The Multinational Monitor

October 1988 - VOLUME 9 - NUMBER 10

M E X I C O  T H E  E C O N O M I C  Q U E S T I O N


By Samantha Sparks

MEXICO CITY--Boca de Lima is a collection of huts scattered among lush green fields in the coastal state of Veracruz. Seven hours by bus north-east of Mexico City, it has no electricity, no running water and one general store. It is far removed from many aspects of modern life, with one notable exception: "Of course we use pesticides," says Alfredo Gutierrez, a farmworker and father of nine. Next door to Gutierrez's home, a man stands in the middle of a lime orchard spraying weeds from a silver canister strapped to his back. The blackened land behind him looks as if it had been hit by a flamethrower. The man, who wears no protective clothing, not even gloves, explains that this is a much cheaper way to kill weeds than hiring someone to do it by hand. No, he doesn't think the pesticide will get into the limes.

Pesticides are big business in Mexico, but controls on the use of many chemicals--including several banned in the United States--are lax, experts say. Still permitted, for example, are DDT, aldrin, clordane, and clorobenzolate. Even pesticides considered scientifically "safe" can be dangerous in a developing country like Mexico, when semi-literate farmers ignore or cannot understand warning labels or instructions for proper use. Too big a dose of a pesticide, or a pesticide applied to the wrong crop, can be fatal.

The pesticide industry in Mexico includes multinational companies, private Mexican firms and the state-owned company Fertimex. Multinational firms including Bayer, Ciba-Geigy, Dow Chemical, Dupont, ICI, Shell and Union Carbide, held about 43 percent of the market in 1984, the latest year for which Mexican government statistics are available. Domestic production of pesticides has increased in the past decade; in 1984, 31 of the 84 active ingredients used by Mexican farmers were domestically produced. These included the more dangerous chemicals, mostly manufactured by Fertimex. The business is lucrative: from 1981 to 1984, pesticide prices rose 93 percent a year, compared to 75 percent for consumer prices as a whole, according to government statistics. And use of pesticides is expected to grow in the future, as Mexico tries to squeeze the most production possible out of current arable land to feed its fast-growing population. "For companies that sell pesticides, Mexico is like a paradise," claims Dr. Arturo Lomeli director of the Mexican Association of Studies for the Defense of the Consumer (AMEDC). "Everything can be sold here, without restriction, and without regard for the health of the farmers, workers or ecological impact."

A glut of competing products--40 brands to kill pests on avocados, 103 brands for corn, over one hundred for cotton-- makes using pesticides especially confusing and encourages farmers to mix dangerous "cocktails" of different brands, Lomeli adds. A 1987 Mexican government bulletin, "The Pesticide Industry in Mexico," supports Lomeli's claim. "There are a great variety of brands which more or less correspond to very similar formulas, whose sales rely upon important publicity and promotion campaigns." Lomeli, Mexico's leading consumer advocate, contends that the government is reluctant to apply stringent regulations to pesticides for fear of alienating the industry. "The Ministries of Health and Agriculture don't want to make a bad image for Mexico," he charges.

But government officials and spokespeople for one major multinational, Swiss-based Ciba-Geigy, deny that Mexican pesticide regulations are lax. "I'm absolutely astonished that you have this perception," says Ricardo Dominguez, Ciba-Geigy's planning director in Mexico. "The Mexican regulatory authorities follow very much the very exhaustive U.S. regulations." Spokespeople for West German-based Bayer and U.S.-based Dow Chemical declined comment. Juan Manuel Pardo, technical secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture and Water Resources, insists, "We're definitely not more liberal" than industrial nations. Pardo says the Mexican government adheres to guidelines on pesticides issued by the United Nations. This, he says, is commercial common sense. "The U.S. and other countries would forbid the import of Mexican products with forbidden pesticides." One aide to a subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce committee who has studied pesticide use in Mexico says, "In the large growing areas in the west of the country, farmers generally do have a large economic incentive to stay within the U.S. requirements." But the aide adds, "The bigger problem is the smaller growers, mostly in the east, who don't export on a regular basis."

Whatever the reasons, contaminated Mexican exports do sometimes get turned back from the northern border. Documents from the Department of Health and Human Services indicate that at least 119 agricultural products imported from Mexico in 1988 had levels of pesticides and industrial chemicals greater than allowed by law. Tainted products included cantaloupes, carrots, lettuce, parsley, peppers, spinach, squash and tomato husks. Pesticides and other chemical residues detected included DDT, Endosulfan and EBDCs.

U.S. regulations, however, hardly constitute an appropriate benchmark for safety where pesticides are concerned. Often, "safe" levels of pesticides are established without necessary health and safety data, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. "EPA's tolerances allow carcinogenic pesticide residues to occur in food, even though no 'safe' level of exposure to a carcinogen may exist," the Washington-based group contends. Even when Mexican regulations correspond to international standards, enforcement is likely to be weak. "Mexico is making a rather valiant effort [to regulate pesticides]," says one EPA official. "But Mexico has the same problem as any developing country: they just don't have the resources.

The registration is sophisticated but enforcement is weak." In fact, the Mexican government is so strapped for money that large private companies in the western growing areas have been forced to fund their own labs to test pesticides, this official says. According to Ciba-Geigy's Dominguez, "If a farmer does not follow the [directed] use of the product, then of course there are problems. We work under Mexican laws. If we fulfil those laws, we are doing all we can. We cannot be there 24 hours a day."

When Mexican officials do take steps to prevent poisoning by pesticides, they do not always win popular support. Lomeli documents cases of contamination by pesticides and other chemicals in a consumers' guide published twice a month. In May, he reported the case of the "Lady Baltimore" candy factory which threw out 20 tons of contaminated chewing gum--only to have people collect the candy and sell it on the streets. A national alert was issued but over one hundred people were poisoned. Similarly, when exports of agricultural produce are turned back by the United States, "The food usually ends up on our tables," Lomeli says. "We have never known Mexico to destroy contaminated food. We eat it instead." For the workers who apply the chemicals in the fields, the hazards are especially high. But the number of people officially reported harmed by pesticides is "scandalously low," Lomeli says, in part because workers themselves don't seek treatment. "They don't want to go to a clinic, and they don't tell the boss because they don't want to lose their job." Pardo insists that given its limitations, the Mexican government is doing the best it can. "The U.S. is more preventative. Mexico is more practical. We do not speculate about what a product could do," he says. "Unless something's proven we can't do a thing. We are direct, practical, concrete." Sitting with a reporter in his Mexico City office, Pardo illustrates his argument by pointing out the window to a bird in a tree. "I don't have time to think about what could kill a bird. I wait until the bird dies."

Samantha Sparks writes frequently for Multinational Monitor.