Trial against use of agrochemicals in Ituzaingó (Argentina): Spraying is a crime

Dario Aranda to La Vaca.org

Spraying with pesticides is a crime, punished with conditional prison. This was decided yesterday by the Criminal Court of Córdoba in the trial for agrochemicals spraying in the neighborhood of Ituzaingó, on the outskirts of Cordoba (Argentina’s central farming belt). According to the Mothers of Ituzaingó the ruling was “a blow”. But the lawyers considered it an unprecedented success. Darío Aranda reports from Cordoba, to “La Vaca”.

This is the first case of pollution judged by Criminal Law. After more than two months of legal procedures, finally an agrarian producer and a crop spraying pilot were sentenced to three years of conditional prison for pollution and harm to public health (conditional – not effective). The sentence was questioned by the Mothers of Ituzaingó, organization born while children got sick: “They make our children sick, they kill our children, but they do not go to jail. This is another strike, but we will keep fighting against this model that threatens our children’s health, supported by the national, provincial and municipal government in favor of corporations.”

On the contrary, the organization Stop the Spraying Cordoba and the plaintiff, Medardo Avila Vásquez, welcomed the verdict: “This is the first time in Argentina. We were right; the spraying of agrochemicals is a crime and has a penalty.”

 “We do not want Monsanto”

“Justice for Mothers of Ituzaingó”, was requested through a large banner hung over the camp set up by social organizations in front of the courts of Cordoba, Monday night while they waited for the verdict. “De la Sota and Cristina Kirchner: we do not want Monsanto in Cordoba”, could be read on another banner against the installation of the multinational corporation of GM seed and agrochemicals in Malvinas Argentinas (suburban areas of Cordoba).

All of us or none

The first conflict began at 9 am while the Mothers tried to enter the courts: “Only five of us are allowed to get in. But all of us will enter; we are the victims!” said Sofia Gatica, mother from Ituzaingó. 10 minutes later, the police opened the fence and let all of them in.

At 10.09 am, the three judges entered the courtroom and provided the defendants with the last word prior to judgment. The rural producer Francisco Rafael Parra pleaded not guilty and said he “never” sprayed close to the neighborhood and “never” used “banned agrochemicals”. The pilot Jorge Pancello said “I am innocent, Catholic and I believe in justice –even if I had a bad experience this time-.” Jorge Alberto Gabrielli, producer (for whom the prosecution had requested absolution), did not speak.

Divided

The court went to recess until 2 pm. People had different hypothesis. The large number of police (inside and outside the court room) suggested the possibility of a dismissal of all charges for three defendants.

In the meantime, court officials insinuated that the judges were divided. Lorenzo Rodriguez (Chief Justice) would vote to convict, Mario Capdevilla to acquit, and Cordi Susana Moreno was undecided because of a technicality (regarding fumigation and the interpretation of what is a crime). In the legal field, if there is no final decision there is no sentencing.

The official voice

The Secretary for Human Rights, Martin Fresneda, got to the courts of Cordoba at 9.30 am. During the trial, he had been invited on several occasions but never responded. Last week, the Mothers of Ituzaingó published an open letter pressing him to attend the trial. The Secretary was finally present yesterday: “We support the claim of the Mothers of Ituzaingó and expect a conviction. It can become an exemplary case in order to discourage producers from repeating these actions.”

However, Fresneda denied that the problem was the agricultural model, contrary to the position of the Mothers and other social organizations. He said that it is limited to “specific cases”.

“Adolfo Perez Esquivel, Nora Cortinas and the Peasant Movement of Cordoba denounced that this agricultural model violates human rights. What do you think?”

“I do not think so. The problem is not the model, but special cases that do not meet the limits of 1000 to 1500 meters for spraying. In addition, I will not answer to Perez Esquivel because he uses human rights to oppose the government” argued Fresneda.

Demonstrations in the streets

Pérez Esquivel and Nora Cortinas (Mothers of Plaza de Mayo Founding Line) supported the request of the Mothers of Ituzaingó and even rallied in the streets of Cordoba (together with 10,000 people) in order to claim for justice and reject the  installation of Monsanto in the province. The Human Rights Secretary left during the recess and did not return for the sentencing.

The cause

In December 2008, after a petition to the Sub-Secretary of Health of the Municipality of Córdoba, the Justice banned the use of pesticides within 500 meters from the neighborhood of Ituzaingó, and within 1500 meters for aerial spraying.

“Spraying in urban areas violates provisions of the Provincial Law of Agrochemicals and is a criminal offense of environmental pollution, which is punishable with up to ten years of prison” said the Prosecutor of District III, Carlos Matheu, in 2008. He had determined the figure of criminal offense of “willful contamination of the environment, provoking hazard to health.” The ruling focused on two chemicals: endosulfan and glyphosate.

Medardo Avila Vasquez was Secretary of Health of the City of Córdoba in 2008.  He went to Ituzaingo Annex alerted by the Mothers. He observed how planes sprayed agrochemicals over the houses and immediately filed ​​a complaint for “poisoning”. The prosecutor Matheu ordered studies in the courtyards of the houses and confirmed the presence of endosulfan and glyphosate. After finding pesticides drums in rural producers’ storehouses, he limited the sprayings, and prosecuted the soy farmers, the owner of the spraying plane and the aviator.

