Chemical groups try to silence allegations about crop devastation

Seventeen chemical companies, including some of the world’s most powerful multinationals, are trying to suppress allegations that their herbicides are causing massive damage to South Africa’s ecology. The companies are also trying to force a group of Natal farmers, who made the allegations, into a humiliating apology for taking court action to prove their claims. 

The move by the companies stems from a David and Goliath court action in which a group of Natal vegetable farmers this year failed to win a supreme court application to prohibit the manufacture and sale of all hormone herbicides in South Africa. The farmers prepared affidavits for the case based on documented evidence that the widespread use of hormone herbicides, which work on the same principles as the Agent Orange used to defoliate forests during the Vietnam War, have caused millions of rands of damage to their vegetable harvests and have devastated other vegetation in the Natal Midlands. 

The case - the biggest civil litigation in South African legal history - was rejected before the evidence was tested in court. The court ruled that litigation should have been directed against the users rather than the manufacturers of the herbicides. The farmers were ordered to pay costs estimated to be as high as R750 000. The companies say they will waive payment on condition the farmers forfeit their right to take legal action against any of the firms and refrain from any public campaigns aimed a: highlighting the dangers of the products. The farmers say they are also being “blackmailed” into paying for advertisements in 17 newspapers and magazines apologising for the court action and denying that they possess scientific evidence of the environmental damage caused by their products.

A draft of the advert, drawn up by the companies’ attorneys and leaked to the Weekly Mail by local environmentalists from Earth Life Africa, says: “The legal proceedings instituted by us have been withdrawn unreservedly on the basis that we acknowledge that hormone herbicide products are of vital necessity to the community in the eradication of various broad -leaf weeds if properly used in terms of their registrations ... “We further state that we do not possess any scientific evidence that any hormone herbicide product presently used in the Republic of South Africa constitutes a health hazard in normal use ... “Furthermore, we apologise to the manufacturers and the distributors of these products for the unnecessary expense and utilisation of manpower to which they have been subjected.”

The companies also want the farm¬ers “forevermore” to refrain from le¬ gal proceedings against any one of the companies and to prohibit them from engaging in any campaign against manufacture or sale of the herbicides. The farmers have refused to accept the terms of the agreement. ‘‘This is simply blackmail,” their representa¬tive and Tala Valley farmer, Roger Evans, told the Weekly Mail. “We have collected hundred s of pages of scientific data about the damage these products have caused to vegetable crops and plants in Na­tal, which was never heard by the court. Now they are asking us to deny all this.” Attorney AC Couzyn, who is acting for the 17 companies, replied: “The reason for asking for the adverts is simply that we do not believe that the farmers had any scientific evidence.” He refused to make any further comment. 

The unrestrained use of dangerous pesticides on South African farms, where virtually no health or safety regulations are enforced, makes this country a multi-million rand market for pesticide manufacturers. Documents prepared by Sandoz, one of the companies involved in the controversy, estimate that its sales division earns more than R500-million a year from distributing hormone herbicides in South Africa. Hormone herbicides were invented in Britain du ring the 1940s as a weapon of war to decimate enemy crops. They were adapted to civilian use after World War II. They are used extensively on sugar, maize and forest estates around the world to kill broad-leaf weeds and work by causing deformities in the growth cells of broad-leaf plants. Spraying with hormone herbicides does not damage maize and sugar, but these substances can drift on to vegetable farms where they deform crops and, in cases of extreme exposure, can kill entire harvests. The chemicals are absorbed into the atmosphere and deposited as rain or dew many kilometres from the source of the spraying, where they cause damage to indigenous tree and plant life. 

The Weekly Mail is in possess ion of a map from the Department of Agriculture which shows that at least 18 out of its 24 testing stations in Natal have found concentrations of various hormone herbicide s in the rain. In 1988, results from the government testing station in the Tala Valley area of Natal - passed on to the Weekly Mail - showed herbicide levels in rain samples that were 1 000 times the amount needed to damage vegetable crops. Affidavits presented to the court state that in the last five years the percentage of first-grade tomatoes in yields has dropped from 70 percent to 15 percent a year. The average lettuce yield ha dropped from 85 to 32 percent and that of cabbages from 80 to 45 percent. 

Evans told the Weekly Mail that the farmers are being asked to state that the herbicides pose no dangers to human health even though their case did not deal with the medical risks posed by ingesting the chemicals. But there is extensive evidence that the chemicals are linked to skin cancer, liver diseases, chest and nasal complaints and even birth defects. A recent search of medical journals about the effects of hormonal herbicides on human health produced more than 100 articles on the social and health effects of the chemicals. 

The companies are Agroserve, Applied Agricultural Products, BASF, Bayer South Africa, CH Chemicals, Ciba-Geigy, Evergrow Marketing, FBC Holdings, ICI Agrochemicals, Kynoch Crop Protection, Mayhaker, Sandoz, Sentrachem, Shell (SA), Staalchem Chemicals, Starke Ayres and Wonder Horticultural Products. 

Shell head-office representative Colleen Channon-Bracher said last night “This is not the sort of thing that Shell would get involved in. It wishes to make it clear that insofar as it may be implicated, the company wishes to disassociate itself from any request for undertakings referring to future legal procedures or campaigns, adverts or apologies.”

This article originally appeared in the Weekly Mail.

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