In the heartland of the agri-barons

A Public Eye Report – April 2019
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No country in the world uses more pesticides than Brazil. And no company makes more money selling these products there than the Swiss-based agrichemical giant Syngenta. How does the widespread use of highly hazardous pesticides impact the people living next to the never-ending fields of soy, corn and cotton? In the state of Mato Grosso, we investigated a business that causes devastating harm to human health and the environment. Yet anyone who speaks out against it puts themselves in danger.

Healthy and wholesome vegetables, happy families from all over the world, dedicated farmers and idyllic landscapes, all of which is complemented by computer-generated backing music. In addition, a carefully groomed gentleman with piercing blue eyes wearing a dark suit drives home his emphatic speech with elaborate gestures. The entire scene is portrayed in just one minute and twenty seconds in a video posted on the YouTube channel of Syngenta. The video is entitled “The future of sustainable agriculture”.

“The future of sustainable agriculture”, Syngenta, 2018.

The man in the video is Erik Fyrwald, CEO of Syngenta. He paints the picture of an agriculture that not only provides consumers with “wonderful, safe, affordable, healthy foods”, but does it in a manner “that protects our planet”. He goes on to say: “We realise that we, Syngenta, have to listen to farmers, food companies, food retailers, NGOs and to government regulators” in an “open conversation about what really is sustainable agriculture and how we work together to make the right things happen”. He says that Syngenta will “take that listening and turn it into commitments and continue to help make the world a better place for our children, our grandchildren, and countless generations to come.” Drumroll.

Well, Mr Fyrwald, we’re pleased that you’re listening – because we have something to tell you. Public Eye spent several months researching an area of your operations that particularly contradicts your claim to “protect our planet” and “make the right things happen” – the business with highly hazardous pesticide, which is as opaque as it is lucrative.

“Highly hazardous profits”: Public Eye report published in April 2019.

“Highly hazardous profits”: Public Eye report published in April 2019.

Public Eye cross-referenced data on sales of pesticides from a private market research firm with the list of 310 substances that present the highest levels of acute or chronic hazards to health or the environment issued by the Pesticide Action Network (PAN). And we found that in 2017, your company made an estimated US$3.9 billion in revenue from highly hazardous pesticides, more than any other group.

We also looked at where you sell these substances. Our findings: Syngenta made two thirds of this revenue in low- and middle-income countries, where weak regulations allow the continued sale of numerous pesticides that have been banned in Switzerland or the EU. Is that really the way to make the world a better place for our children, our grandchildren, and countless generations to come, Mr Fyrwald?

Life in the middle of monocrops

En route to the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso

© Fábio Erdos/Panos Pictures

© Fábio Erdos/Panos Pictures

Soy fields – two and a half times the size of Switzerland

In order to find out more about the situation of the people living in between the gigantic fields on which huge quantities of these toxic pesticides are being sprayed, we travelled to the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso. Brazil is the country with the highest pesticide use in the world. And it is Syngenta’s largest market: according to our estimates, in 2017 the company sold a billion dollars’ worth of highly hazardous pesticides in Brazil alone.

Brazil is the second-largest exporter of agricultural produce after the US – and no state grows as much as Mato Grosso. In fact, 27% of Brazilian soy, 31% of corn and 68% of cotton is cultivated in the state. Soy is a good example of the speed at which the surface area under cultivation has increased in the past 20 years: in 1998, there were 2.7 million hectares of soy under cultivation. In 2008 the figure was 5.6 million and by 2018 it had risen to 9.5 million hectares. By way of comparison:

9.5 million hectares is enough space for all 212 million Brazilians to play football at the same time – regular eleven-a-side games on official FIFA-sized pitches.

In addition to this there are nearly five million hectares of corn crops and over 600,000 hectares of cotton. In the past 20 years, 14.5 million hectares of Amazon rainforest have been cut down in Mato Grosso alone – a surface area three and a half time the size of Switzerland.

64 litres of pesticide per person

The to a vast majority genetically-modified soy, corn and cotton only thrives if big quantities of insecticides, herbicides and fungicides are applied on the crops. More pesticides are sprayed in Brazil than in any other country in the world – and a fifth of it is sprayed in Mato Grosso state.

