the Anaversa accident, a toxic cloud bearing dioxins covered the city of Córdoba and also polluted the groundwater.
The number of cases of cancer and other serious illnesses began to climb throughout the city, the association of Anaversa victims, formed to fight for compensation and medical care for the victims, told IPS.
The death toll from the consequences of the explosion stands at over 2,700, according to the association's estimates. Agricultura Nacional paid a fine of 9,300 dollars, closed the Anaversa plant and focused on its operations in Izúcar.
In Mexico, the management of harmful chemicals is entangled in a legal labyrinth comprising nine laws, 11 sets of regulations and 36 specific standards, 20 of which apply to pesticides.
Looking ahead to the fifth Conference of the Parties to the Rotterdam Convention in Geneva in June 2011, its Chemical Review Committee has recommended including chrysotile asbestos, endosulphan and tributyl tin compounds, all harmful to human health, on the list of substances covered by this treaty.
In force since 2004, the Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent Procedure for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade promotes shared responsibility, open exchange of information on prohibitions and restrictions, and safe handling of dangerous substances between importer and exporter countries, in order to preserve human health and the environment.
The fourth meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Rotterdam Convention, held in Rome in October 2008, voted against including these chemicals in the Convention, in spite of intense campaigning to that effect by activists all over the world.
In Izúcar, the federal environmental prosecutor's office ruled in 2009 that the company had broken the General Law of Ecological Balance and Environmental Protection, but did not specify how it did so, or what corrective measures should be imposed.
After the March 2010 accident, however, it ordered the factory to be closed for six months pending an environmental audit.
"Products that have been proved to be toxic should be strictly banned. The scientific principles of precaution and substitution are not applied in this country, nor is there a chemical safety policy," said Bejarano.
CAATA wrote a letter to COFEPRIS summarising the facts about endosulphan, which has been banned in more than 60 countries and is being considered for a global ban under the Stockholm Convention. The letter included the results of studies carried out in Mexico.
"We have heard that the factory is going to be transferred to another municipality in Puebla state. That is a false solution: instead of polluting here, they will do it elsewhere," said Rincón.
In Córdoba, the association of Anaversa victims has called for a clean-up of the factory site, but this has not been done. The disaster was covered by the 2007 documentary film "El perro que ladra a la luna" (Barking at the Moon), by Spanish journalists Charo Ruiz and Sandra Soler.
In 1996, the people of Izúcar had scored a temporary victory when the authorities closed the plant, but it managed to reopen. Now they will settle for nothing less than shutting it down for good.
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