A mother whose infant died as a result of pesticide poisoning, Sofía Gatica is organizing local women to stop indiscriminate spraying of toxic agrochemicals in neighboring soy fields.
Argentina is the world’s third largest exporter of soybeans. Every year, the industry spreads over 50 million gallons of agro-toxins—namely glyphosate, the key ingredient in Monsanto’s widely-used herbicide Roundup, and endosulfan—through aerial spraying over farmland.
While Monsanto claims there is no risk to humans, a 2008 scientific study found that even at low concentrations, glyphosate causes the death of human embryonic, placental and umbilical cells. Endosulfan is a highly toxic pesticide that has been banned in 80 countries because of its threats to human health and the environment. In May 2011, it was added to the UN list of persistent organic pollutants to be eliminated worldwide.
Thirteen years ago, Sofía Gatica gave birth to a daughter. Three days later, the baby’s kidneys failed. The working-class mother of three was determined to find out what killed her child. She began talking to her neighbors in Ituzaingó, a working-class neighborhood of 6,000 in central Argentina surrounded by soy fields, and became alarmed at the prevalence of unexplained health problems plaguing her community.
Gatica invited a group of neighbors to her home to discuss their experiences. With only a high school education and no organizing experience, Gatica co-founded the Mothers of Ituzaingó—a group of 16 mothers working together to put a stop to the indiscriminate agrochemical use that was poisoning their community.
Gatica and the group of mothers began going door to door to conduct the first epidemiological study of the area and discovered the serious effects that pesticide spraying was having on the families in Ituzaingó. Residents reported cancer rates that were 41 times the national average (doctors suspect that many other cases go unreported), as well as high rates of neurological and respiratory diseases, birth defects, and infant mortality.
With the findings confirming their worst fears, the Mothers of Ituzaingó brought together environmental groups in Argentina to launch a “Stop Spraying” campaign. They led press conferences, demonstrations and published materials to warn the public about the dangers of pesticides. Gatica also met with research institutions to request scientific studies to confirm what she had observed in Ituzaingó.
Gatica and the Mothers of Ituzaingó faced an uphill battle, having very few resources or any direct access to demand accountability from Monsanto, DuPont and other global agrochemical companies operating in Argentina. They also endured insults and threats from individuals, police officers, and local business owners in Ituzaingó. In 2007, an individual entered Gatica’s house and demanded that she give up the campaign while pointing a revolver at her.
Despite these challenges, Gatica and the mothers’ advocacy has had resounding effects. In 2008, the president of Argentina ordered the minister of health to investigate the impact of pesticide use in Ituzaingó and a resulting study conducted by the Department of Medicine at Buenos Aires University corroborated the mothers’ door-to-door research linking pesticide exposure to public health. Gatica subsequently succeeded in getting a municipal ordinance passed that prohibited aerial spraying in Ituzaingó at distances of less than 2,500 meters from residences. In an unprecedented victory, a 2010 ruling from the Supreme Court not only banned agrochemical spraying near populated areas, but it also reversed the burden of proof—instead of residents proving that spraying causes harm, the government and soy producers must now prove the chemicals are safe.
Other municipalities in Argentina have reached out to Gatica for help addressing similar problems in their neighborhoods. Recognizing the extent of the issue, Gatica is working with the Stop Spraying campaign to ban all aerial spraying in Argentina and create buffer zones so that agrochemicals are not used in close proximity to residential areas and waterways. With Argentina’s ban on endosulfan going into effect July 2013, Gatica and her colleagues are pushing for a nationwide ban on glyphosate as well.