This is their banner. Ex-Banana Workers affected by Nemagon Welcome you. Across from the National Assembly in the capital city, Managua, of Nicaragua, lives a community of 500 ex-banana workers and their families from Chinandega. And what was I doing here? We (group of study abroad students) came here to interview some of the residents about their situation. It is a city (two blocks) of black plastic, of cardboard, and tree branches. It is a city of resistance, of death, of hope, and survival. A bean plant grows between the cement sidewalk and a woman’s black plastic wall, curling up its wood pole. Seedlings sprout out of black plastic bags, which the ex-workers will sell in the market. For five years, they have camped out right here in the face of the government. For eighteen years they have been fighting for reparations for their multiple health problems caused by the pesticide Nemagon. Nemagon was outlawed in the US in 1979; Dow and Shell exported millions of pounds of this pesticide in the 1970s and 80s to Nicaragua until it was banned here in 1985 (Revista Envio, June 2005).
What was I doing here, poking into houses of people who probably did not want to talk to me, or tell me about their scars and their poverty so that I could write down their names and their illnesses in my soggy notebook? Maria Feli, who I had just met by swooping under a plastic overhang in front of her house with insensitive Kathy leading, and soft-spoken Molly in tow, ushers us into her house. She pulls up her pant leg to show us a spotted purple rash. It was 30 years ago that she left her work on the banana plantation. She worked there for 15 years, deflowering, packing the bananas, body constantly exposed to the contaminated water. Purple rashes itch on ankles, legs, arms. Some have stomach cancer, asthma, sterility, children with deformities. Maria Feli’s husband, who worked in the banana fields, has gone blind from the poison. Many have died. 2,520 deaths, Guillermo Vivas, says. He is their vice-president, saying all they are asking for is a guaranteed pension and access to special treatment for their illnesses. The three ex-workers that I spoke with said that they have access to a doctor now, that he comes once or twice a week. Ortega’s government is providing them with rice, beans, and oil. Is it enough? I ask. Es suficiente? Maria Feli and Yolanda, the two women I interviewed, dismiss my question, Yolanda simply saying yes, there is food. It is then that I realize the foolishness of my question. They are here alive. Regardless of how much food the government gives them, they will survive. (They have been surviving without this government assistance for 60+ years in a country where most of the population has learned to live day by day, learned because if it was not for the earthquake of 1931, or the earthquake of 1972 that destroyed 80 percent of Managua, then perhaps it was the Contra War or the thirty year dictatorship of the Samoza family that destabilized most of the population. Why plan for the future when everything could be destroyed, gone tomorrow?)
Ortega has also implemented a literacy campaign in their community, attempting to provide education up to the third-grade level. Next door to this camp, bulldozers roar, installing a low-income housing project, which, Guillermo says, he hopes will be given to the people of Chinandega. In 2001, these workers were finally successful in bringing a lawsuit against Dole, Dow, and Shell, in which these companies were ordered to pay $490 million in compensation, but they refused to pay. They refuse to pay. Meanwhile, the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) threatens to nullify these lawsuits (Revista Envio, June 2005). CAFTA has commodified banana production in Nicaragua by making not only resources, but also bodies for sale. This commodification cannot be rectified within a neoliberal system in which people and land are disposable. The Chinandegan banana workers have resisted this neoliberal project through sustained community protest: marching from Chinandega to Managua, squatting the land, effecting a lawsuit, using hunger strikes, and other forms of protest (Revista Envio, June 2005). They are still fighting. They are still there. The transnationals still refuse to recognize them.
But aren’t things better now? Nemagon is no longer in use. Yes, well even pesticides that are not known to be dangerous to humans, affect workers´ health. Our white aging ecology prof, David Norman, explains to us how our bodies are chemically very similar to those of our pests. We develop new pesticides every five years because pests become resistant to these chemicals. And we are complicit. Despite the social movements of local people affected by these policies, the atrocities of nemagon will not disappear until we change our neoliberal development strategies, until we stop bodies from being sold in the free market, until development focuses on social objectives (health, education, fairer distribution of resources) rather than economic growth for the rich. Nemagon will not disappear until we look to the workers of our current neoliberal globalized system for clarity.