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Argentine Goldman Prize Winner Overcame Baby’s Poisoning and Death Threats

Posted: Apr 17, 2012

Photo: Sofia Gatica, photograph courtesy Goldman Environmental Prize

SAN FRANCISCO— After Sofia Gatica’s newborn died of agro-toxin exposure in 1999, the Argentine mother of three set out to stop Monsanto’s indiscriminate use of agrochemicals on her nation’s soy fields. Against all odds, she became so effective that on Monday she was honored as one of six grassroots environmentalists from around the world to receive the $150,000 Goldman Environmental Prize.

Gatica has faced tremendous opposition, including death threats. Argentina is the world’s second largest exporter of soybeans, and big agriculture there sprays more than 5 million gallons of agro-toxins a year, including key chemicals used in Monsanto’s weed killer, Roundup, glyphosate and endosulfin.
Following her baby’s death, she learned that the population of her poor, working-class Ituzaingó Annex, a community in Cordoba, has cancer rates 41 times the national average.

Having to face daunting—and even dangerous foes is common for Goldman Prize winners. For example, Ken Saro-Wiwa 1995 winner, was hanged by the Nigerian military after leading a movement for the rights of the Ogoni people, who were being exploited by multinational oil companies. In El Salvador, 2011 awardee, Francisco Pineda, faces death threats as he tries to keep the river water clean and safe from the mining companies. And Pablo Fajardo and Luis Yanza, 2008 winners, led the legal battle against Chevron and its pollution.

Independent journalist Rose Arrieta conducted the following interview with Sofia Gatica for New America Media (NAM).

NAM: When did you begin your fight?

Sofia Gatica: I’ve been fighting for 12 years because the people in my barrio always die of cancer. There are deformities, kids are born small or with no fingers, bad kidneys, bad intestines, all because of the fumigation on soy fields.

We are in a barrio in the capital of Cordova. That camp is filled with soy fields, north, south, and east. In order to fumigate it all, the growers end up fumigating over the people. People have gotten sick: 33 percent of the people in my neighborhood die from tumors. More than 300 are sick with cancer, 16 have leukemia. The population in my neighborhood is 6,000. All the illnesses are not just flu or colds. There are intestinal cancers, cancer of kidneys, stomach, deformations, Hodgkin’s disease.

We’ve proven that the agro-chemicals are hurting the people. Our barrio is the most studied in Argentina. They have detected DDT, endosulfin, malathion, many things. We are drinking toxic water with endosulfin. President Cristina Kirchner intervened and ordered the Ministry of Health to set up an investigative commission. But they continue spraying.

NAM: In 2010 you filed a court case against two soy farmers and a pilot for violating a rule that prevents spraying in your community at a distance of 2,500 meters from homes, schools and waterways. You’re attempting to go to Argentina’s Supreme Court as well, to hold Monsanto and the government responsible for failing to ensure the sprayers were compliant. What’s next?

SG: We are going before a judge in June. We are waiting for the ruling, which would set a precedent for Argentina. The spraying is happening all over Argentina. The growth of soy has caused camps to disappear. Farmers are losing their lands. The trees are being torn down, the large multinational corporations lease the land to grow soy. When they buy the lands, they tear everything down and plant soy.

We are waiting for the judge’s ruling but we don’t know because we don’t have attorneys who are powerful. We don’t have the money to pay them. Meanwhile, the other side has hired three of the most powerful attorneys in Cordova. It is an unequal fight. They have a lot of money and we don’t.

NAM: How have things changed in your country because of the soy fields and spraying?

SG: We used to consume a lot of meat in Argentina. We exported meat; the best meat was from Argentina. Now it is impossible to eat meat. All of Argentina has genetically modified soy., and this soy is not natural to our country. There are multinationals behind this. Monsanto, Cargill and Byers, who are filling their coffers. They are making a lot of money at the cost of the people and the planet; they are destroying with all their agrichemicals, which also ruins the soil, not just the health of the people. It dries the earth, it gets hard, water doesn’t absorb and then the fields won’t grow anything.

NAM: When did you start to track these illnesses?

SG: We were used to everybody being sick. We thought it was normal. Then I started to notice -- by then my daughter had died. And I had a young son, who used to play in the soy fields and many times he would be unable to walk, because the agrochemicals would paralyze him and I would take him to the doctor, who told me he had to be studied to find out what he had. We didn’t know he was getting poisoned.

I started to see many children were sick and more were wearing bandanas. They did that to hide their head because they were bald from chemotherapy.

I started a survey of many blocks to find out how many people were sick and from what. When I finished I took it to the Ministry of Health. I told them many of the people there were sick. We never got a response. So we took to the streets. That is when the government contacted us and said they had discovered the water was poisoning us. It has endosulfin.

Then, in order to change the water they made me and 10 other neighbors, who were part of the suit, drop our case. We signed so that we would get water. We had to waive our right to go to trial. If not, they would not provide clean water for us.

We had been without water for several days. You can’t live without water. We had to sign. Afterwards a lawyer told us that that the government cannot compel you to sign and told us we could sue the government.

That is what we are fighting now. Many people in my barrio have left to get treatment for their kids because they kept spraying and the kids continued getting sick.

In my barrio there were three or four important studies done. One in 2002 by the Ministry of Health found we are healthy and that nothing was wrong.

In 2005 there was another study by a doctor, an epidemiologist from Buenos Aires. He found that the neighborhood is uninhabitable.

In 2007, because the government refused to believe this doctor, the Ministry of Health did another study. The OPS (Organizacion de Panamericana de Salud, or Panamerican Organizaiton of Health) study found the barrio is contaminated. The last one they did last December found that 33 percent of the population dies from tumors. Nationally, the main reason for death is heart problems. But in our area the majority, one in three die from tumors followed by heart attacks.

Before, we used to say there is one person in the family who has cancer. Now there are two to three per family. There’s one family where the mother has tumors, the son had 23 tumors and died, the daughter had six tumors and also died, and now the mother and granddaughter are left. They all had tumors.

NAM: Have you been threatened?

SG: Yes. I have had many threats. Some by phone telling me there my children are going to be motherless. Another time someone burst into my home with guns and told me to stop collecting information.

NAM: Are you afraid? Is it worth it?

SG: Yes. Because what happened to us in . . . happens in another places. This is not just a fight for our neighborhood, but for all other places because in other places there are other people who are in even worse condition then us. They need our help, and we have to help them understand their rights. We have a right to good health, to clean air and a right that the government abides by the role they have been given. We voted for them, and it is us who pay their salaries. So they have their jobs.

NAM: Where do you get the courage?

SG: When you live in a barrio where you know you are going to remain, you have to defend it. You have to defend your family. Fighting with the government, fighting with the neighbors, fighting with the multinationals--it is difficult, but you do it for the health of your children, for the life of your children.

Other recipients of this year’s 23rd Annual Goldman Environmental Prize include: Ikal Angelei, Kenya; Ma Jun, China; Evgenia Chirikova, Russia; Edwin Gariguez, Philippines; and Caroline Cannon, United States. Visit the Goldman Prize website for details about the 2012 winners.

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