Streets and parks were crowded on the French island of Martinique over the weekend as thousands of residents protested the government’s lack of progress on a compensation bid over the harm done by a program of using a highly toxic insecticide on banana plantations.
From 1972 to 1993, chlordecone was used to protect the crop from bugs — but protest organizers say its damaging effects on humans had been known as early as the 1960s. Even though the chemical, related to DDT, was finally banned in 1990, growers lobbied for and were granted permission to use up stocks until 1993.
It was authorized for use in the French West Indies well after its harmful effects were known and for more than 20 years after it was banned. And now, the French public health agency notes, 92 per cent of the adult population of Martinique has chlordecone in their blood — and the tropical island has one of the highest rates of prostate cancer in the world.
Here’s Aljazeera’s account of the issue:
Organizations on Martinique and its neighbouring island, Guadeloupe, both French territories, filed a legal complaint over the issue in 2006, which triggered an investigation in 2008.
Production of chlordecone had been stopped in the United States — where it was marketed as Kepone — as far back as 1975, after workers at a factory producing it in Virginia complained of uncontrollable shaking, blurred vision and sexual problems. In 1979, the World Health Organization classed the pesticide, an endocrine disruptor, as potentially carcinogenic.
Chlordecone was then banned worldwide by the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants in 2009.
“They used to tell us: don’t eat or drink anything while you’re putting it down,” Ambroise Bertin, now 70, told the BBC. Few, if any, were told to wear gloves or masks. For decades, he says the workers were told nothing else about it. He was diagnosed with prostate cancer.
Up to 15,000 people, according to organizers (5,000 according to police), marched through the capital, Fort-de-France, on Saturday, precipitated by a judge’s statement in Paris earlier this year that said the case may fall under French statute of limitation rules, which would make it impossible to pursue action.
“Thousands are mobilized to respond to that gob of spit the French state is sending us, the statute of limitations,” said Francis Carole, a Martinican politician.
In 2018, President Emmanuel Macron accepted the state’s responsibility for what he called “an environmental scandal,” the BBC reported. He said France had suffered “collective blindness” over the issue. A law to create a compensation fund for agricultural workers has now been passed but payouts are yet to begin.
“The government pretended to accept legal action but did nothing, except wash its hands of this bit by bit,” said Harry Bauchaint, a member of the Peyi-A political movement.
One of the world’s leading experts on chlordecone, Prof. Luc Multigner, of Rennes University in France, told the BBC original documents of the official body that authorized use of the pesticide in 1981 have disappeared, hampering the investigation into how the decision was made.
In Guadeloupe on Saturday, some 300 people demonstrated as well, while 200 protested in Paris.
“The entire French population should mobilize to make sure the statute of limitations doesn’t apply,” Toni Mango, head of the Kolektif Doubout Pou Gwadloup association, told AFP.
Bananas and other tree fruits are said to be safe now but vegetables can’t yet be grown. Some say it will take hundreds of years for the land and waters to be free of the contamination.
Ambroise Bertin, who now also suffers from thyroid problems, said “they never told us it was dangerous.”