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Free Trade and Pesticides in Central America

By Erika Rosenthal

Central America is in a unique position to address the most troubling health impacts of the occupational use of pesticides. New data from the Pan-American Health Organization estimates almost 400,000 pesticide poisonings occur each year in the region, identifies a short-list of worst actor pesticides responsible for the majority of poisonings, and points to an effective public health based solution to the pesticide problem (see Pesticide Poisoning). As a result, a unique coalition of public health agencies and civil society is demanding reviews of the registration of the worst actor pesticides and region-wide adoption of the newer and more progressive pesticide and toxic substances laws that civil society organizations have campaigned for and won in several countries in the region.

If this new regulatory stance sounds too good to be true, it just might be. The agrochemical industry has not taken these developments lying down. Alarmed that national democratic processes might achieve new pesticide bans, the industry has looked to negotiations for a regional free trade agreement, the Central American Customs Union, as an avenue to achieve the deregulation of pesticides throughout the region. Pesticide industry representatives(1) were invited to participate as official members of government delegations to the Customs Union negotiations as early as 1997, years before the general public and Health Ministries knew that the trade agreement was being proposed.

Deregulating Pesticides, Undermining Democracy

The industry is proposing that a "Unified Pesticide Registry" be established among all the countries party to the Central American trade accord. The Unified Registry would enable a pesticide registered in any one of the countries within the Customs Union to be automatically registered in all the other member countries, and circulate freely within the Union. If the Unified Pesticide Registry is adopted it will make it virtually impossible in the future to ban a pesticide at the national level, and it will severely undermine the more progressive, health-based provisions of the registration process in countries such as Nicaragua with stronger pesticide regulation. The Unified Pesticide Registry, like many provisions of free trade agreements within the WTO (World Trade Organization) and the proposed FTAA (Free Trade of All the Americas), is not only bad for public health and the environment, but also profoundly anti-democratic.

The pesticide problem in Central America

Central America has led the world in pesticide imports and use per capita, as well as in consequent pesticide problems. A multi-year program of epidemiological surveillance conducted by the Pan-American Health Organization and the Ministries of Health calculates almost 400,000 incidences of pesticide poisonings each year in Central America. Twelve pesticides have been identified as the worst actors, responsible for the overwhelming majority of these poisonings -- aldicarb, aluminum phosphide, carbofuran, chlorpyrifos, endosulfan, ethoprophos, methamidophos, methomyl, methylparathion, monocrotophos, paraquat and terbufos.

Banning these extremely toxic pesticides -- the New Dirty Dozen -- would go a long way to protect public health in the region. In fact, in some countries such as Nicaragua, it's estimated that banning just five of these worst actors -- methamidofos, methomil, chlorpyrifos, paraquat and aluminum phosphide -- would reduce pesticide poisonings by an astounding 80%. The health sector has taken a clear stand in the RESSCAD resolution (the annual meeting of the health ministers in Central America and the Dominican Republic) calling for controls on the 12 worst actor pesticides the Subregion.(2)

Civil society groups like PAN Central America are working with Ministries of Health to extend the progressive provisions of new pesticide and environmental laws of several countries throughout the region. For example, in Nicaragua the Pesticide and Toxic Substances Law adopted in 1998 (Law 274(3)) gives the health ministry legally binding authority to issue a toxicological evaluation of new pesticides proposed for registration. Using their authority under this law, the Nicaraguan ministry has blocked registration of numerous pesticides that presented unacceptable risks to public health. Moreover, the law gives public agencies as well as civil society the right to require a registration review by the agriculture ministry of any pesticide that has indicated adverse effects to agriculture, public health or the environment(4). PAN, together with the regional health ministries, has called for the immediate reevaluation of the 12 worst actor pesticides. In El Salvador, PAN Central America has won a place on the National Pesticides Commission, which is working with the Salvadoran health ministry to review registration of the New Dirty Dozen.

Pesticide industry looks to trade agreements to defend their market for toxic pesticides

Between 1992 and 2000, pesticide imports in Central America more than doubled, from 18,000 to 45,000 tons(5) . Nearly all the major agrochemical companies posted increased sales in the region. Moreover, as pesticide subsidies were lifted in the 1990s, the market for cheaper, off-patent pesticides -- which are frequently more toxic -- increased. WHO Class Ia and Ib pesticides (classified as extremely and highly hazardous respectively) represent approximately one third of all pesticides imported into the Subregion, undermining the adoption of IPM.

Agribusiness and agrochemical corporations have tremendous political influence around the world, and the same holds true in Central America, where they have unparalleled access and influence with national pesticide commissions and agricultural ministries. For example in Nicaragua the current Minister of Agriculture, who has great authority over pesticide registration, is a former president of the Nicaraguan agrochemical industry association, ANIFODA, the local Crop Life group. Free trade agreements have become the key forums in which industry promotes global deregulation. Under the guise of eliminating "non-tariff barriers to trade" free trade accords like the WTO, the proposed FTAA and the proposed Central American Customs Union are imposing international standards that have been "harmonized" to the lowest common denominator and capricious "equivalency" standards on countries around the world.

