A report by Tim Whewell for BBC Information.
“First we have been enslaved. Then we have been poisoned.” That’s what number of on Martinique see the historical past of their French Caribbean island that, to vacationers, means solar, rum, and palm-fringed seashores. Slavery was abolished in 1848. However at present the islanders are victims once more – of a poisonous pesticide referred to as chlordecone that’s poisoned the soil and water and been linked to unusually excessive charges of prostate most cancers.
“They by no means informed us it was harmful,” Ambroise Bertin says. “So individuals have been working, as a result of they needed the cash. We didn’t have any directions about what was, and wasn’t, good. That’s why lots of people are poisoned.” He’s speaking about chlordecone, a chemical within the type of a white powder that plantation staff have been informed to place below banana timber, to guard them from bugs.
Ambroise did that job for a few years. Later, he obtained prostate most cancers, a illness that’s commoner on Martinique and its sister French island of Guadeloupe than wherever else on the planet. And scientists blame chlordecone, a persistent natural pollutant associated to DDT. It was authorised to be used within the French West Indies lengthy after its dangerous results turned extensively identified.
“They used to inform us: don’t eat or drink something whilst you’re placing it down,” Ambroise, now 70, remembers. However that’s the one clue he and different staff in Martinique’s banana plantations within the Seventies, 80s and early 90s had in regards to the doable hazard. Few if any have been informed to put on gloves or masks. Now, many have suffered most cancers and different sicknesses.
Chlordecone is an endocrine disrupter, that means it could actually have an effect on hormonal programs.
One of many world’s main specialists on the chemical, Prof Luc Multigner, of Rennes College in France, says epidemiological research have proven elevated danger of untimely births and elevated danger of antagonistic mind growth in youngsters on the publicity ranges individuals in Martinique and Guadeloupe face by way of contaminated meals consumption.
He additionally says: “There’s sufficient toxicological and experimental information to conclude that chlordecone is carcinogenic.”
Following an in depth examine Prof Multigner and colleagues carried out on Guadeloupe in 2010, he estimates chlordecone is answerable for about 5-10% of prostate most cancers circumstances within the French West Indies, amounting to between 50 to 100 new circumstances per yr, out of a inhabitants of 800,000.
Chlordecone stays within the soil for many years, presumably for hundreds of years. So greater than 20 years after the chemical ceased for use, a lot of the land on Martinique can’t be used for rising greens, despite the fact that bananas and different fruit on timber are protected.
Rivers and coastal waters are additionally contaminated, which implies many fishermen can not work. And 92% of Martinicans have traces of chlordecone of their blood.
“You attempt to have a wholesome sort of life. So perhaps you’ll restrict the consequences of the poison. However you aren’t positive,” says historian Valy Edmond-Mariette, aged 31. “My buddies and I have been asking ourselves: do we actually need youngsters? As a result of if we give them breast milk, perhaps they are going to have chlordecone of their blood. And I believe no one needs to be asking themselves this sort of query, as a result of it’s terrible.”
Manufacturing of chlordecone was stopped in the US – the place it was marketed as Kepone – way back to 1975, after staff at a manufacturing facility producing it in Virginia complained of uncontrollable shaking, blurred imaginative and prescient and sexual issues. In 1979, the World Well being Group classed the pesticide as probably carcinogenic.
However in 1981 the French authorities authorised chlordecone to be used in banana plantations within the French West Indies – and despite the fact that it was lastly banned in 1990, growers lobbied for – and obtained – permission to hold on utilizing shares till 1993.
That’s why – for a lot of Martinicans – chlordecone stirs up painful historic reminiscences. “Lots of people speak about chlordecone like a brand new sort of slavery,” says Valy, whose personal ancestors have been enslaved. For 2 centuries, till 1848, Martinique was a colony that relied on the manufacturing of sugar by enslaved individuals. And within the late twentieth Century, among the large banana growers who used chlordecone have been the direct descendants of these slave-owning sugar exporters, a part of a small white minority often known as the békés.
“These are nonetheless the identical group of people that have uncontested domination of the land,” says Guilaine Sabine, activist in a grassroots organisation referred to as Zero Chlordecone Zero Poison. In addition to campaigning at no cost blood exams for everybody on the island, members of the group have taken half in a brand new wave of protests over the past yr aiming to attract consideration to companies that activists say have profited from the manufacturing and use of poisonous pesticides. The demonstrations have been small, and a few protesters have been convicted of violence towards the police. However they mirror wider anger over the gradual tempo of France’s response to the chlordecone disaster.
It was solely in 2018 – after greater than 10 years of campaigning by French Caribbean politicians – that President Emmanuel Macron accepted the state’s accountability for what he referred to as “an environmental scandal”. He stated France had suffered “collective blindness” over the difficulty. A legislation to create a compensation fund for agricultural staff has now been handed. However payouts haven’t began but.
Martinique is an integral a part of France, however one of many island’s MPs, Serge Letchimy, says it could by no means have taken the state so a few years to react if there had been air pollution on the identical scale in Brittany, for instance, or elsewhere in European France. “The problem is how abroad territories get handled. There’s contempt, distance, condescension, lack of respect.”
Prof Multigner says the unique paperwork of the official physique that authorised use of the pesticide in 1981 have disappeared for unknown causes, hampering makes an attempt to research how the choice was taken.
However the state’s consultant on Martinique, Prefect Stanislas Cazelles, insists there was no discrimination towards the islanders.
“The Republic is on the facet of the oppressed, of the weakest right here, simply as within the European a part of France,” he says.
The state is working to search out methods to decontaminate the land – some scientists suppose chlordecone can probably be biodegraded fairly rapidly – and guarantee there is no such thing as a hint of the pesticide within the meals chain. And the prefect hopes the unbiased fee that can decide compensation claims will typically rule in favour of former farm staff who say they’re victims of the pesticide.
Ambroise, who labored with chlordecone for therefore a few years, had an operation to take away his most cancers in 2015. However he nonetheless suffers from thyroid illness and different issues which may be linked to chlordecone’s identified results on the hormonal system.
In the meantime the historian, Valy, had blood most cancers when she was simply 25. Her physician doesn’t suppose it was resulting from chlordecone. However Valy says no-one could be positive.
Worrying in regards to the results of the pesticide, she says, could be exhausting. “However in the long run, you may’t management all the things. You must admit that to some extent, you’re poisoned, so that you simply take care of it.”