Brazil’s Dangerous Open Door for Toxic Pesticides

Aratiri, a 9-year-old boy, lives in an indigenous community in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul. Residents of the community told Human Rights Watch of numerous cases of acute poisoning by pesticides in recent years from both aerial and ground spraying.


© 2018 Marizilda Cruppé/Human Rights Watch

Brazil is accelerating approval of new agricultural pesticides. In 2018, the government approved 450 new pesticides—more than in any other year of the past decade. Another 262 new pesticides or new brands of existing products have been approved so far this year. Of those approved this year, the Brazilian National Health Surveillance Agency (ANVISA) classifies at least 82 of them as “extremely toxic.” Some of them are banned or restricted in the United States and Europe.

The introduction of new pesticides is taking place while the government is already failing to respond to pesticide poisoning. Last year, when my organization investigated the issue, we documented cases of acute poisoning from pesticide drift at sites across Brazil, that is, when pesticide spray drifts off target during application, or when pesticides vaporize and drift to adjacent areas in the days after spraying.

People described symptoms such as vomiting, nausea, headaches, and dizziness. In many communities, people said they feared reprisals from powerful farmers if they advocated for protection. Chronic pesticide exposure is also associated with cancer, infertility, impaired fetal development, and other serious effects.

Thirty years ago, Brazil enacted Law 7802—the Pesticide Law. This was, at the time, one of the world’s toughest pesticide laws. But an explosion of large-scale, mono-crop farming has made Brazil one of the world’s biggest consumers of pesticides, and enforcement has not kept up.

A national prohibition on aerial spraying of highly hazardous pesticides within 500 meters of inhabited sites is often ignored. Rules for ground spraying—the most common method of pesticide application—are usually left to states, and only 8 of the 27 have established buffer zones. In those, too, enforcement is inconsistent. After release of our report last year, the agriculture minister committed to establishing buffer zones for ground spraying across the country. But he left office before getting it done. Rural Brazilians remain exposed to highly hazardous pesticides, and the new minister, in office since January 2019, should follow through on the promise.

Agriculture Ministry officials tell reporters who ask about the rapid-fire pesticide approvals that they are streamlining the assessment process by reducing bureaucracy. While they hasten approvals, Congress is considering a bill to shrink the roles of the health and environment ministries in those approvals—and to weaken rules for the use of pesticides.

Congress should vote down the bill. The proliferation of highly hazardous pesticides requires stronger, not weaker, oversight and protections.

Authorities should undertake an urgent, thorough analysis of the impact of pesticides on the health of rural communities. While doing so, they should impose a moratorium on aerial spraying, and on ground spraying near homes, schools, and other sensitive sites.

Pesticide use requires constant, rigorous scrutiny. Government failings to ensure this happens can lead to serious human rights violations: for example, exposure can cause serious harm to health, poison drinking water, and damage the environment. The country’s consolidation of its position as a farming powerhouse and its global advantage as one of China’s biggest food suppliers, should not come at the expense of Brazilians’ human rights.

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