From July to October 2017, some 800 agricultural workers were poisoned whilst spraying pesticides on cotton fields in the district of Yavatmal, India. Over 20 of them died. Public Eye reveals that a key product implicated in the affair was Polo, produced by Syngenta in the Swiss town of Monthey. The agro-chemicals giant exports the insecticide to countries of the South, even though in Switzerland it has been banned since 2009 due to its harmful effects on health and the environment. A motion soon to be discussed in parliament calls for the authorities to ban such toxic exports.
Last July, Public Eye travelled to Maharashtra state in central India to meet the survivors and victims’ families of the wave of poisonings that had hit the region the previous year. Hundreds of farmers were admitted to hospital after spraying various pesticides in large quantities. A good number of them went temporarily blind. Over 20 men died in terrible circumstances in the district of Yavatmal alone and in the region of Vidarbha a total of over 50 died. The survivors often suffer from serious aftereffects.
The insecticide “Polo” is one of those products that both, farmers and Indian authorities hold accountable for the recent poisonings. The catchy name conceals the ingredient Diafenthiuron, one of the 40 Syngenta pesticides classed as “highly hazardous” by the international Pesticide Action Network. According to the European Chemicals Agency, Diafenthiuron is “toxic if inhaled” and “may cause damage to organs through prolonged or repeated exposure.” It has long been banned in Switzerland and the European Union for its harmful effects on health and the environment.
In October 2017, the agriculture minister of the state of Maharashtra announced that an investigation was being launched into Syngenta for “culpable homicide”. Syngenta claimed in the Indian press that its insecticide was not responsible for the cases of poisoning.
The documents (that Public Eye gained access to through a freedom of information act) show that Diafenthiuron is produced in Monthey and exported to countries of the South. In 2017, 126.5 tonnes were exported from Switzerland, of which 75 tonnes went to India. UN rapporteurs have concluded that “to subject individuals of other nations to toxins known to cause major health damage or fatality is a clear human rights violation.”
The Swiss authorities must put an end to this policy of double standards and “prohibit the export of pesticides whose use has been banned in Switzerland due to their effects on human health or the environment”, as demanded by the motion filed by National Councillor Lisa Mazzone. The motion has been co-signed by 41 parliamentarians of all political stripes and is due to be debated by 2019 at the latest.
The need to embed human rights due diligence into law
By imposing a due diligence requirement on companies headquartered in Switzerland regarding human rights and environmental impacts, the Responsible Business Initiative would provide a means of preventing such scandals. Syngenta would be legally required to identify risks linked to its highly hazardous pesticides and to take measures to mitigate them.
In the case of Yavatmal, a credible assessment could only conclude that products as toxic as Polo cannot be used safely: our investigation shows that farmers live in extremely precarious conditions, lack access to appropriate protective equipment and are not sufficiently informed about the related dangers.
Commitments made by the industry on a purely voluntary basis clearly fail to protect them. Therefore highly hazardous pesticides should be taken off the market. There were further cases of poisoning in Maharashtra in 2018.
Full report by Public Eye, here.
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Laurent Gaberell, Agriculture expert, +41 21 620 06 15, email@example.com
A selection of photos taken by Atul Loke, (Panos Pictures) is available for the media.