Human Rights Watch urges Brazil to regulate pesticides more

Human Rights Watch urged the Brazilian government Friday to establish buffer zones nationwide when pesticides are sprayed and reduce the use of highly toxic products.

The group said in a report that Brazil is one of the largest consumers of pesticides in the world and it often uses products that are not authorized elsewhere. Of the 10 most common pesticides in Brazil, four cannot be used in the European Union.

The poorly regulated use of pesticides puts people's health at risk, the report said. Health Ministry data show that around 4,000 pesticide poisoning cases were reported last year. The ministry said in a report this year that there has been progress on reporting the number of cases, but that the figures continue to greatly underrepresent the reality.

The Agriculture Ministry said state governments handle the regulation of pesticides. But Luis Rangel, a senior official with the ministry, added that the ministry wants to increase the role of agronomists in regulating and monitoring how pesticides can be safely used. He did not elaborate. The Health Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Agriculture is a major engine of the economy in Brazil, which is among the largest producers of sugar, coffee and soybeans in the world. The "rural caucus" of lawmakers in Congress, who defend the interests of large landowners, are allies of President Michel Temer and wield significant political power.

Human Rights Watch urged Brazil to reduce the use of highly hazardous pesticides and to learn more about the harmful effects they can have.

Specifically, the report calls on the country to enact and enforce national rules that keep ground-spraying of pesticides away from areas like homes and schools. A rule already exists for aerial-spraying, but the group said it was not consistently followed.

"Pesticides are sprayed right up to (schools and communities) and sometimes on top of them. If you live there, you can get sick," said Richard Pearshouse, associate director of the Human Rights Watch environmental division and one of the report's authors.

The report documented dozens of cases in which people became sick after accidentally being sprayed by crop-dusters or coming into contact with pesticides that drifted out of fields and into their villages. The report said their symptoms were consistent with "acute pesticide poisoning," including vomiting, elevated heart rates, headaches and dizziness.

The authors added that some people refused or were reluctant to speak with them because there have been cases of violence against activists who call for reducing the use of pesticides.

Human Rights Watch said a bill making its way through Brazil's Congress would make it easier for pesticides to be approved, including by limiting the role of health and environment agencies. Proponents argue that current regulations are out of date and overly onerous.

The Environment Ministry's protection agency, Ibama, has come out against the law because of the limitations placed on health and environmental authorities in the approval process.

Lawmakers who are critical of the bill have proposed the creation of a national pesticide policy that would aim to reduce Brazil's reliance on hazardous products and encourage the use of more organic pesticides.