‘Ben Zand spends time with Guatemala’s huge evangelical community visiting Pastor Sanchez, from the town of Almolonga.
Almolonga is famous for the story of transformation, where God blessed its giant carrots and vegetables, saving people from poverty.
The story of Almolonga’s carrots is true – but is all as it seems?’
Almolonga: Suffering the Effects of Synthetic Agrochemicals
“One of the 24 municipios of the department of Quetzaltenango, Almolonga, ‘the place where the water springs’, lies nestled in a volcanic valley in the Guatemalan highlands. Fondly known by its inhabitants as the ‘Garden of the Americas’, it is the main producer of vegetables in western Guatemala, due to its rich soil, cooler climate and ready natural water supply. Every day, a sizeable cohort of trucks leaves the town, carrying produce to markets in Guatemala, Honduras, Costa Rica, Mexico and especially El Salvador. In addition to the main export crops of Guatemala – coffee, bananas, sugarcane, for instance – the season-dependent commercial produce includes onions, potatoes, cabbage, carrots, beets, and lettuce. These are often highly impressive in both size and colour, with carrots up to the size of a child’s forearm.
Yet while the comparative wealth of the people of Almolonga is generally attributed to their visibly good work ethic and labour-intensive lifestyle, their extensive use of agrochemicals – synthetic fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides – is increasingly becoming a matter of great concern. To begin with, farmers in Almolonga (and Guatemala more generally) tend to apply far too much of these chemicals. For instance, when a recommended dose of a pesticide is stated as 4.5-9 cubic inches per acre every 4-10 days, the reality on an Almolongan farm may be as much as 30 cubic inches every 3 days, at times daily during the rainy season. It is frequently used preventatively, thus on crops that are not exhibiting signs of infection; this costly and unnecessary overuse (85-90% never reaches its target) ends up in water and air supplies and in the soil. Fruit and vegetables are especially susceptible to absorption of chemicals from their environment.
The main effects of this overuse of chemicals fit into three categories: health, environment and economy. As mentioned above, agrochemicals work their way into the environment and thus into the food and drink supplies of the local people. The other key source of contamination is much more direct. Training for the safe use of chemicals and proper safety equipment is minimal. While some farmers display an awareness of the risks of improper chemical use, this does not particularly seem to lead to alterations in practices, and indeed some have voiced the opinion that Almolongueños have developed an immunity. Workers are therefore completely exposed while applying the chemicals; when eating their lunch in the fields – due to a lack of handwashing facilities; and when washing out empty containers. Although they use roughly 20% of the world’s agrochemicals, more than 50% of agrochemical-induced deaths each year are in developing countries. Guatemala alone has approximately 1,200 cases of acute intoxication (short-term reaction) every year.
Physicians in the early nineties identified Gamexan, an extremely toxic organochloride, as having severe effects through dermal contact on farms in the Guatemalan highlands, particularly creating foetal dangers when mothers worked during pregnancy. Respiratory diseases such as chronic bronchitis, asthma and pneumonitis have all been associated with exposure to agrochemicals, and it is likely that anaemia, tonsillitis and respiratory diseases that involve epithelial cell destruction are linked as well, which is true of bronchopneumonia – the primary cause of death in Almolonga.
Some longer term reactions to the exposure to agrochemicals, especially when it is in the indirect form of ingestion of exposed food and water, is somewhat harder to pin down. For a start, medical statistics in Guatemala are lamentably incomplete. Private doctors, of which there are over 300 in Quetzaltenango alone, tend not to report their cases. When they are reported, the information can be unreliable, such as babies born with congenital malformations simply reported as ‘stillbirths’, whether born with visible malformations or possible immune deficiencies. As this is already an area where family shame effects public awareness of the existence of malformed babies, the data is far from comprehensive, but preliminary studies have suggested a link between maternal ingestion of nitrates in groundwater and foetal problems. Nitrogen is the most concentrated element in these synthetic fertilisers and quickly reaches toxic levels, which studies have suggested is linked to brain cancer in children and stomach cancer in adults. Indeed, cancer is the third most common cause of death in Almolonga, while it does not usually feature in the top ten in the department of Quetzaltenango. More generally, it is believed that, possibly due to a lower immune response to bacterial, viral and parasitic infection in exposed populations, agrochemicals have led to a weaker, shorter-lived population.
