KAMUKHAAN: A POISONED VILLAGE
By Dr. Romeo Quijano,
College of Medicine, University of Manila/Philippines
The place was so barren and desolate, one would think that it was abandoned, except that the shabby huts and its impoverished inhabitants were impossible to miss. This is Kamukhaan, a community of 150 families in Davao del Sur, Mindanao, Philippines, whose people and their land for the past nineteen years have been facing a slow but certain death due to heavy exposure to pesticides. The entry of the LADECO banana plantation situated right next to it in 1981 marked the genesis of poisoning, sickness and poverty. Since then, the village has been cruelly subjected to large doses of pesticides the plantation utilizes for its own benefit. Through constant aerial and ground spraying, the people have been in direct contact with these chemicals for years, both their health and environment withering under their deadly mist. And while the perfectly healthy and unscathed bananas produced in the plantation are being shipped off to be enjoyed by foreign countries and major fruit canning industries, the people of Kamukhaan are left to pay the price......
Kamukhaan was not the wasteland that it is now. As village elders wistfully recall, it was once the picture of perfect prime, a place so rich in natural resources people never grew hungry. Trees and vegetation were abundant, and the seas were loaded with marine life. The villagers who either fished or grew crops for a living always had more than enough to feed their families and sustain quite a comfortable lifestyle. The land where the banana plantation now stands originally belonged to the descendants of the Buloy family, part of the Manobo tribe, who rented the property to the Americans during the American Occupation. Diego Buloy, 71, the only living member of the Buloy family says that: "They promised to raise cattle in it. They cheated us and we had never been able to recover it." The vast acreage is currently being used for a banana plantation by the LADECO company, which from the beginning promised prosperity, a "banana dreamland" that would change the lives of the people. Now, virtually no trace of their past life remains to be seen. All that's left is barren land, a contaminated sea, and 700 sick and impoverished people breathing in poisoned air.
Since the plantation's expansion in the early 1980's, the people of Kamukhaan have had to endure aerial spraying of pesticides which takes place as often as 2-3 times a month. Pesticides, which the company uses to ensure for themselves pest-free, export quality bananas, are sprayed by an airplane, which sweeps through the plantation and their entire village. Every time a spraying occurs, the villagers smell strong and odorous fumes, which cannot be escaped from, even in the shelter of their own homes. Their eyes sting painfully and their skin itch. Most of them experience feelings of suffocation, weakness and nausea. Alona Tabarlong, 31, elaborates, "Children playing in the street come in, coughing and complaining that their eyes hurt. The airplane passes our streets, and even when it's far away, the smell of pesticides still reaches inside our homes." Another villager claims that during aerial spraying, he sometimes gets sprinkled by pesticides and itchy and painful skin lesions promptly appear.
Children and adult alike, who rarely got sick before the plantation came, are now vulnerable to disease. Skin diseases, abnormalities and various types of illnesses are rampant among the villagers. They easily catch fever and constantly encounter spells of weakness and dizziness, vomiting and cough. Many claim to experience all sorts of body aches: stomach aches, backaches and headaches, which are aggravated during the periods of aerial spraying. Several people also suffer various ailments such as asthma, thyroid cancer, goiter, diarrhea and anemia. Edgar Rodriguez, 31, narrates that "My skin has these white spots. Sometimes I have difficulty breathing. I am often attacked by severe cough and at times I can't sleep because of it". Linda Manggaga, a woman in her mid-forties, has a large lump on her neck that she claimed had been growing for a long time now. She believes that her weariness and the growth on her neck had been the effects of pesticide exposure. "Around 1981", she recalls, "I was on my way to sell wood when I smelt strong fumes and fell very ill. Then years later, I discovered this huge lump on my throat".
Infants are often born sick and with abnormalities, ranging from cleft lip & palate to badly disfigured bodies. Several children are born with severe skin abnormalities. Infants dying at birth or shortly after are not rare. When Rebecca Dolka, 36, bore her child, it was lifeless, its body and eyes yellow in color. "I didn't expect that the pesticides I inhaled would affect my pregnancy", she said. Exposure to pesticide also proved to be an impediment in children's mental and physical development . Children are often behind in their studies, and are often absent in class due to sicknesses.
