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Bayer’s Use of EU-Forbidden Pesticides Ignites Protest in South Africa

(Beyond Pesticides, September 19, 2023) Farmworkers in Paarl, South Africa took to the streets on Friday, September 8, demanding an end to the indiscriminate importation and use of pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides containing substances prohibited by the European Union (EU). This protest is part of a broader global trend of outcry against systemic issues of environmental racism that disproportionately burden communities with environmental and health risks.  

Organized by the Women on Farms Project, the protesters marched to the headquarters of Bayer. The German pharmaceutical, biotechnology, and pesticide company, responsible for producing and exporting agrochemicals known to be toxic to ecosystem and human health, has previously faced multiple lawsuits, including a multimillion-dollar one linking their glyphosate weed killer products (Roundup®) to non-Hodgkin Lymphoma. At the Bayer office, the protesters presented a memorandum demanding an end to the importation and use of EU-prohibited substances.   

Protesters sought to expose the hypocritical tactics European agrochemical companies use to sell products in developing nations, even when those products are deemed unsafe in their home countries. Numerous farmworkers, like victim-turned-activist Antie Dina, spoke out about their health issues from petrochemical exposure. In her talk, Dina emphasizes that, “… enough is enough, we do not want any more [pesticides].” Meanwhile, the chants of demonstrators echoed throughout: “We’re dying of asthma, we’re dying of cancer, we’re dying of heart attacks,” a reminder of the dire consequences of corporate actions like Bayer’s.   

This demonstration comes on the heels of a visit to South Africa by Marcos Orellana, PhD, the UN Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights. Dr. Orellana’s report highlights discrepancies in South Africa’s handling of hazardous materials. Apartheid-era laws, such as the Hazardous Substance Act, No.15 of 1973, and the Fertilizers, Farm Seeds, and Seeds and Remedies Act 36 of 1947, persist and permit the use of chemicals that other nations deem too unsafe despite their recognition of health risks posed to agricultural workers.   

In the report, Dr. Orellana voices concerns about environmental racism in the country, highlighting the reality of a post-Apartheid legacy. He observes, “despite the efforts by Government in setting up institutions and laws to address this legacy of environmental racism, pervasive air, water and chemical pollution still imposes a heavy toll, especially on disadvantaged communities.” 

Dr. Orellana suggests addressing these challenges will require “significant additional efforts, including structural, legislative, economic and environmental changes,” especially against the backdrop of grave issues like children being poisoned and killed from handling toxic pesticides and the neglectful response of government and industry to hazardous waste incidents. 

Despite the avenues for improvement, Dr. Orellana commends South Africa for their efforts and states “I would like to congratulate South Africa for having ratified the key multilateral environmental agreements on chemicals and wastes (Basel, RotterdamStockholm, and Minamata Conventions and the Montreal Protocol). I would also like to recognize South Africa’s leadership in the multilateral system and in capacity-building in the human rights and environmental areas. South Africa hosts the Regional Centre for English-speaking countries of the Basel and Stockholm Conventions. The country also supported a proposal to amend the Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent Procedure for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade, to overcome the breakdown of the Convention’s science-policy interface mechanism. While South Africa has yet to become party to the Bamako Convention, which aims to ban the import of all hazardous substances into Africa, it has ratified the Basel Ban Amendment that prohibits the import of hazardous wastes from OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries.” 

Although South Africa has ratified many key multilateral environmental agreements that are meant to prevent hazardous waste imports, enforcement has been deficient.  

Bayer’s updated website lists products like Antracol 70 WP (Propineb), Biscaya 240 OD (thiacloprid), Confidor (imidacloprid), and Gaucho (imidacloprid)—all of which are prohibited in the EU—as available for purchase in South Africa. These products, alongside many others containing terbufos and paraquat, are widespread in the country. The ongoing sale of EU-banned chemicals suggests the ratification of international agreements at times might be more symbolic than substantive in effect, and that more needs to be done.  

This issue of exporting toxic agrochemicals is not unique to Germany and South Africa. A previous Beyond Pesticides article identified the Netherlands, France, Spain, Switzerland, and Belgium as culprits, exporting prohibited chemicals to countries like Brazil, Mexico, Indonesia, and Ukraine. Advocates point to this behavior as indicative of the deep-rooted racism that allows racial and wealth disparity to thrive–the belief that the lives of the poor and non-white individuals in developing countries are worth less than the lives of Westerners.   

Western lawmakers and corporations often absolve themselves of any responsibility by suggesting the onus for protection lies with the receiving countries to enforce their own bans on toxic chemicals. This deflection, according to advocates, is especially egregious considering the lasting impact of European colonialism on many of these nations. After years of colonial dominance, resource extraction, and imposed economic structures, many of these countries still grapple with systemic challenges that make it difficult for them to resist or regulate such imports effectively.   

Action Needed: Considering the historical context, as we bear witness to the perseverance of South African farmworkers, we must genuinely commit to change and understand our collective responsibility. While those on the ground lead the change against systemic injustice, the EU must act quickly to close loopholes that enable manufacturers to distribute banned substances offshore. Yet, the most transformative and enduring solutions will be championed by these very farmers and workers. The voices from South Africa and similarly affected regions signal a grave sense of urgency against harmful practices. Advocates are urging countries victimized by international trade in toxins to join for a sustainable agricultural path forward with the tools, knowledge, and freedom to nurture their lands and people.  

Our active support of farmworkers worldwide—whether through legislative action, joining their cause in protest, or advancing agroecological and organic initiatives—amplifies the systems they have been advocating for abroad and at home. Many of the systemic injustices observed in South Africa parallel the challenges faced in the U.S agricultural sector, like in California’s Central Valley and Florida’s citrus groves where workers face some of the lowest wages and harshest conditions. These practices perpetuate environmental racism in the fallout of agricultural work, with pesticide drift and tainted water supplies constantly compounding health risks for those residing in farming-intensive regions. It is vital for readers to take actionable steps towards change. Please consider helping Beyond Pesticides advocate for the cessation of forever chemicals by urging senators to ratify the Stockholm Convention. Send a message to the EPA that persistent toxic pesticides should be deemed an unreasonable environmental risk under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA).   

Source : Beyond Pesticides