According to statistics from the Universidade Federal de Mato Grosso (UFMT), in 2015 nearly 208 million litres of pesticides were used in the state. That equates to approx. 64 litres of pesticide per inhabitant. Of the 15 most-used active substances, 11 are classified as highly hazardous by PAN.

How do these highly toxic substances impact the health of the people who live here?

When seeking an answer to this question, you come across the same name time and again: Wanderlei Pignati, professor at the UFMT in Cuiabá. He and his team are the only people who have been carrying out scientific studies regarding this subject in Mato Grosso for years.

Wanderlei Pignati, professor at the UFMT in Cuiabá.

Wanderlei Pignati, professor at the UFMT in Cuiabá.

Wanderlei Pignati, professor at the UFMT in Cuiabá.

In numerous studies, they have reported a statistically significant correlation between cancer among children and young people, and the use of pesticides in the various communities in Mato Grosso. Furthermore, their figures show that children whose parents have been exposed to pesticides have a significantly higher risk of birth defects.

“We need to do what we’re doing. But it’s like ants fighting lions”

Antonio Lemos Correa

Antonio’s “special girl”

We wanted to better understand the implications of living in the midst of these gigantic fields that are almost constantly being sprayed with toxic substances. We wanted to hear doctors’ opinions of the link between pesticides and certain diseases first hand. And we wanted to speak to people who are directly impacted by the adverse effects – people like Antonio Lemos Correa.

We meet the 34-year old in the premises of Mato Grosso’s Associação de Espinha Bífida in Cuiabá. Spina Bifida is a birth defect linked to a neural tube defect that affects the lower back and can cause sight problems, paraplegia, and loss of control of bowel and bladder function. Studies indicate a link between parents’ exposure to pesticides and the likelihood of their child suffering from spina bifida. Antonio had been entirely unaware of this, until his daughter Emanuelly was born. The father tells us that already the pregnancy had been complicated, and that when his girl was finally born, she had a cyst “the size of a melon” on her back.

Antonio proudly shows us photos of his daughter on his smartphone. Emanuelly in her ballet costume, with splints on her legs to prevent her from breaking her ankles, which she can’t feel.

Antonio proudly shows us photos of his daughter on his smartphone. Emanuelly in her ballet costume, with splints on her legs to prevent her from breaking her ankles, which she can’t feel.

“The doctors said that she would never walk. But she dances ballet. I thank God for giving me this special girl,” Antonio says.

“The doctors said that she would never walk. But she dances ballet. I thank God for giving me this special girl,” Antonio says.

The doctors had asked him if he lived near the fields. “Yes” he did. Had he himself been exposed to pesticides? Again the answer had been “yes”.

Antonio, who now tries to support his family with what he earns selling solar panels, used to work as a day labourer on various farms. He frequently worked as a ‘bandeira’ – one of the men who before the advent of GPS would stand on the ground holding flags to show pilots where to fly. He wore a hood on his head and a long-sleeved shirt, but was otherwise unprotected. In the evenings he often had a headache and felt dizzy. He had no idea what substance was being sprayed – the warehouses were all guarded by armed men.

“Ants versus lions”

According to Antonio, there has been a sharp increase in the number of cases of spina bifida in recent years, and most children who are treated in Cuiabá come from intensively cultivated rural areas. He is aware of more than ten cases just in the village where he used to live before. Every disease is a particular case, says Antonio, “but if there is almost always a link to pesticides – that says something, doesn’t it?” he asks.

The organisation he works hard for is fighting for greater support for those affected and better preventative measures, including a ban on particularly hazardous pesticides. It lobbies for doctors to record the specific nature of the disease, rather than simply writing ‘deformity’ on the birth certificate. This would enable them to prove that the number of cases of spina bifida is unusually high.

As long as it is not possible to do so, scientific research will only be able to draw more general conclusions. A study undertaken by Professor Pignati’s team in 2016 in the state of Mato Grosso showed that the risk of abnormalities among children was four times higher when their parents had been in contact with pesticides, and higher still if their father worked in the agricultural sector. “However, the agri-business barons control everything here – including the politics. And it is not in their interest for this connection to come to light,” says Antonio. “We need to do what we’re doing”, he says, “our children need us to. But it’s like ants fighting lions”.

