Brazil allows the use of toxic pesticides that are banned in other parts of the world, and spraying is often allowed right up to the doors of rural homes and schools.

© Weberson Santiago/VEJA

I met Yara, a teenager who was 3-months pregnant, a few months ago in an impoverished indigenous community in Mato Grosso do Sul state. I was there to talk to her parents, Irupe and Pinon, about how toxic pesticides sprayed in the large plantation next door impacts their community.

Brazil allows the use of toxic pesticides that are banned in other parts of the world, and spraying is often allowed right up to the doors of rural homes and schools. Pesticide poisoning is a fact of life in many rural areas. Brazil’s regulation of these pesticides is inadequate, but Congress is considering a bill that would further weaken the regulatory framework. Congress should reject the bill.

As I spoke with her parents, Yara was poring over a guide for expectant mothers. But the book did not address how to avoid the acute pesticide poisoning that her community has long suffered.

Yara was afraid the pesticides could harm her and her baby. Research shows that chronic exposure to pesticide is associated with negative impacts on fetal development, and with infertility, cancer, and other serious health effects.

Yara’s parents, told me that their most recent incident was earlier this year, when they felt the spray wetting their backs as a tractor spewed pesticides on the nearby plantation. They felt dizziness, nausea, headache, diarrhea and vomiting, symptoms consistent with acute pesticide poisoning. 

Unfortunately, Yara’s community is not an isolated case. Across all regions of Brazil, ordinary people in rural communities are being poisoned from highly hazardous pesticides sprayed near their homes, schools, and workplaces. Until now, Brazil doesn’t require a buffer zone around schools, homes or other sensitive sites for ground spraying. This could soon change if the Agriculture Ministry keeps a promise made on national TV to introduce a nationwide regulation that would set a buffer zone for ground spraying. For aerial spraying, there is a requirement in an existing regulation by MAPA for a buffer zone but it is seldom enforced.

A new regulation would be just the beginning.  Brazilian authorities do not know how many Brazilians are being sprayed from airplanes or tractors and even less about the health and environmental impact. They need this information, and a system to enforce the buffer zones and other protections.

The bill before congress would weaken protections even further, reducing the Health and Environment Ministries’ roles in approving pesticides for use, even though they have the needed expertise.

Congress should reject the bill and lead a national effort to review the impact of pesticides on the health of rural communities and set the course for providing the needed protection. Yara shouldn’t have to worry that pesticide spraying will harm her or her baby, and people across rural Brazil should be protected from these poisons.