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Roundup/Touchdown: How many of our farmers and workers have suffered?

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It was so heartening, and refreshing too, to read the lead story in last Friday’s SEARCHLIGHT. Captioned “BANNED”, it covered the decision of local authorities here to ban the popular weed killer Roundup/Touchdown from importation into St Vincent and the Grenadines.

But happy as I was to receive the news, it did not take long for me to begin to wonder, how many of my fellow citizens share my joy. After realising that BANNED does not refer to any of the current popular themes or persons, and has relation to slow, painful death, rather than sudden violent one, how many of us followed the story?

The banning is part of a global reaction to a controversial and deadly issue that has dogged humankind for the last 40 years or so. That has been the period during which the controversial killer has been marketed successfully as a most effective weed killer. The power of money saw its manufacturer, the US-based company Monsanto, defy health and environmental concerns from international bodies, to sell Roundup/Touchdown in more than 160 countries world-wide and become almost a permanent fixture in the agricultural sector.

Given the rising labour costs in the agricultural sector, easy, cost-saving solutions to controlling weeds were sought and the supposedly “highly effective” Roundup/Touchdown was seen as a “godsend”. It did not matter what environmental and health risks were raised, the power of Monsanto, multiplied by its take-over by the German chemical giant Bayer, ruled the roost and millions of farmers and agricultural workers around the globe continued to use the chemical, be exposed to it, and suffer the dire consequences.

Those dire consequences for farmers and workers were highlighted in the case of an American field-worker, Dewayne Johnson, who fought a successful case for compensation from Monsanto. A federal judge has made a record US$289 million award in his favour for damages sustained after applying roundup up to 30 times a year in his job as a school’s groundskeeper. The sum may make our eyes boggle, but you know what? Johnson has now only up to 2020 to live after contracting terminal cancer (lymphoma) from his exposure to the glyphosate from Roundup!

The battle against the use of highly dangerous chemicals in the agricultural sector, and in the food industry in particular, is a long drawn-out one, pitting the huge financial clout of the mighty multi-national corporations against poor communities, cash-strapped workers’ and farmers’ organisations, largely voluntary civil society organisations and sympathetic international and regional organisations.

In spite of the money-power of the corporations and their influence on governments, the valiant resistance has continued. Sometimes, as happened right here in the Windward Islands, even those who stand most to lose, do not understand. When the Windward Islands farmers Association (WINFA) first raised the issue of alternative means of weed control and fertiliser, even some farmers resisted.

Not just banana farmers either, for when it was pointed out that gramoxone was toxic and dangerous, and in accessing fair-trade, it would have to be avoided, some of our own farmers cheated, on themselves in finality.

The Johnson award brings to light the need for us to adopt a more enlightened and healthy approach to such issues. Dewayne Johnson may be awarded millions, but how many farmers and workers, especially in the banana industry in these islands, have died from similar causes? How many babies have been born deformed for reasons which we don’t know and which no one bothers to research?

More than three decades ago, Godwin Augustus Oliver, calypsonian GAO, warned us about “the spray plane” and its environmental hazards. It took the virtual disappearance of much of our wildlife before we could sit up and notice. But the danger is even more widespread – plastics everywhere, destroying our rivers and coasts, using plastic containers which held bleach and paint to store drinking water and other substances to be consumed, our blatant disregard for our environment. We could go on and on.

Yes, we must fight the Monsantos and other greedy corporations, we must stand up to the Donald Trumps who do their bidding, we must press our governments to be more proactive, (and congratulate them when they take steps like that against Monsanto), but ultimately, WE TOO must take responsibility.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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