Wanderli Pignati & other Brazilian experts on the impact of pesticides on human health:

Video: images of Eduardo Martino (Panos Pictures), editing by Maxime Ferréol (Public Eye).

“Something is very wrong”

Elisangela Silva dos Anjos

Elisangela Silva dos Anjos is familiar with the feeling of suspicion that your child’s illness has been caused by pesticides, as well as the knowledge that it is impossible to confirm that suspicion, let alone to prove it.

We speak to her in the courtyard of the Associação Amigos da Criança com Câncer in Cuiabá, an organisation that supports children with cancer. Elisangela lives with her three boys and husband in a small town over 300 kilometres to the north, in Lucas do Rio Verde. But for three years she has repeatedly made the long journey here – together with her middle son, five-year-old Kalebi.

Kalebi was two years and three months old when one night he suddenly developed a high fever and felt very weak the next morning. He could no longer move properly, his leg trailed behind him and he was pale in the face. At A&E he was told that it was nothing serious, perhaps a trapped nerve. Yet when in the evening Elisangela gave him a gentle pat on the arm and saw it leave a huge bruise, she knew something was “very wrong”. In the hospital in Rio Verde the boy had a blood test and was diagnosed with leukaemia. Kalebi was treated in Cuiabá, receiving chemotherapy until the cancerous cells had been killed. Now he must return for a check-up every month for the next eight years.

Elisangela with her child Kalebi.

“No one dares to speak about it” Elisangela with her child Kalebi.

“No one dares to speak about it” Elisangela with her child Kalebi.

It has been scientifically proven that particular pesticides increase the risk of leukaemia among children. A study carried out in hospitals in 13 Brazilian states showed that children whose mothers had been exposed to pesticides during their pregnancy were at greater risk of suffering from leukaemia during the first two years of their lives. Elisangela explains that when she was pregnant, they had lived next to a cotton processing plant. “Our house was always full of cotton dust.” And her husband, who worked as a mechanic on farms, had not been careful – he always hugged her and his sons when he got home, still wearing his work clothes. “He stank of chemicals.”

The son of an ex-employer of her husband who ran a farm, and a girl from the neighbourhood both suffered from leukaemia. Elisangela tells us that it was clear to her that there was a link between the use of pesticides in the fields around Lucas do Rio Verde and these illnesses, “but no one dares to speak about it”.

To the ‘capital of agronegócio’

We decide to travel to the city where Elisangela lives with her family: Lucas do Rio Verde. In 2010 a colleague of the scientist Pignati tested the breastmilk of 62 women in this town and found traces of various pesticides in every sample. One of the substances she detected in the breastmilk of all women was DDT, a substance that was created by Syngenta’s predecessor Ciba-Geigy and is still found today, even though its use has been banned in Brazil for 20 years.

As we travel away from Cuiabá, the trees become smaller and the fields, with GM-crops planted in neat lines, get bigger. Now, in February, either the last soy crops are being harvested or corn is being planted for the ‘safrinha’, the low season. ‘Mato Grosso’ roughly translates to thick bushes, but looking out the car window here, it seems another name may seem more fitting, something like ‘Campo Infinitivo’ maybe, never-ending field.

We turn off the BR 163, Mato Grosso’s ‘crop highway’, and from then on pass countless, heavily loaded dusty trucks that are transporting soy nearly 2,000 kilometres north to the port of Santarém. We then pass the first monstrous warehouses with lettering from the world’s biggest agricultural traders – Bunge, Louis Dreyfus, Cargill, Cofco. And finally we arrive in Lucas do Rio Verde, a small town where some 60,000 people live in the middle of fields. In late 2018 it was named the ‘capital of agronegócio’ in Mato Grosso state’s official gazette. There’s a bad smell in the air, like hay fermenting, but worse. The stench is coming from the huge soy stores, and we’re told that it often smells like that here.

