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$17B Countersuit Filed Against Sick Nicaraguans

$17B Countersuit Filed Against Sick Nicaraguan Workers

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From the radio newsmagazine
Between The Lines
http://www.btlonline.org
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Between the Lines Q&A
A weekly column featuring progressive viewpoints
on national and international issues
under-reported in mainstream media
for release Feb. 23, 2004
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Fruit/Chemical Companies File $17 Billion Countersuit Against Sick Nicaraguan Banana Workers

- Interview with Kathy Hoyt, co-coordinator of the Nicaragua Network, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

Listen in RealAudio: http://www.btlonline.org/hoyt022704.ram

As many as 20,000 banana workers and their families in Nicaragua are suffering serious health problems, including sterility and birth defects from the use of nemagon, a pesticide that was banned for use in the U.S. in 1979. Five hundred banana workers filed a lawsuit in Nicaraguan courts that won a $500 million judgment against U.S.-based companies Dole, Dow and Shell, but the companies refused to recognize the judgment.

They attacked the Nicaraguan law that was enacted to allow the affected banana workers to sue the chemical and fruit companies. Dole in particular claims it is environmentally and socially responsible on its banana plantations. The three companies recently counter-sued the claimants for fraud, claiming not everyone included in the suit worked at the affected plantations. The companies are seeking $17 billion in damages.

Recently, thousands of banana workers and their supporters marched from Chinandega, in the north of Nicaragua, to Managua, the capital, to publicize their plight and to demand support from Nicaragua's President Enrique Bolanos.

Between The Lines' Melinda Tuhus spoke with Kathy Hoyt, co-coordinator of the Nicaragua Network, a solidarity organization that is supporting the demands of the banana workers for justice in the case. She talks about the difficulties the workers face and their campaign to enlist the support of both the U.S. and Nicaraguan governments to influence a settlement with the companies.

Kathy Hoyt: The pesticide was banned for use in the U.S. in 1979, when it turned out that many workers in the factory where the pesticide was being produced were becoming sterile. And it was also thought to be ? and there were tests done ? a cancer-causing agent. But it continued to be used in Nicaragua until 1985. There are about 20,000 people alive now who were possibly affected by that pesticide, and several thousand of them have presented their claims in legal cases.

Between The Lines: If you could, update us on the legal situation.

Kathy Hoyt: The companies have refused to pay or even to recognize the judgment. The latest is that the companies have filed countersuits against the workers and their organizations for filing false reports and inflating the number of workers damaged by the pesticide.

Between The Lines: When did they file those countersuits?

Kathy Hoyt: I believe in December. Dole filed under RICO, which is the law that in the U.S. used to prosecute Mafia elements. Then Dow and Shell have also filed suit, but they’re not, evidently, using RICO. So the Nicaraguan banana workers, with this march to Managua -- about 4,000 of them have marched -- are demanding that their government support them in fighting this suit. They also stopped by the U.S. embassy to leave a letter for U.S. Ambassador Barbara Moore, asking her to pressure the companies to drop the suit and to negotiate with the banana workers.

Between The Lines: I know they had certain demands, one of which was that President Bolanos declare the situation of the banana workers a national emergency. What else are they asking for when they meet with President Bolanos?

Kathy Hoyt: They’re asking that the president try to bring a legal representative of Shell and Dole to Nicaragua, to talk with the workers and make those accusations there in Nicaragua, and they’d also like a pension fund to support those affected by Nemagon during the litigation process. They’re hoping that eventually they’ll get compensation. The National Assembly has also insisted in the past that they would support the law that they passed to allow the workers to sue. It was a law that was specifically passed for the banana workers to sue. There was also pressure put in the CAFTA negotiations. The chemical companies wanted the Central America Free Trade Agreement -- that was recently signed by trade representatives from the U.S. and Central American countries -- the chemical companies wanted that trade agreement to include a prohibition of these kinds of suits for responsibility for use of chemicals in the different countries. It appears that that is not a part of the agreement. The text has now been made public and people are trying to decide…but it appears that they were not successful in getting that measure. But you can see that it is important to the chemical and fruit companies to be able to put those powerful chemicals on our food that we eat in order to make it look pretty, even though it damages the health of the workers.

Between The Lines: Now, one thing you said is, that it was banned in the U.S. in 1979 and continued to be used in Nicaragua until 1985. So it’s not being used now?

Kathy Hoyt: No, but there’s always the suspicion -- and we hear this again and again -- that there could be something similar being used on the bananas, and we don’t know what the effects of that are likely to be…because the bananas are still pretty. So we don’t know, and nobody really trusts the companies to tell them what the safety issues are.

Between The Lines: So the banana workers or their family members who have gotten sick, it’s either from the fact that they worked before 1985 when Nemagon was being used, or there’s something else currently being used to make them sick?

Kathy Hoyt: Or, alternatively, the pesticide does live on in the soil and the ground water and things like that. So there could be continuous damage. And then, of course, much of the damage is sterility and low sperm counts, so many of the men, the banana workers, are sterile. Their capacity to have children will never be restored to them. And of course, many people feel that is deserving of rather substantial compensation. And then for the women who are affected, they have had numerous miscarriages and many children with birth defects.

For information on how to contact Dole, Dow and Shell and the U.S. ambassador to Nicaragua call the network at (202) 544-9355 or visit the group's website at http://www.nicanet.org.

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Melinda Tuhus is a producer of Between The Lines, which can be heard on over 35 radio stations. This interview excerpt was featured on the award-winning, syndicated weekly radio newsmagazine, Between The Lines ( http://www.btlonline.org), for the week ending Feb. 27, 2004. This Between The Lines Q&A was compiled by Melinda Tuhus and Anna Manzo.

PRINT INFORMATION: For reprint permission, please email betweenthelines@snet.net.


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