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Pesticide Poisonings in Yavatmal: Those affected take on agribusiness giant Syngenta

Global pesticide and seed producers such as Bayer, Syngenta and DowDuPont have long been criticized for the negative impacts of their products on the environment, biodiversity, the right to food and human health, as well as putting pressure on small scale subsistence farming. More recently, the double standards at play in the industry have come under scrutiny. Pesticides prohibited in their countries of origin, e.g. in Switzerland, Germany or elsewhere in Europe in order to safeguard human health and the environment, are still being produced there and subsequently exported to developing countries. On its face this is a questionable practice, however even more worrisome is the pesticides are sold to destinations where awareness of the dangers of pesticides are lacking and conditions of use are far more insecure than in Europe. Time and again this results in adverse health impacts after pesticides exposure.

In fall 2017, hundreds of farmers suffered from pesticide poisoning in the district of Yavatmal in the Indian state of Maharashtra. A civil society investigation concluded that a number of different pesticides were used by those suffering adverse health impacts. A principal product used was Polo, which contains the active ingredient Diafenthiuron. This ingredient is manufactured and marketed by agribusiness giant Syngenta, headquartered in Basel. Syngenta contends there is no evidence that its product caused or contributed to the poisonings. However, farmers and their families have unearthed documents that appear to implicate Syngenta's product in the poisoning incidents. Farmers’ interviews, relatives' testimonies, police documents and hospital records appear to indicate that Syngenta's product Polo was used in a large number of the poisoning incidents. The state government temporarily banned products which used Diafenthiuron, among others, as a measure to avoid further poisonings.

Documenting pesticides poisoning cases in rural India is extremely challenging. Farmers rarely keep purchase bills or records of medical treatment and medication. It is difficult to prove loss of income due to hospitalization or prolonged periods of recovery at home, when income is not documented and pay-slips are an uncommon practice for daily wage laborers. Documentation of this kind is essential to prove cases in the countries where pesticide producers are headquartered and creates a significant barrier to bringing this type of case.

Despite these difficulties, the wives of two farmers, who died after pesticide poisoning, and one farmer, who suffered severe health damages, have now submitted a civil lawsuit to the peace judge in Switzerland on 17 of September 2020. Their claim is based on product liability law, which subjects manufacturers of products to assume responsibility for negative health impacts caused by product failures. The plaintiffs allege Polo led to serious negative health impacts or death and request compensation for the losses suffered. They argue Syngenta did not sufficiently apprise farmers in the Yavatmal region of the potential health hazards from Polo and did not ensure adequate protective equipment was provided.

In addition to the civil lawsuit, 51 additional farmers have submitted an OECD Complaint to the Swiss National Contact point charged with overseeing Swiss companies’ adherence to the OECD guidelines for multinational enterprises. This group of farmers also suffered health damages, ranging from nausea, fainting and prolonged periods of unconsciousness, to neurological and muscular complaints. Numerous farmers have spent over a week in hospital, and many still complain about persisting problems. Farmers insist that Syngenta marketed Polo despite knowing that the majority of farmers in rural India are unaware of the dangers related to pesticide use. Furthermore, Syngenta was or should have been aware of the lack of personal protective equipment in the region to allow farmers to use the product safely. The group of 51 farmers call on Syngenta to recognize its responsibility for the negative health impacts and the financial losses suffered. They further argue that Syngenta immediately has to change its business practices to save the lives and physical integrity of many more farmers. Dangerous products, whose application requires personal protective equipment shouldn't be marketed to small-scale users and farm workers in India. Particularly, when these products are already prohibited in other countries, as was the case with Syngenta's product Polo, which is banned in Switzerland and the EU. Notably, Polo is included in Annex 1 of the Swiss Prior, Informed, Consent ordinance which lists products prohibited or restricted due to their impact on human health and the environment. Further, the Swiss government decided to ban the export of this substance only days ago.

Both actions are currently pending; plaintiffs and complainants as well as civil society organisations PAN India, Maharashtra Association of Pesticide Poisoned Persons, Public Eye and ECCHR are waiting to hear from both the peace judge and the Swiss NCP.

On 21st of October 2020, Syngenta has released a public reaction to both interventions affirming its position that Polo is not responsible for the damage caused. The efforts undertaken by the affected individuals show that big European pesticides manufacturers continue unabated to market their dangerous products outside of their home country. The poisonings indicate that the due diligence carried out by Syngenta is insufficient to avoid and mitigate the risks emanating from its products. Therefore, voluntary commitments once again prove to be ineffective, confirming that the way forward can only lie in mandatory human rights due diligence, as currently debated in Switzerland, Germany and on the European level.