Chicken, pigs, soy, corn

How can you describe Lucas do Rio Verde? You could mention the first thing that strikes you: it may well be the town with the highest density of tyre workshops in the world – to service the thousands of trucks that trundle through every hour. You could also try to portray the town by describing its two mascots. The first is called ‘Luquinha’ and is a six-metre-high, clothed piglet. It’s holding a kernel of corn in one hand and a soy bean in the other. The other, ‘Preciosa’ is a ten-metre-high sumptuous life-like chicken – a homage to the poultry industry crowning a roundabout at the exit of town.

The town mascots, Luquinha and Preciosa.

The town mascots, Luquinha and Preciosa.

The town mascots, Luquinha and Preciosa.

If you continue down this road, you pass the huge abattoir of the Brazilian food giant BRF, in which 4,500 staff process 300,000 chickens a day. So there’s a good chance that you’ve already had a chicken from this plant on your plate. It’s clear why the company moved here: the corn and soy they need to feed their chickens is growing right on their doorstep.

The doctors’ silence

Yet probably the best way to describe Lucas do Rio Verde is by telling about the encounters we have with locals. With Claudiomir Boff for instance, the president of the agricultural workers’ union. We want to learn more from him about pesticide use, and the consequences, in the area. He suggests that instead we see for ourselves by visiting the hospital. He can arrange a visit, he offers, because he’s also the chair of the association that runs it. He says that the relevant member of staff will contact us. She will never do so, and Claudiomir Boff stops answering our calls too.

So we make our own way to the hospital. There, we’re promised that the manager will call us. She won’t. We had already tried, in vain, to get to speak to doctors at the university hospital in Cuiabá. And we’ll also fail further north in Sinop. Clearly, the possible link between pesticides and diseases is not a topic that medical practitioners in the region are keen to talk about.

Insect-plagued roundabouts

Our visit to the hospital in Lucas do Rio Verde is still worth the trip, because just after leaving, on the pavement of Avenida Brasil, we meet a man in protective clothing and boots, who is in the middle of stirring a mix of pesticides.

He is employed by the town to spray the green patch in the middle of the road and the roundabouts with pesticides, he tells us, because some of the insects that are driven out of the fields by the chemicals flee into the town. More and more are coming every year, he says.

The town’s product of choice today is the insecticide Engeo Pleno, produced by the Swiss company Syngenta. The pesticide contains the two active ingredients Thiamethoxam and Lambda-Cyhalothrin. While Thiamethoxam is highly toxic to bees, Lambda-Cyhalothrin is known tointerfere with hormones. It is also a substance that, according to Syngenta’s own information, can cause acute irritation of respiratory tracts, the skin and eyes. According to the EU, inhaling the substance can even cause death.

The municipal employee may be aware of that, but he won’t be able to remove the protective aluminium foil from the pesticide bottle with his rubber gloves on.

So he takes off a glove and presses his uncovered thumb into the foil until it breaks. Liquid sprays out. Large patches of his hands and wrists have lost their skin pigment. He tells us that it’s because of the ‘veneno’ the poison.

He says that naturally he’d rather do something else, but he didn’t stay in school long enough and there aren’t many other jobs available in the area. He then pulls down his mask and starts spraying the grass. There’s a smell of chlorine that leaves an acrid aftertaste.

“Our wildlife has disappeared”

Darino da Silva

The next day we drive out into the countryside, constantly passing the same infinite fields. We want to speak to the people who live alongside them. In the hamlet of Groslândia, surrounded by farmland, we stop in front of a simple house.

Sitting on the veranda is 50-year-old Darino da Silva, enjoying his day off. We start speaking to him and are soon offered a chilled Guaraná soft drink. Since he was 12 – so for 38 years now – he’s been working on the fields; for the past 20 years he’s worked for the same company not far from here. He tells us that what he earns is enough for him – he was widowed ten years ago. His wife died of a kidney failure, the cause of which was never established. Darino doesn’t have a negative word to say about his employer, the landowners in general, or the agricultural industry as a whole.

He does, however, talk about the bananas that he plants behind his house, telling us that they’ve been getting smaller over the past five years, and now are only the size of a thumb. He mentions the lime tree that he had to cut down because it was rotting.

