Child workers exposed to chemicals
Soy producers use child labor to spray herbicide glyphosate.
Soy farmers have taken particular advantage of the biggest agriculture boom in Argentina’s economic history. But many contract children for the undesirable and dangerous task of spraying their crops. Minors direct planes and other vehicles that blanket fields with toxic chemicals.
Last September, lawmakers took heed of the residents’ complaints in the town of Las Petacas in the central Santa Fe province — 474 kilometers (300 miles) north of Buenos Aires. A group of senators ordered a Labor Ministry inspection of the area to confirm reports that children were working up to 14-hour-days for minimum wage, and without warning their parents the health risks their jobs presented.
“This is a criminal practice because the children [who direct the planes] are left exposed to chemical sprays, especially glyphosate, which was developed to kill the weeds that grow next to the soy fields,” said agronomist Jorge Rulli, spokesman for the nongovernmental organization Rural Reflection Group. He says these soy seeds have also been genetically modified to resist these chemicals that “rain down on the children.”
The oldest of the children interviewed by Labor Ministry officials was 14 years of age. They are recruited by the farmers, who take them to the countryside. There the children stand 20 meters (60 feet) from one another, marking where the “mosquitoes” should spray.
The so-called “mosquitoes” are large tanks designed and manufactured in Santa Fe in the wake of the soy boom. The pilot sits in a cabin, protected from the chemicals by a glass. The machine was given its name because of its four legs of 150 centimeters and two horizontal arms of 10 meters each, making it look like an insect.
Whenever the “mosquito” reaches the end of the field, the herbicides are sprayed on the children’s clothes and skin.
In the owner’s manual, the factory notes that the “mosquito” has a satellite positioning system that allows the user to establish the exact area that has already been sprayed, in order to avoid doing the job twice. The “mosquito” also includes a computer that measures the quantity of herbicide sprayed per hectare, and also provides the exact mix of the product.
But hundreds of these “mosquitoes” are seen in the Argentine countryside both without computers or satellite positioning system, which could help children from being sprayed with less precise maneuvers.
“What is happening is that the equipment costs US$3,000 and the producers are bringing the cost down by using the kids,” said Vecinos Autoconvocados de Las Petacas, a community organization.
The children are not given protective clothing, helmets or masks when they work. They bring food and water from home, and after working a 14-hour-day they receive only $0.06 for each hectare sprayed.
Las Petacas is a typical small-town on soy fields, a crop that slowly creeps up on the populated areas, forests and old pasture land. Soy is of very low maintenance, as it requires only minimal tending, and is a major factor in emigration. According to the 1991 National Census, 1,256 lived in Las Petacas that year, and there are only 800 there now.
The herbicide glyphosate, or Roundup Ready, is produced by the multinational chemical company Monsanto.
Soy crops in Argentina increase every year. Forty-five million tons were harvested in 2006, double the amount in 1996, and at a market price that increased from $170 per ton to more than $200 per ton. But Argentina also consumes some 204,000 tons of agrochemicals each year, and 85 percent is glyphosate.
According to research of the Biochemical Sciences Department in the state-run University of Rosario, glyphosate is responsible for various illnesses and should not be sprayed at less than 1,000 meters from people.
Glyphosate is a carcinogen and, in humans and other animals, can produce skin diseases, nausea, pulmonary edema, low blood pressure, various allergic reactions, abdominal pain, kidney damage, a loss of red blood cells and even loss of consciousness, says biochemist Federico Poggi.
His list of ailments coincide with what is happening to some residents in Las Petacas, where over the last five years (also the soy boom’s years) 42 people have died from cancer, six in October last year alone. Dozens have fallen ill, including the current mayor, while a study ordered by the Vecinos Autoconvocados community group found that 50 percent of the town’s population has some type of allergy.
“Glyphosate kills all pests that are born next to the soy, and we human beings are not very biologically different from the pests,” the organization said, adding that the children are exposed to contamination and the “result is going to be similar to what is sought in production: it will kill them.”
“The issue of the fumigations seriously jeopardizes the country’s institutional profile because a democratic Argentina cannot allow such a genocide,” Rulli said.