Thursday, August 13, 2009

Bad bananas and collateral damage

I do not understand why there are people who vigorously defend aerial spraying of banana plantations even though it adversely affects communities that live and farm in the vicinity of these plantations. I do not understand why they do not realize that what is poisonous and deadly for pests and fungi in bananas is also poisonous and deadly for human beings, farm animals and plants. I do not understand why they do not want to use safer methods which are just as effective and are being used in places where aerial spraying is banned.

The banana growers and exporters who insist on this practice to save on costs and get higher profits might soon find themselves the victims of the toxic fallout of their own making. Lobby groups abroad that are sympathetic to the anti-aerial spraying advocates here might just raise a howl and expose the real cost of these bananas in terms of collateral damage on human lives and the environment. Who would like to buy and eat bananas that are produced in this manner? Consumers are now more discriminating.

In May 2009 the Department of Health released its study (“Health and Environmental Assessment of Sitio Camocaan, Hagonoy, Davao del Sur”) which showed that residents exposed to the spray were found to have pesticide traces in their blood. Air and soil outside plantation boundaries were also found to be contaminated. The study recommended banning aerial spraying and a shift to organic methods.

The DOH has no hidden interest here. Its interest is the health of Filipinos. (Read Sec. 15 and 16 of the 1987 Constitution.) Those who question the DOH’s findings have gone bananas.

I wrote about the subject of bananas a few days ago but I write about it again with the faint hope that something could be done about the toxic rain in places where there are vast plantations that produce Cavendish bananas for export. These long, green bananas have a long shelf life but rate low in the Filipinos’ taste department.

Am not against bananas. I eat a lot of native bananas. The yellower, the better. I read somewhere that ripe yellow bananas with dark spots contain very high immune system-boosting properties. I used to have banana plants in my backyard. They bore big yellow fruits a lot of which I had to give away as I couldn’t eat all of them. I even made vinegar out of them.

“We are not bananas. We are not pests.” This is the cry of communities near banana plantations in Mindanao who have to suffer the adverse effects of regular toxic aerial spraying.

Imagine yourself sipping coffee under the open sky when suddenly something lands in your cup. Imagine yourself a child on your way to school and getting sprayed with pesticides. Farmers working on their small farms and people doing their daily chores are among those who suffer indirect hits and have to run for cover when airplanes unleash pesticides on vast banana plantations. While they are not the intended targets, there is no way they can avoid getting hit by the airplanes’ toxic load.

People who live with constant spraying complain of respiratory and skin ailments. They worry about their farm animals, their edible plants and water sources that catch their share of the toxic rain. And who knows what genetic mutations can arise for all this?

When will this stop?

The National Task Force Against Aerial Spray composed of 14 legal, environmental, church and women’s groups is leading the campaign to ban aerial spraying. The Mamamayan Ayaw sa Aerial Spraying (MAAS), a member of the task force, is composed of residents who are directly affected. “We are not squatters,” MAAS’s Cecille Moran, 46, told the Inquirer. “We own our farms and grow food as a means of livelihood.” Many families who live in-between plantations are exposed to constant spraying, she said. Fruit trees and farm animals have died. Malunggay trees have withered.

Aerial spraying is not the only way to fight pests. There are other ways, among them manual and boom spraying but banana plantation owners prefer the aerial method in order to cut costs.

Davao City is not the only place in Mindanao that has to put up with aerial spraying. Davao City’s feisty mayor Rodrigo Duterte is a vocal anti-aerial spraying advocate, and the local government had passed an ordinance against it. But the Philippine Banana Growers and Exporters Association (PBGEA) challenged the ordinance in court because it supposedly violated their right to property.

MAAS got a favorable decision but PBGEA elevated the case to the Court of Appeals. Meanwhile, aerial spraying continues.

In the Philippines, exporters of Cavendish bananas use the aerial spraying method to kill the Sigatoka fungus. Aerial bombardment hits not just the intended targets but human and non-humans as well that happen to be within the range of the toxic drift which reaches 3.2 kms. on the average.

MAAS said that the tridemorph and chlorothalonil fungicides used in the Philippines are banned in other countries. Animal studies have shown that the fungicide mancozeb could cause cancer. In her ground breaking 1962 book “Silent Spring”, Rachel Carson warned against this “amazing rain of death.”

The provincial government of Bukidnon banned aerial spraying way back in 2001 and North Cotabao in 2004 and banana plantations there have thrived without the aerial spray. Sen. Miguel Zubiri and Rep. Rufus Rodriguez have filed bills to ban aerial spraying in the entire country.

Anti-spraying advocates have an on-line petition at