An example is Lilibeth Hitalia, an 8 year old child who is constantly rushed to the hospital because of diarrhea. "She was already 4 years old when she started to speak. She has great difficulty in understanding things, and also was born too small", her mother relates.
A number of adults have also been diagnosed with more serious, terminal diseases such as cancer. Many more have died of various contracted diseases. A village officer, Leonardo Tigaw, testified that in the month of August alone, 5 people have died because of diarrhea and fever. Michael Bakiran, 31, said that his mother constantly complained of the pesticide fumes and suspect that she died precisely because of this. "Her stomach became enlarged, and she became weak. The hospital diagnosed it as a 'complicated disease' and she died 2 weeks after." Nanette Rodriguez, 37, narrates, "Just this month of July, 9 people died. Several people have already died and became sick before so we appealed to the manager of the plantation. But he said that they refuse to pay the hospital bills if the sicknesses were caused by our water , and not by the pesticides, even when hospital doctors say that our water supply is contaminated by the pesticides that seep into our soil. That's also the reason why so many people get sick, and spend so much. Others don't even reach the hospital alive." Apparently, constant deaths caused by diseases ranging from simple to complicated have horrifyingly plagued the people for years. In fact, "Just yesterday" a villager testified, "a woman lost two of her children."
Moreover, growth of plant life in the village has also been seriously stunted. When exposure to pesticide started, the coconut trees suddenly stopped bearing fruit so the villagers were left with no other choice but to cut them down instead. "The chemicals the plantation uses might be good for their banana crops, but on our coconut trees, it is destructive", says Nanette Rodriguez, a villager. Their soil, too, had become infertile, so growing crops for food and income has now become very difficult. Planting food suddenly wasn't an option they could afford anymore. Even grass grew scantily among the place. Raising pigs, chickens and other animals also proved to be very difficult because numbers of them just die everytime a spraying occurs. Animals who wander into the plantation or feast on the grass near their property also meet their death. The villagers have also believe that their streams have been contaminated too because many animals refuse to drink from it and the animals who do eventually die.
Aside from the aerial spraying, the plantation also ground-sprays their banana crops using chemicals such as Furadan and Nemacur, both of which have been labeled as "extremely hazardous". The village people believe that their underground water supply, 180 ft. deep, has long since been contaminated with it. During the rainy season, rains wash over the plantation's land and the pesticide-riddled water flows into the village where it rises up to as high as waist-level. As a result, the villagers who unavoidably wade in and the children who play in it get ill.
An even worse predicament for the village is the fact that the river and the sea, both of which have been one of their major sources for food and income before, have not been spared from pesticide contamination. Their waters, which used to be teeming with fish, are now heavily polluted with chemicals. Fishermen recall a time 30 years ago, "when we used to garner up to 200 kilos of fish everyday. Now we are lucky if we can catch 2 kilos of it." They have also observed the regular occurrence of fish kills, when there used to be none. And due to extreme poverty, people eating the contaminated fish cannot be avoided, and they end up getting sick as a result. Complaints have been repeatedly brought up to the plantation owners but the owners refused to claim responsibility in the sea contamination. The fishermen then tried to appeal to provincial authorities and they even took samples of the dead specimens, water, and soil to the town hall, but again their pleas merely fell on deaf ears and no definite action was taken.
With pesticides destroying the natural life in the land and water they were dependent on, the villagers who once never went hungry suddenly found themselves going to bed on empty stomachs. The "blondeness" among several children are tell-tale signs of malnutrition and protein deficiency. When being farmers or fishermen alone made survival virtually impossible, most males were forced to work as laborers in the plantation. They are usually employed as drainage workers and pesticide applicators, working in direct contact with the chemicals, wearing little or no protective clothing at all. One laborer narrates that his job involved walking through canals of waste materials, wherein the chemical-laced waters reached his thighs, thus rendering his boots useles. He consequently ended up losing two toes and with a badly infected foot, the treatment of which he had to pay on his own. Another companion of his doing similar work was more unfortunate, and eventually died of cancer of the foot.