The land itself suffers as well. Synthetic fertilisers have been observed exhausting the soil. Studies demonstrate that intensive use of these chemicals, as they only contain specific elements, deplete the amount of other essential nutrients such as phosphorous, zinc, iron and sulphur. In some crops, it is now the case that they will not grow without the fertiliser. It has also been shown that land used with synthetic fertiliser produces a diminishing rate of return, thus a smaller harvest. This, coupled with population pressures, means that farmers simply cannot afford to leave land fallow, and the soil quality deteriorates even further. Another significant problem is created by the synthetic pesticides. They are not discriminate in their targets, and thus eradicate natural pest predators along with their prey. These predators would usually account for 50-90% of pest control.
As Almolonga markets the majority of its produce in Central America, the economic problems have not yet taken as much of a toll upon it as the rest of the country. Other farm towns, which sell to more industrialised countries such as the United States, have run into problems with the strictly-regulated upper limits of chemicals permitted in agroimports. The US FDA regularly detains a high percentage of imports from Guatemala due to a failure to observe chemical specifications, both dictating quantity and type, and a total of $18m has been calculated as the cost of this detention for Guatemala between 1984-1994. The affected Guatemalan municipios have begun looking towards organic farming, as levels of chemicals such as those in Almolongan produce are banned. With Nicaragua and Honduras now producing their own vegetables, rather than importing them from the ‘Garden of the Americas’, a worry has begun to surface that this transition may soon be necessary in Almolonga, too, to ensure access to the more selective markets.
These changing farm towns are a further threat to Almolonga’s monopoly, as new irrigation techniques diminish the advantage bestowed by natural water supplies, particularly as its cultivable flat land stands at less than 2km². The growing awareness of agrochemical danger in local target markets is a turning tide against these methods too.
There is also the idea that, as the cost of chemicals increases faster than the price of corn, and political administrations have thus used subsidies to boost votes, farmers using organic fertilisers are independent in more ways than one, and economic control has long been a desire and a priority for indigenous farmers. Indeed, the further a farmer’s dependence on chemicals is reduced, the more their farm’s sustainability and their own autonomy are increased in tandem.
Unfortunately, while many famers wish to return to organic farming, often in traditional milpa form (a permaculture system of growing corns, beans and squash together), they are confronted by some substantial obstacles. For instance, it can take anywhere between 2-8 years for land to be restored to the point that organic fertilizers can be effective once more. Access to organic fertiliser is not always straightforward either, and is a subject that can exacerbate class differences, since it tends to be richer families who own animals. Local opinion also suggests that the increased, unpleasant, workload of an organic former may lack appeal after the ease of an agrochemical spray. However, organic fertilisers, in contrast to synthetic ones, have a high retention rate in the soil, helping to retain moisture, nourish essential fungi networks and nutrients, and increase carbon dioxide, and therefore create significant advantages.
All of this has resulted in arguments in favour of ethnoecological approaches, wherein indigenous understanding of the land is incorporated into agricultural techniques. It is believed that this tailored approach is significantly more effective than the steamroller system of the agrochemical universal solution, and increasing effort is being made to help enable farmers in their return to traditional or organic methods.”
– By Martha Lee
‘Commercial Agriculture and Agrochemicals in Almolonga, Guatemala’ by Sonia I. Arbona inGeographical Review Vol. 88, No. 1 (Jan., 1998), pp. 47-63
‘Guatemala’s Green Revolution: Synthetic Fertilizer, Public Health, and Economic Autonomy in the Mayan Highland’ by DAVID CAREY JR. in Agricultural History, Vol. 83, No. 3 (SUMMER 2009), pp. 283-322
Global Maya: work and ideology in rural Guatemala by Liliana R. Goldin (University of Arizona Press, 2011)