Brazil, South Africa, Ukraine: high-risk destinations
Laurent Gaberell and Géraldine Viret; Data visualisation by Martin Grandjean, 10 September 2020
An agricultural giant better known for its Amazon rainforest and extraordinary wildlife, Brazil has recently become a dumping ground for highly hazardous pesticides. In the last two years, the government of President Bolsonaro has approved hundreds of new hazardous pesticides. And a controversial bill, nicknamed “the poison package”, will further loosen the existing safeguards and regulations.
An increasingly toxic future
Returning from an official visit to Brazil, where he found "grave violations of human rights" associated with the use of pesticides, Baskut Tuncak, UN Special Rapporteur on Hazardous Substances and Wastes, warned that the country is on a "steep path of regression" and heading towards “an increasingly toxic future".
Our research shows that some of those poisons are made in Europe. Brazil is the world’s second largest recipient of Europe’s banned pesticides after the United States. Based on export notifications for 2018, it was set to import 10,000 tonnes of these dangerous agrochemicals.
Six banned pesticides were exported to Brazil that year. Syngenta’s paraquat accounts for most of the volumes imported. In 2017, the Brazilian government decided to ban the use of paraquat in the country after it was found to be linked to numerous acute poisonings, Parkinson’s disease, and irreversible genome damage. The ban on the chemical is due in force at the end of September this year, if the industry’s relentless lobbying can be resisted.
But the three years phase out period decided by the Brazilian authorities has not dampened Syngenta’s enthusiasm. In 2018 and 2019, it shipped nearly 9,000 tonnes of paraquat from Europe to Portugal’s former colony.
Fipronil is another substance that is wreaking havoc. This highly toxic insecticide was responsible for the mass death of bees in various European countries until it was banned there in 2013. But in 2019, more than 500 tonnes were exported from France by Germany's BASF. In Brazil, fipronil killed half a billion bees last year.
Alan Tygel, spokesman for the Permanent Campaign Against Agrotoxicos and for Life, emphasizes:
"We have no hope that the agrochemical giants will become more responsible. "But we are counting on European citizens to pressure their governments for a ban on these poison exports.”
Poison’s vicious circle
Brazil is the second largest exporter of food and agricultural products to the EU. Top exports from the Latin American giant include orange juice, coffee and soya, all of which are voracious consumers of pesticides banned in Europe. And so these toxins find their way back to Europe, used in Brazilian fields and consumed by European citizens.
Meanwhile, still to be ratified, the controversial EU-Mercosur trade deal could make matters worse, if it lowers tariffs on EU chemicals and increases the export of banned pesticides to Brazil.
Africa: a new playground for manufacturers?
In 2018, Africa imported nearly 7,500 tonnes of pesticides containing 25 hazardous substances banned in Europe. Among the twenty African importers, Morocco and South Africa received by far the continent’s largest volumes, followed by Egypt, Sudan and Senegal.
South Africa accounts for 1,700 tonnes of those banned pesticides. The “Rainbow Nation” stands out for the diversity of pesticides imported. All of these products – including cyanamide, paraquat, alachlor, and nine other toxic substances – were banned in Europe because the health risks were considered too high for farmers, even with the necessary protective equipment.
“In my country, says Rico Euripidou, from an NGO called Groundwork in South Africa, “pesticides are typically applied by migrant low skilled farm or forestry workers living in temporary camps.” They are typically poorly educated and unable to read pesticide labels and often don’t get proper training and the necessary protective equipment.
This practice of exporting pesticides too dangerous for use for EU farmers is akin to “environmental racism” says Rico Euripidou. “Workers and communities will end up being disproportionately exposed to toxic pesticides in the global South where regulations and conditions of use are not as rigorous as the EU”.
The European Commission prides itself on supporting the sustainable transformation of African agriculture. Its support includes capacity building programs for the safe use of pesticides and the promotion of agroecology. The EU’s exports of dangerous, banned pesticides to Africa are a sad footnote to this agenda.
But in some ways, this reflects the wider trend that pesticide sales to Africa are booming. For years, Africa represented just a fraction of the global pesticide market. But the continent has quickly developed a taste for agricultural pesticides, supported by initiatives such as the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA).
Unfortunately, this growth in pesticide use does not come with the necessary protections. Weak or non-existent regulation combines with poor knowledge and minimal training, putting users at risk of widespread pesticide poisoning.
Ukraine: close to the eyes but far from the heart
Ukraine, the breadbasket of Europe, is also a major user of pesticides banned in Europe. In 2014, Brussels signed a landmark association agreement with Ukraine, deepening Europe’s economic and political relations with the former Soviet Republic. The agreement was supposed to trigger reform in Ukraine’s legal framework and move it closer to the European Union.
But what is banned in Europe seems to be good enough for European partners. Within four years, Ukraine had become the third largest recipient of pesticides banned in Europe. In 2018, it imported a total 5,000 tonnes of six different agrochemicals. Most of this was acetochlor, a herbicide, produced by Corteva and Bayer, and suspected of causing cancer and damaging fertility. It was banned in the EU almost ten years ago because of a "high risk of groundwater contamination".
Some 800 tonnes of another dangerous herbicide, atrazine, were also notified for export to Ukraine in 2018. This pesticide is manufactured by Syngenta at its plant in Aigues Vives, France. Classified as an endocrine disrupter and a reproductive toxicant, atrazine is also banned in the EU because of its propensity to contaminate drinking water supplies.
Access to safe drinking water remains a serious issue in Ukraine, especially in rural areas, where major contaminants include toxic agricultural chemicals.
Last year, the Ukrainian government drafted a new law to end the import of certain pesticides, such as acetochlore, which have long been banned in Europe. But the agro-industrial lobby, represented by the Ukrainian Agri Council, succeeded in blocking this law. In doing so, it allowed European companies to continue using Ukraine as a dumping ground for their dangerous pesticides.
The lack of proper control over the use of these pesticides causes significant problems for local populations and ecosystems. Ukraine suffers the acute poisoning of agricultural workers, pollution of its soil, water and air, and damage to its bees and biodiversity.
"Ukraine’s economic difficulties and corruption mean that large, powerful companies are comfortable here," says Dmytro Skrylnikov, lawyer and head of the Environmental Investigation Bureau.
"European countries should not turn a blind eye on what is going on with pesticides in Ukraine.”