Darinos bananas have been getting smaller and smaller.

Darinos bananas have been getting smaller and smaller.

Darinos bananas have been getting smaller and smaller.

His plants are most affected by insects from November to February, when first soy, then corn is being grown in the fields and the greatest quantities of pesticides are applied. That’s also when the stench in the hamlet gets worst. “When they’re spraying I close all the windows” he says. And his neighbours bring their children inside because they often complain of terrible headaches; time and again one of them has to be taken to the local clinic.

And Darino talks about the past. About the colourful macaws that had regularly visited him in his garden until a few years ago.

“There, there and there” he says, gesturing around his house “there was forest everywhere”. Today there are only fields, as far as the eye can see, the first starts only 20 steps from Darino’s house front.

A pesticide truck is doing its rounds on the field. There used to be tapirs, anteaters and jaguars, he explains, it rained more heavily and for longer, and it was cooler. Today one will see at most individual groups of wild boars looking for food in the fields and small strips of the remaining trees that still stand along river banks in the distance. “Our wildlife has disappeared” says Darino.

“There was forest everywhere.” Now, the truck spraying pesticides passes right by the house.

“There was forest everywhere.” Now, the truck spraying pesticides passes right by the house.

“There was forest everywhere.” Now, the truck spraying pesticides passes right by the house.

Learning through play with Syngenta

We also stop at a school near Lucas do Rio Verde. It is surrounded by soy fields, which reach up to 50 metres of the school grounds. Can that be healthy? The headmistress welcomes us warmly but her expression darkens as soon as we mention pesticides. She tells us firmly that there’s no problem with pesticides here. Of course it smells when they’re sprayed and no of course she wouldn’t say that there is no link at all between pesticides and health problems. But the children at the school are doing very well. And one should also consider what agriculture had brought to the region – earlier there were no streetlamps here, and no air conditioning, she tells us.

When we start talking about Syngenta, she says “wait a minute”, leaves the office and comes straight back carrying a sheet of paper. On the front it says “The Environment Game”, the Swiss giant’s logo is printed on the back. It’s a dice game, widely circulated by a foundation, that Syngenta uses to tell children how global food security can be guaranteed. And what's most important für the company in terms of ‘environment’: “increasing the yields, using natural resources carefully and promoting biodiversity”.

Some areas are forbidden territory

While the headmistress is presenting the game to us, our Brazilian colleague is hearing a different story outside. A biology teacher is telling him that she’s concerned. The number of children at the school who suffer from autism is unusually high, which she assumes is linked to the pesticides. She had already worked at several schools where she’d seen similar situations. She had wanted to get the groundwater in the region tested, but had finally given up on the idea because some of the parents objected. Many of them worked for the agricultural companies.

There are things here, she told us, that you’re not allowed to talk about. “You don’t talk about that here.” We hear this and similar statements many times.

For instance, from a man in an agency who tells us about farmers who’ve died from stomach tumours or suffered from gastroenteritis after cases of poisonings. He says that he can’t put us in touch with the people he’s talking about because it would be “too dangerous”. It was “territorio proibido”, forbidden territory.

We also hear it from an employee at a cancer support institute, who tells us about the unusually high number of tumours at places where food and water pass: throat, stomach, kidneys. “How come?” she asks, adding that personally, she’s convinced that the cases of cancer are linked to “the high levels of poison being sprayed here. But you can’t say that on record.”

In various different forms, we hear the complaint that these huge Fazendas are making a few people ever richer, while the state barely sees any of the revenue, but has to pay to treat the patients. We hear that the reason why little is reported about the health impacts of the use of pesticides is because the hospitals and the media are also controlled by the agri-barons or their friends. That it is “uma rede fechada”, a closed net. But no one wants to be quoted saying that.

Toxic bestsellers

On the outskirts of Lucas do Rio Verde we get an impression of the quantity of pesticides that are being used in the region. In the building where empty cannisters are brought, thousands of them are piled up, crushed by two men in protective clothing and then recycled or burnt according to the material that they’re made of. A newspaper that reported on this “flagship plant” in 2012 wrote that by then, over 700 tonnes of pesticide containers were disposed of here.