Harmonization is the name used by corporations and trade agreements for the process of replacing democratically adopted national-level health, environmental or food safety standards with uniform international standards generated in international forums with strong industry representation. These standards then become the only trade-legal standard, or the only standard a country can enforce without risking trade sanctions for "technical barriers to trade." Since trade agreements carry strong enforcement mechanisms, they have a dramatic and chilling effect on national regulation. For example, Japan lowered 1,500 pesticide residue standards in the late 1990s because Japanese standards were stronger than the trade-legal Codex, the international food standards of the WTO.

The concept of equivalence in trade agreements means that different countries' regulations or standards -- even with distinctly different levels of public health protection -- can be declared equivalent. For example, a bilateral trade agreement declared U.S. and Australian meat inspection systems equivalent, even though government agents inspect meat in the U.S., while in Australia the meat industry itself carries out the inspections.

The Unified Pesticide Registry proposed within the Central American Customs Union is basically an equivalency agreement. The Unified Registry would arbitrarily declare the various Central American national pesticide registration laws and processes as equivalent -- even though they provide very different levels of health protection -- so that once registered in one country, a pesticide can circulate freely in all the countries that are members of the Union.

The proposed Registry is an effective way for the pesticide industry to circumvent the stronger pesticide law in Nicaragua that gives the health ministry and civil society a role in pesticide registration. Companies will be able to go to another country, such as Guatemala which is a regional center for pesticide formulation and has a very weak pesticide law, and register their product for the whole region. The Registry will also undermine the possibility of adopting new, national level bans in the future. Even if one country bans a product, if it is registered in another country in the Customs Union, the pesticide will be allowed to circulate freely. Because the Customs Union will do away with border inspections, countries such as Nicaragua, which has virtually no ability to monitor the sales of pesticides, will be unable to enforce its pesticide restrictions.

Protect public health, not corporate profits

PAN Central America and the health sectors of the Central American countries are demanding that any regional trade agreement be crafted to strengthen health and environmental protections for all Central Americans, not to support the sales or profit of the agrochemical industry.

Members of the Nicaraguan health ministry for example, have "crashed the party" attending the Customs Unions negotiations in order to voice opposition to the Unified Pesticide Registry. Health ministries throughout the region have also formally asked to be included in their nation's delegation to the negotiations.

PAN Central America has worked to educate the press about the threat to public health and democracy presented by the Unified Pesticide Registry. PAN has developed an alternative citizens' proposal for regional integration that would ensure that health and environmental standards are strengthened in every country as a condition of entrance into the Customs Union. Key points of the proposal include: full participation by the health and environment ministries in the negotiations; adoption of the most health protective standards in the region, such as the Nicaraguan pesticide law, as the minimum requirement for all countries in the Customs Union; no limitation on sovereign rights of governments to adopt stricter standards or new pesticide bans in the future including regulations based on the precautionary principle. PAN Central America is also campaigning for public access to all Customs Union and all other trade agreements negotiating documents; the harmonization of all pesticide bans in the region; and the banning the New Dirty Dozen -- the 12 pesticides that cause the most poisonings -- throughout Central America.

Although the pesticide industry hasn't responded publically to PAN, the campaign has definitely caught their attention. PAN documents turned up as an agenda item at the last Customs Union negotiating session, and the industry organization, Crop Life recently offered a PAN staff member a lucrative job.

PAN and the health sector in Central America are committed to addressing the pesticide problem. After decades of public health investigation, a key step in solving the pesticide crisis has become clear -- ban the 12 products responsible for the great majority of poisonings. The industry is trying to subvert the national laws that could achieve this public health goal by inserting the profoundly anti-democratic provision, the Unified Pesticide Registry, into the Central American Customs Union. However, the unique coalition of public health and civil society members in Central America has redoubled efforts to scrub the Unified Pesticide Registry from the Customs Union agreement, and to win the key pesticide bans that can address the pesticide crisis in the region.

Erika Rosenthal, is the Legal Advisor for Pesticide Action Network Latin America.

Pesticide Action Network Latin America (Red de Acción en Plaguicidas y sus Alternativas en América Latina) RAPAL, phone (510) 550 6752, email


1The industry participated through the Central American Crop Life associations, ANIFODA, APA and AGRIQUIMA.

2The RESSCAD resolution requests the appropriate ministries in each country to "…restrict the use of the 12 pesticides …recognized as responsible for the largest number of poisonings and deaths [in] the Subregion."

3 Ley No. 274 de Nicaragua, LEL Basica Para La Regulacion Y Control De Plaguicidas, Sustancias Toxicas, Peligrosas Y Otras Similares (1998).

4 Arto. 60, Ley 274. "La Autoridad de Aplicación someterá a reevaluación técnica las sustancias químicas…y productos formulados registrados cuando existan indicadores de efectos adversos a la actividad agropecuaria sostenida, la salud humana y el ambiente en general…."

5 OPS/OMS - PLAGSALUD, Plaguicidas Salud en el Istmo Centroamericano, 2000.

Email: Phone (415) 981-1771.
This page is displayed on 10/14/09
Page and Web site © 2008 by Pesticide Action Network North America (PANNA).



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