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Banana benders

For more than 20 years, Nicaraguan banana plantation worker Maria Isaidris Cruz Salgado has suffered from scabs affecting her whole body. When she got pregnant, she swelled up so badly that the foetus – which had no bone structure – had to be cut out. In February, Maria Isaidris walked the 160 kilometres from her town to Nicaragua’s capital, Managua. She was with thousands of other workers who – like her – claim to be suffering from exposure to pesticides containing the chemical agent dibromochloropropane (DBCP).

Their goal was to enlist government support in their fight for compensation from the companies they hold responsible: transnationals that allegedly sold and used the pesticides in Central America even after DBCP was banned in the US in 1979. After several weeks of camping rough outside the National Assembly in appalling conditions the workers returned home armed with government promises of aid. But those promises have so far proved empty.

Empty too have been the compensation awards initially promised by the legal system. At the end of 2002, a Nicaraguan court ordered Dow Chemical, Shell Chemical and Standard Fruit (now owned by Dole Food Company Inc) to pay $489 million to some 500 banana workers allegedly affected by DBCP. The companies refused to recognize the ruling, arguing that the particular law (Law 364) it is based on is, as Dole put it, ‘unconstitutional and violates international due process’.

]The workers’ attorneys then attempted to get the judgement enforced in the US but, rather incredibly, translation errors led to an initial dismissal. Efforts are now under way to have that decision reversed. Meanwhile, the plan is to try to get this ruling, and a further one delivered in March, executed in other countries where the companies have assets, such as Venezuela and Ecuador. Legal administrator Walter Gutiérrez argues: ‘We have a judgement that is enforceable in any country. The companies can’t hide from the facts. We will go after them all over the world for every penny.’ Unsurprisingly, the transnationals are fighting back hard. While Shell says it ‘sympathizes with those people in Nicaragua who are claiming they have been affected’, it continues to assert that its product ‘was not sold to Nicaragua’ despite court rulings to the contrary. Rather than pay the compensation awards, the transnationals are placing a string of legal obstacles in the workers’ way. Earlier this year, Shell and Dow filed an action asking a California court to declare any future rulings based on Law 364 unenforceable in the US. Dole’s strategy is even more confrontational: it is now trying to sue some of the workers and their lawyers for allegedly falsifying evidence. As the legal charade unravels, thousands more claims by banana workers are waiting in the wings. Lawyer Juan J Dominguez filed a lawsuit in April on behalf of 25 workers, which will be heard in Los Angeles. One of the biggest challenges facing him and his clients will be proving that the workers’ symptoms have been caused by DBCP. While it is widely recognized that DBCP can cause sterility in men, its link with other health problems such as cancer remains hotly contested.

For now, the impoverished workers remain stuck in legal and medical limbo. With government assistance lacking, the workers risk being run over by cash-rich transnationals able to keep bringing their cases back before the courts. According to Alistair Smith, international co-ordinator for UK campaigning organization Banana Link: ‘Certainly the workers are not expecting to see any money tomorrow. And in the meantime, people keep on dying.’

New Internationalist issue 372 magazine cover This article is from the October 2004 issue of New Internationalist.
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