A notable number of the containers we see are marked Gramoxone and display the Syngenta logo. The active substance of this herbicide is well known. It is Paraquat, which is lethal if ingested and extremely harmful to lungs, skin and eyes. It is also suspected of increasing the risk of Parkinson’s disease and has been banned in Switzerland for some 30 years.

Syngenta’s paraquat in a sorting centre Lucas do Rio Verde. 700 tonnes of packaging are sorted here every year.

Syngenta’s paraquat in a sorting centre in Lucas do Rio Verde.

Syngenta’s paraquat in a sorting centre in Lucas do Rio Verde.

It is really time now to look into the role that the Swiss company plays in the region.

According to our research, Syngenta is the number one seller of pesticides – both in Brazil and globally. We know that Syngenta sells 21 substances in Brazil that are on PAN’s list of highly hazardous pesticides, and ten of which are banned in Switzerland or the EU.

We also know that in Mato Grosso, Syngenta markets at least four pesticides classified as “endocrine disruptor” or “reproductive toxicant” – Atrazin, Ciproconazol, Propiconazol and Lambda-Cyhalothrin. And with Glyphosat and Diuron they sell at least two substances that are presumed to cause cancer. All six substances are on PAN’s list of HHPs.

“Everyone wants Syngenta”

We drive round the town and make a first stop at Araguía, one of the biggest dung and pesticide sellers in the region. Of course they sell Syngenta products, we’re told by a member of staff who’s closing up the shop. The bestsellers are the herbicide Primoleo (which contains the substance Atrazin that has been proven to interfere with hormones, damage the reproductive system and increase the risk of birth defects and has been banned in Switzerland in 2007), ZappQi (with the active ingredient Glyphosat), the fungicide Elatus and the insecticide Engeo Pleno, which we’re already familiar with.

The next morning we pass by Agrológica, one of two official Syngenta distributors in the region. From behind stacks of pesticide, dung and tractor brochures, an employee enthusiastically tells us that they have been selling Syngenta products since 2016. They were very pleased with the partnership, he said, because Syngenta is a good brand which is seen as being quite expensive but consequently, as good quality. “Everyone wants to sell Syngenta products” he says. When we ask him about his bestsellers, he too cites the herbicide ZappQi at the top of the list. He tells us that this branch alone sells between 100-120,000 litres every soy season.

The employee then rattles off a list of the bestselling Syngenta pesticides, citing all six of the highly hazardous substances that are linked to cancer and birth defects.

“Let’s go over here, it stinks of poison”

Antonio Carlos da Silva

Over the clouds

We want to visit another place in a bid to find out more about the health impacts of the excessive use of pesticides. We head to Sinop, a town just 150 kilometres north of Lucas do Rio Verde and another agri-business centre. But on the way we stop by a hangar.

Antonio Carlos da Silva – who immediately clarifies that despite his name he’s in no way linked to the incarcerated ex-president Lula – looks exactly what you’d imagine a Brazilian agricultural pilot to look like if you’d ever stopped to think about it: a plaid shirt, gold necklace, ripped jeans, a penetrating aroma of sandalwood and facial skin unlikely to have been tightened by the wind alone. He would later give us a fly-by under the low-hanging power lines – he enjoys doing that for visitors.

Business is good, Antonio tells us: “More pesticides are being sprayed today than ever before”.

Business is good, Antonio tells us: “More pesticides are being sprayed today than ever before.”

Business is good, Antonio tells us: “More pesticides are being sprayed today than ever before.”

Yet now, he stands in front of his small yellow airplane, called ‘Ipanema’, and tells us why it makes complete sense to spray pesticides with a plane. He demonstrates how the plane is cleaned and sluiced with water after each application. “No one does that with tractors,” he says. Not only does he cover 60 hectares in 20 minutes, but unlike tractors, which crush plants equivalent to three sacks of soy with every hectare they spray, his plane doesn’t harm a stalk.

Ever more pesticides

While Antonio talks, an acrid stench reaches our noses – it’s coming from a large tub in which his colleague is stirring a mix of pesticides. “Let’s go over here, it stinks of veneno”, he says. If even this man is talking about “poison”, then one thing is clear: at the very least semantically, the agricultural industry and the politicians that favour it are fighting a losing battle.

