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Monsanto to stand trial for child's death and effects of controversial weed killer


It has been almost nine years since the death of the Paraguayan child Silvino Talavera, and Monsanto Company has yet to acknowledge that it has anything to do with it.

Eleven-year old Silvino was on the way home on January 2, 2003, passing next to fields growing glyphosate resistant soybeans. He had meat and noodles that his mother asked him to buy for lunch. Suddenly, he was enveloped in a cloud of the toxic herbicide Round-up (glyphosate), being sprayed on the genetically-modified crops from a tractor.

After they ate the meat and noodles, all the family fell ill with nausea and stomach ache, and his younger sister was taken to a hospital. A few days later, a cocktail of pesticides containing glyphosate was again sprayed 15 meters away from Silvino's house. The family, seeking protection, gathered inside one room, but the strong winds carried the pesticides inside the house. Silvino and his sister Sofia became very ill. Their mother again took them to the hospital, where Silvino died on January 7.

It was a clear case of poisoning, and yet Monsanto, the U.S.-based manufacturer of glyphosate, was never held liable by any court of law. This is the anomaly that the Permanent People's Tribunal (PPT) on Agrochemical Transnational Corporations (TNCs) seeks to correct.

To be held in India on December 3 to 6, 2011, the PPT will try the six largest agrochemical TNCs-Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer, Dow, Dupont, and BASF-for various human rights violations. "Our hope is that after the PPT, these corporations will become accountable for the damage they have done, and that new communities will come forward to join our fight against GMOs (genetically modified organisms) and pesticides. We also expect that this pressure from the PPT will prevent the introduction of new GMOs to the market," said Javier Souza, regional coordinator of Pesticide Action Network (PAN) Latin America and chair of PAN International.

Silvino's death is among the many cases that survivors and expert witnesses will testify on before an international panel of jurors. The PPT on Agrochemical TNCs is part of the distinguished opinion tribunals that started in Italy in 1979. The indictment will be brought by PAN International.

The PPT will probe not only the particular circumstances of Silvino's tragic death, but the equally tragic situation that led to it-that is, the widespread use of glyphosate in Latin America.

Widespread cultivation of RR soy

Glyphosate was first commercialised by Monsanto in 1974 under the brand name Round-up. In 1996, it became a popular weed control tool for farmers when Monsanto developed its GM soybean variety, Round-up Ready (RR) soy, which was resistant to glyphosate.

Today, RR soy is widely planted in the U.S. and Latin American countries, among the world's top importers of soy. A significant portion of farmlands in Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay and Uruguay are devoted to soybean, mostly RR soy. The crop accounts for 99 per cent of soybean production in Argentina. This translates to 44 million gallons of glyphosate sprayed in 42 million acres of soybean fields annually.

Such widespread cultivation of genetically-modified soy was not reached without controversy and deceit. Monsanto pushed RR soy on Brazilian farmers from 2002 to 2004, even as the government had a moratorium in effect. Meanwhile, in the early years of the introduction of RR soy in Argentina and Paraguay, Monsanto did not charge royalties to farmers using the technology. Now that farmers are dependent on the seeds, Monsanto is trying to charge payment for intellectual property rights.

Glyphosate under fire

For the past decade, glyphosate has come under fire because of the development of glyphosate-resistant weeds. Just last year, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences released a study that warned of at least eight weeds developing glyphosate resistance. Glyphosate-resistant weeds have also been reported in Latin America. A 2005 study in Argentina similarly reported that eight species of weeds have developed resistance to glyphosate.

This resistance sets off a "treadmill" effect, wherein stronger or increased herbicides are needed to kill the weeds. "Monocultures of GM crops demand huge amounts of herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides. They generate a lot of adverse social and environmental impacts. GM crops contaminate native plants with GM pollen. They cause the pollution of soil and water with toxic pesticides. Over-all, they lead to the loss of food sovereignty, because food is getting scarcer and more contaminated," said Souza.

Meanwhile, the adverse effects of glyphosate on human health was highlighted by the tragedy of Silvino's death. While his death was unable to stop Monsanto from manufacturing and selling the toxic Round-up seed and herbicide package, it at the same time contributed to awareness-raising among Latin American peoples of the deadly nature of Monsanto and other agrochemical TNCs' products.

According to Souza, there have already been notable successes since Rapal started its campaign against GMOs and pesticides in 1997. "In Paraguay, we were among those who prevented Bt maize from being approved. In Chile, there is public opposition to bills that are meant to expand GMO crops for export. In Argentina, at least 30 Town Hall governments have passed restrictions for aerial spraying. In Uruguay, the Municipality of Canelones already forbade aerial spraying of pesticides," he shared.

Recent scientific research have bolstered the anti-GMOs and pesticides campaign in Latin America. In 2009, a study directed by Dr. Andres Carrasco, a known embryologist and professor at the University of Buenos Aires, linked glyphosate with birth defects in frogs. Birth defects appeared in embryos of frogs that were exposed to quantities of glyphosate that is 1,500 times less than what is used commercially.

Souza called on Latin American states to start protecting its citizens against agrochemical TNCs. "The PPT must be able to show the way for our states, which often leave the population helpless and having to resist by themselves the impact of these TNCs," he said.

The PPT on Agrochemical TNCs aims to ensure an effective system of corporate accountability, especially for companies that usually are not held liable by their home states and evade liability as well in host states.

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