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U.S.-backed pesticide spraying in Guatemala draws fire.

Posted Nov 21 2010 12:52pm
U.S.-backed pesticide spraying in Guatemala draws fire

Submitted by SHNS on Fri, 11/19/2010 - 12:48 By MATTHEW CREELMAN, SHNS contributing correspondentinternational ShareThis

GUATEMALA CITY - For most of three decades, the U.S. has financed massive aerial spraying of pesticides over a large part of Guatemala in an attempt to eradicate the Mediterranean fruit fly, but common precautions to limit exposure to the toxic chemicals are not being followed.

In the 1980s and 1990s, malathion was sprayed from aircraft over thousands of acres of Guatemala's forests and farmlands. More recently the U.S.-financed program has been spraying Spinosad GF 120 Naturalyte Fruit Fly Bait, produced by Dow Agrosciences.

According to Guatemalan government data, the U.S.-backed program has applied more than 6 million liters of GF-120 since 2002, equivalent to more than 5,000 tons of this pesticide-bait.

Dow scientists say that Spinosad is highly toxic to beneficial insects and aquatic species, and that precautions should be taken to avoid daytime spraying and avoid bodies of water.

However, in Guatemala, spraying occurs during the day and over water. In contrast, in California, which is also waging an ongoing battle with medflies, the use of Spinosad sprays to control the pests is carefully regulated, and residents and farm workers are warned prior to spraying to keep out of sprayed zones for at least four hours.

This is not the case in Guatemala.

The U.S. has spent $266 million on the fruit-fly eradication program since 1976. The original purpose of the program was to create a barrier that would keep the Medfly from "migrating" to California fruit farms about 2,200 miles away.

But the characterization of the medfly as a destructive "illegal alien" is challenged by Dr. James Carey, an entomologist with the University of California, Berkeley, who has concluded from DNA tests that the medfly is a permanent resident of California, detected in 167 municipalities --one third of the state -- since 1975.
Carey is recognized as a pre-eminent expert on the medfly, who served on the California Department of Food and Agriculture´s Medfly Scientific Advisory Panel from 1987 to 1994.

Campesinos, beekeepers, environmentalists, coffee growers and others who work the land and study it have opposed the program for years.

Israel Gramajo, the mayor of San Antonio, Suchitepequez, in southern Guatemala, is currently leading an effort to remove a Mosca Del Mediterraneo (or MOSCAMED) quarantine post from his town and prohibit aerial spraying. The medfly larvae develop in fruit such as coffee berries, oranges and mangos. The quarantine posts are set up on highways to keep potentially contaminated fruit from entering into regions considered free of the medfly. Ironically, the quarantine in San Antonio has been designed to keep contaminated fruit from entering a region already infested by the fruit fly.

Guatemala is the only Central American country using massive aerial spraying of pesticides to control the medfly. According to medfly program protocol, the plane sprays up to seven times each area treated, for a total of 500 droplets per 10 square feet.

According to a 2009 medfly report by a Mexican scientist working with the MOSCAMED Program, 1,650 square miles were infested with the Medfly in Guatemala, and another 5,600 square miles were subject to "suppression".

Guatemalans complain of damages to their crops, along with allergic reactions and conjunctivitis. MOSCAMED authorities deny the charges and say they provide important support to beekeepers, along with baking classes and medical campaigns in towns where the program is active.

When scientific studies in the 1980s and 1990s began raising concern regarding the potential environmental and human risks from massive aerial spraying of malathion, the MOSCAMED program sought out alternative pesticides, and began using GF-120. In 2002 the Guatemalan government requested an environmental impact study, to assure that the spraying is benign.

But that study, approved by the Guatemalan Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources in 2005, heavily relied on data from Dow Agrosciences and the U.S. and Guatemala agencies involved in the MOSCAMED program.

And the consultant who directed the study, Ricardo Santa Cruz Rubi, only months earlier had been vice minister of agriculture, responsible for approving aerial aspersions by the MOSCAMED program in Guatemala. Once the study was completed he was rehired by the ministry.

The study's conclusion was highly favorable regarding the use of Spinosad to control the fruit fly, even though the consultants reported that "there is a lack of information regarding the situation under field conditions and we recognize the limitations in our analysis due to this circumstance."

Over the years aerial spraying has covered a broad swath of Guatemala´s coffee-growing regions, in an attempt to create a barrier from the southwest to the northeast of the country. In recent years the program has focused on spraying in five departments in western Guatemala. The spraying is followed by the aerial release of sterile male Mediterranean fruit flies to mate with females, thus interrupting the fruit flies´ reproduction cycle.

Just as medfly outbreaks continue to recur in California, outbreaks were recorded as recently as September in southern Mexico and in northern regions of Guatemala´s Peten department, or state, both of which have been declared by MOSCAMED as "medfly free areas".

Spinosad is described in MOSCAMED documents as "environmentally friendly." A repellent in GF-120 is designed to keep beneficial insects from consuming the pesticide. However, scientists have warned against daytime applications and spraying over bodies of water, since active bees and aquatic species are unable to avoid contact with the substance.

In the 1980s, more than 264,000 gallons of malathion had been sprayed from aircraft covering an area of more than 4,000 square miles.

Beekeepers reported major losses in hive populations and honey production. "There were mounds of dead bees on the ground in front of the hives," said Julio Juarez, a beekeeper and environmental activist from San Antonio, Suchitepequez.
With Spinosad, there are no longer mounds of dead bees in front of the hives, possibly because of its sub-lethal impacts, which according to Canadian biologist Lora Morandin, undermine foraging ability and causes disorientation. Morandin reported these concerns in a 2005 study, "Lethal and Sublethal effects of Spinosad on Bumblebees."

But in spite of the Dow scientists' warnings regarding Spinosad´s toxicity to bees, the Guatemalan environmental study did not discuss alternatives to daytime aerial spraying as a means of controlling the fruit fly.

Nor did the evaluators address the issue of possible contamination when poisoned fruit flies become food for birds and other animals in a country home to numerous endangered species of birds and insects.

Instead, the mass spraying was advocated largely because of cost issues. It is far less expensive to massively spray a region than it is to apply site specific measures. And in Guatemala the MOSCAMED budget is a windfall for the resource-starved ministry of agriculture.

(Matthew Creelman is a free-lance journalist and political analyst who has reported from Guatemala since 1984. E-mail Creelman at Matthew_creelman(at)hotmail.com)
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