They are trying to push a legislative amendment – dubbed the ‘poison packet’ by critics – through parliament to make it easier to register controversial pesticides; and to remove the term ‘agrotóxicos’ (agrotoxins), in favour of ‘defensivos agrícolas’ (agricultural defensive agents). Yet everyone we speak to says either ‘agrotóxico’ or, more often, simply ‘poison’.

Antonio mostly works on his aunt’s land, but sometimes he is also hired by Syngenta to treat the fields where the company tests new products. He doesn’t know what he sprays there, he says – he receives the products in unmarked containers. In general, his business is doing well: “more pesticides are being sprayed than ever before.”

For instance, fungicides were barely needed 15 years ago, because there were no infestations. Today, soy and corn are treated with fungicides about three times a season, cotton up to ten times. And increasing amounts of insecticides are needed because the insects are becoming resistant to them, for example to the Syngenta product Engeo Pleno, which he has several cannisters of. “This year it isn’t working as well anymore” Antonio says – for years it worked formidably but nowadays too many insects in the fields are resistant.

“Of course you feel it” says Ney, who mixes the ‘poison’.

“Of course you feel it” says Ney, who mixes the ‘poison’.

“Of course you feel it” says Ney, who mixes the ‘poison’.

Then Antonio gets into the plane and rolls away. We use the time to speak to his ‘doseador’ (mixer), who introduces himself as Ney. He’s been working on the farm, where he lives with his wife, for five years, taking care of the daily tasks. From October to March, he tells us, this primarily entails “misturar veneno”, mixing poison. He wears gloves and boots but despite the stench, no mask. Of course he had had a cough and experienced difficulty breathing after mixing, he tells us. It wasn’t that bad, he says, it was part of the job – “but of course you do feel it”.

More money than taste

We continue north, passing the small town of Sorriso which, just like Cuiabá and Lucas do Rio Verde, also claims the title of ‘the capital of agri-business’, as well as the hamlet located nearby, called Costa Brava, in which some of the wealthiest people in the region have set themselves up in swanky villas behind barbed wire-topped brick walls.

Sinop welcomes visitors with a sign at the town entrance bearing the slogan “The place for good business opportunities”. That seems to be true with regard to Syngenta – the company’s branding can be seen on numerous buildings. One distributor has even taken the trouble of neatly listing the brand names of 20 Syngenta products that he stocks. No less than 15 of them contain substances that are classified as ‘highly hazardous’ by the Pesticide Action Network.

First set up 45 years ago in the middle of the Amazon, Sinop now has some 150,000 inhabitants and is surrounded by fields. Churches, restaurants, shopping centres or agri-business buildings – from the outside nearly everything looks the same: square, large and anonymous.

On the streets it seems that a competition over who has the biggest pick-up truck is underway. On some of the rear windows, you see the face of president Jair Bolsonaro, including his slogan: “brutal, rustic and systematic”. It would also be a fitting description for the town.

Sorriso also lays claim to the title ‘capital of the agri-business’.

Sorriso also lays claim to the title ‘capital of the agri-business’.

Luxury behind walls: the wealthy ‘Costa Brava’ settlement near Sorriso.

Luxury behind walls: the wealthy ‘Costa Brava’ settlement near Sorriso.

Love in the time of monocrops: corn in the foreground, a motel behind and Sinop in the background.

Love in the time of monocrops: corn in the front, a motel behind and Sinop in the background.

A ‘veneno’ (poison) sprayer’s sign in Sinop.

‘I apply poison’: a pesticide sprayer’s sign in Sinop.

Sorriso also lays claim to the title ‘capital of the agri-business’.

Luxury behind walls: the wealthy ‘Costa Brava’ settlement near Sorriso.

Love in the time of monocrops: corn in the front, a motel behind and Sinop in the background.

‘I apply poison’: a pesticide sprayer’s sign in Sinop.