The complaint of 2008 -added to the complaint of 2004 by the Mothers of Ituzaingó- is the one that reached the Criminal Court, and was sentenced yesterday. It is based on the National Hazardous Waste Law (24051). Using hazardous products (including agrochemicals) and polluting soil, water, atmosphere or environment in a dangerous way to health, is punished by Article 55 with 5 to 10 years of prison.

During the trial it was found that 114 out of 142 children from the neighborhood were contaminated with agrochemicals, according to an official study. “80 percent of the children have agrochemicals in their blood” said physician Ines Flamini, one of the directors of the health report, from the Emergency Unit 28 (UPA, Neighborhood Health Center). The physician revealed that there are children with almost five or six herbicides and insecticides in their bodies. Agrochemicals were even found in children outside the neighborhood.

Judgment

At 2pm more organizations were waiting outside and within the courts. Reporters, the defendants and their families, the Mothers of Ituzaingó and lawyers stood by the doors of the Court room waiting to get in.

At 5pm, the Mothers’ attorney, Miguel “Gallego” Martinez explained the reason for the delay: “They are angrily brawling. Colleagues tell us from inside that there is no agreement and they keep striving for consensus. We must wait.”

Finally at 7.05 pm the doors of the room opened. At 7.14 pm the judges entered. The Chair Court generated further uncertainties over the ruling: “In the legal arena, 50 percent of support and 50 percent of rejection is expectable for a sentencing. If you disagree, please express your disagreement outside the courts. I also suggest you to wait for the written basis of the ruling. (September 4).”

As in any trial, the Chair Court started with the absolution: the producer Gabrielli was acquitted (the prosecution had asked for his acquittal). Parra was unanimously declared “criminally responsible author” of the crime of environmental pollution with health hazard by using hazardous waste, with conditional prison and ten hours of volunteer work per week at a Health State Institution during three years, and was banned from applying agrochemicals for eight years.

Pancello was found “co-author” of the same crime, by majority. He was convicted to conditional prison and to work eight hours a week at a Public Institution during four years; he was also banned from using agrochemicals for ten years.

Immediately, the Mothers of Ituzaingó left the room crying and shouting “they kill our children and they go home.” They went out together and stopped at the stairs of the courts and embraced each other (as to regain strength), before joining the organizations and activists. “The ruling is a joke; once more the Justice makes fun of our suffering. Our children have died, got sick. There is enough proof, there is crime, they are convicted, but they go home “, criticized Sofia Gatica.

Surrounded by cameras, while crying “Mothers of Ituzaingó, the struggle continues,” Gatica attacked the political power: “What would have happened if the children of the President, the Governor or the Mayor were sick or dead?” And he replied: “Certainly these guys would have gone to jail, but that did not happened today.”

“They make our children sick and now bring Monsanto. Both President, Governor, and Mayor govern for corporations, for Monsanto. They do not care about poor peasants, who are sprayed with agrochemicals and evicted from their lands” denounced Gatica.

Carolina Cabrera, also Mother of Ituzaingó, said the sentencing was a “mockery”, while warning that their plan is to “keep fighting, because there is crime and we will defend our children. We do not want to be sprayed with agrochemicals, we do not want to get sick, we do not want Monsanto in Córdoba… Monsanto should be installed next to the President or the Governor’s house.”

Sofia Gatica said: “They have beaten us many times. This is one more time. But we will keep fighting. This struggle continues and we are growing. ”

Unpredecent

Mother’s attorney, “Gallego” Martínez was “satisfied” with the ruling. “This is unprecedented. Spraying with agrochemicals is a criminal offense and has a penalty. This never happened before. Of course we wanted more. And we will go for more. But this decision marks important legal precedents, including tougher sentences for other thousands of people who are currently sprayed with agrochemicals across the country”.

“No punishment can compensate the pain for the death of a child. We understand and support the Mother’s pain, especially as there is no actual prison. But today we took a major step in the fight: spraying with agrochemicals is a crime, punishable with prison”, said Medardo Avila Vasquez, current member of the Network of Fumigated Physicians who initiated the complaint in 2008.

“The defendants had no criminal records and this helped them. But this ruling paves the way for new legal trials, in which we will ask for more. The “poisoners” already know that they can be condemned and go to jail. I know that today is a bad day for the agricultural model, the seed industry, Monsanto and all governors that promote this polluting model”, said Avila Vasquez.

He addressed activists and organizations in front of the courts: “This is a step in a long struggle started by all of us. The agricultural “poisoners” have to take care. This is a step. Now we have to support the claim “Monsanto get out of Cordoba'”.

“Today, after so much suffering, it was finally confirmed that spraying with agrochemicals is a crime. We were right; the ruling paves the way to keep fighting against this model, to take the sprayings out of our villages, people, and children. Today we won because those guys were on the dock and were convicted. We won when the producer and fumigator were sentenced. Fighting together we will stop this model”, said Laura Gallo close to tears, from the organization Stop the Spraying Cordoba.

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