Pesticide applicators inject pesticides to the bananas or directly spray it by backpack, some doing it as often as daily. Two laborers who had used Gramoxone as spray were hospitalized, and one of them died. The other workers experience dizziness, weakness, and skin itching, and are absent from work almost once a week because of their illnesses. Edward Rama, who injects BAYCOR and DECIS every week to banana buds, says that he is "always feverish, experiences stomach aches, has skin that constantly itches, and tires easily." Jose Antermo, 30, used FORMALIN daily, and he regularly experienced spells of weakness and dizziness. "FORMALIN is painful to the nose, and my chest tightens when I smell it. My wife, she lost our child when she was 4 months pregnant. I think it was because of my job. She washes my work clothes doused with FORMALIN." Laborers who had served in the plantation for a long period of time already became too weak and sickly they had to stop working altogether.
The risky labour these workers are involved with, they ransom for with their health, and yet they only receive a miniscule salary in return. About 45 (US $1.1) pesos a day does it for the average employee who works in extremely hazardous conditions from morning until sundown. "Sometimes, we receive 90 pesos, if we finish a lot" says one of them. This small amount of money they receive is way below the threshold income to buy food that would sufficiently sustain their families. Oftentimes, these workers don't receive the medical treatment they badly need because they cannot afford to pay for it themselves. The plantation refuses to grant employees a raise in their salaries and couldn't be expected to pay for their hospital bills. One employee does not even get paid his salary but is given food instead. He claims that he was promised 9 pesos per cubic meter, and for the 6 cubic meters he manages to dig per day, ":I should be given 54 pesos a day but instead I get 5 kilos of rice every week that is supposed to be enough to feed my family of four." He has tried to complain about this unfair arrangement but according to him "the labour contractor is never around". Some people, desperate for a living even sell ipil-ipil leaves (an ingredient for animal feed) for 2 pesos per kilo and earn the measly sum of 100 pesos a week.
With their health fast deteriorating, their food supply seriously depleted, their land destroyed and with no other source of income sufficient enough, the people of Kamukhaan may not be too far away from extinction, unless they find an effective antidote to their poisoned lives. The plantation is nonchalant and feigns innocence when confronted with complaints about their unsafe pesticide operations, and the local authorities likewise proved to be of no help to them. A village elder says with resignation, "We've tried, but as much as we want to, we cannot do anything about it anymore. It is very powerful people we are up against."
Would man go as far as to slowly and painstakingly destroy more than 700 lives in the name of profit? Apparently, yes. In a land reeking with disease, coupled with poverty, the survival of the people of Kamukhaan merely hangs by a thread. Through relating their observations and what they have endured throughout the years, they are actually crying for help. Too deeply mired in their state of sickness, poverty and hopelessness, perhaps it is the only thing that they can do. Perhaps we can help in lifting themselves up from the place that profit-hungry corporations had put them into, and once more give them a glimpse of the life that they once had and deserve. It is in far-flung villages like Kamukhaan where the picture of globalization and human greed is most clearly depicted. Unfortunately, few ever seem to take notice, and even fewer who choose not to ignore and succumb to apathy. The victims of suffering and injustice has knocked on our doors. They have presented to us their plight, which clearly, in black and white, reveals the grave impact pesticides use has on people's lives, how it caused the degeneration of Kamukhaan from a natural paradise to that of a living hell. The damage created by tyrant companies can only be undone with the aid of people, who unlike them, value the intrinsic worth of human life over any amount of money or profit. Perhaps by working hand in hand with the people of Kamukhaan in rebuilding their homes and lives, we may be one in our hope in transforming this world nearer to the paradise we want for ourselves, for our children, and for the future. For as long as villages like Kamukhaan exist, the battle against injustice, human greed and oppression is never won.
Baycor and Nemacur are produced by the German company Bayer
Mr Quijano is president of the Pesticide Action Network Philippines (eMail: Romyquij@yahoo.com)