“More cancers, more birth defects, more depressions”

João de Deus da Silva Filho

“Speak to João”

Sinop is not a place that makes you want to linger. Yet before we leave, we want to meet one more man. We had received a tip from a maths professor who also works with a cooperative that produces organic foods on one of the few areas where the soil allows for it. “Speak to João”, he advised us.

João’s full name is João de Deus da Silva Filho. He is 59 years old and a biologist and expert in public health, for which he is employed by the health ministry in Sinop. He had prepared some notes, and read out his list in his windowless office: respiratory diseases have increased, more people are suffering from skin, stomach or colon cancer; birth defects, adverse pregnancy outcomes, kidney damage and depression are all on the rise. “We see that the number of these cases is rising with the increasing use of pesticides”, says João. It is barely possible to have a debate about this in this region that’s dominated by the agronegócio, but he won’t be silenced, “even though here you can be shot for something like that”.

For anything to change, two things must happen urgently, he told us. Firstly, we need more scientific studies. “To date essentially the only studies that exist are those conducted by Pignati”. That is because it is almost impossible to obtain funding to conduct research on the impact of pesticides. He wants the state to provide funding for studies, and schools to teach children about the dangers of ‘agrotóxicos’ in order to raise awareness and start a debate. And secondly, consumers need to wake up. “If the people who buy our soy and corn were to say “we want clean products”, then something would probably change. As long as they don’t care, there is little hope.”

“Nothing but desert”

The biologist then wants to show us something. He gets into his car and lets us follow him beyond Sinop along a straight road into the middle of the cotton fields. We get out near the river Teles Pires. All of this used to belong to the indigenous people, he explains, today all you can see are fields, and all the pesticides that are sprayed on them seep into the river. If something is not done soon “then the indigenous people will have even less space to live in, the fields will take up more land, the use of pesticides will increase and the mortality rates will continue to rise.” But there is little cause for hope “because now we have a crackpot as head of government”.

One of the first moves Jair Bolsonaro made in office was to transfer responsibility for the authorities that grant land to indigenous people and farmers to the ministry of agriculture. He appointed the agronomist Tereza Cristina as agriculture minister, a woman that has earnt herself the nickname ‘Musa do Veneno’ (queen of poison) – for her relentless efforts to weaken the regulatory requirements imposed on pesticides. Under her leadership, since the beginning of the year the ministry has already authorised 121 new pesticide products.

The surface area covered by pesticide-intensive cotton crops is rising rapidly. And in its ‘investment guide’, the Brazilian government expects the quantity of soy produced overall in Brazil to rise from 114 million tonnes today to 288 million tonnes in 2027. No, there is little evidence of a sea change towards more sustainable forms of agriculture or a more moderate use of pesticides in the foreseeable future. “But if we just continue as we are” says João de Deus da Silva Filho, looking at the endless fields, “then in 50 years all of this will simply be desert”.

Our demands

To protect future generations, the most dangerous pesticides must be taken off the market and replaced by safer alternatives.

In a petition, Public Eye calls on Syngenta to commit to stop the production and sale of highly hazardous pesticides.

As Syngenta's host country, Switzerland has a special responsibility.

  • The Swiss authorities must adopt binding rules to fight this illegitimate and highly dangerous business. The country must prohibit the export of pesticides that have been banned in Switzerland because of their impact on human health and the environment, as demanded in a motion filed by National Councillor Lisa Mazzone (Green Party).
  • In light of the companies’ clear lack of will to take on responsibility on a voluntary basis, Swiss authorities must establish mandatory human rights due diligence for companies based in Switzerland, as proposed by the Responsible Business Initiative.
  • In addition, Switzerland must advocate for a binding international treaty on highly hazardous pesticides.

A big thank you for signing our petition to Syngenta!
More information about highly hazardous pesticides to be found here.

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Through its research, advocacy and campaigning, Public Eye fights against injustices with a significant link to Switzerland and demands the respect of human rights throughout the world.

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Text: Timo Kollbrunner, Public Eye
Translation: Kim Park
Editing: Géraldine Viret, Public Eye
Pictures: Lunaé Parracho/Reuters
Web design: Floriane Fischer, Public Eye
With contributions from: Laurent Gaberell & Carla Hoinkes, Public Eye - Luana Rocha, Repórter Brazil