Argentine farmworker and outspoken advocate against agrochemicals Fabián Tomasi passed away last week, leaving behind a defiant call to action
By Tanya Kerssen, Medium
The historic victory last month in the case of Dewayne Johnson v. Monsanto reverberated around the world. It confirmed what, sadly, hundreds of thousands of people already knew: the chemicals we apply to kill weeds and pests are killing us, too. Perhaps no country knows this better than Argentina.
After Monsanto’s (now owned by Bayer) Roundup Ready soybeans were introduced to the country in 1996, the crop took over. Along with parts of Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Uruguay, it is now known as the “Republic of Soy.” Between 2010 and 2016, soy has blanketed between 53 and 60 percent of the country’s total agricultural land — up from 28 percent in 1996 and 17 percent in 1986, according to FAO data.
Almost all of the soy grown in Argentina today is Monsanto’s Roundup Ready soy, genetically modified to resist Monsanto’s own glyphosate-based Roundup herbicide. Between 1996 and 2016, glyphosate use in Argentina jumped from 19.90 million liters to 237.6 million liters — a 1,089 percent increase. During roughly the same period, the area planted to soybeans in Argentina increased from 14.7 million acres to 47 million acres — a 216 percent increase.
In other words, glyphosate use has far outpaced the rate of crop expansion. This dispels the agribusiness-propelled myth that genetically modified crops decrease agrochemical use. The benefit of Roundup Ready soy, from the point of view of agribusiness and large-scale producers, was that you could now spray herbicide indiscriminately over large areas, without needing to carefully target “weeds.”
In Argentine provinces like Entre Ríos, where Fabián Tomasi lived and worked, communities are besieged on all sides by chemical-intensive plantations.
Such widespread use created what are sometimes referred to as “superweeds”, plants that began to develop resistance to Roundup herbicide. To keep up with these superweeds, growers ramped up Roundup applications and also started mixing in other chemicals like 2,4-D and paraquat, both also linked to major health risks.
In Argentine provinces like Entre Ríos, where Fabián Tomasi lived and worked, communities (those that haven’t yet been pushed out by the sea of soy) are besieged on all sides by chemical-intensive plantations. The high rates of birth defects, infertility, stillbirths, miscarriages, chronic respiratory illnesses, and cancers have led to rural community organizing against agribusiness and the formation of organizations like Medicos de Pueblos Fumigados (Doctors of Fumigated Communities).
An AP story from 2013 profiled Argentina’s public health crisis, including Tomasi’s story, with harrowing photographs. It describes Tomasi, a former farmworker and crop duster who had been regularly drenched in poisons, as “a living skeleton, so weak he can hardly swallow or go to the bathroom on his own.” On September 7th of this year, Tomasi finally succumbed to complications related to severe toxic polyneuropathy, a debilitating neurological disorder that doctors attribute to his occupational exposure to agrochemicals. But not before making an impassioned call to action to rid the world of these dangerous chemicals.
Tomasi wrote about the silence and fear surrounding the suffering caused by fumigation, saying: “I do not want to swallow my words. I want to scream.”
In the years before his death at 53 years of age, Tomasi frequently spoke at schools and other community spaces about his story. He was also the protagonist of a 2013 book titled Envenenados (The Poisoned Ones) by journalist Patricio Eleisegui, which featured Tomasi’s emaciated body on the cover.
In an article written a few months before his death, Tomasi wrote about the silence and fear surrounding the suffering caused by fumigation, saying: “I do not want to swallow my words. I want to scream.” He talked about the numerous threatening phone calls he received for speaking out (presumably from area soy growers), and the corrupt collusion between governments and multinational corporations: “They are not business people, they are agents of death.” (Read an English translation of the article here).
Below is a transcription, translated to English, of an open letter he read to school children in his hometown of Basabilvaso.
Open Letter to Elementary School Students of Basavilbaso
by Fabián Tomasi
You are children, but I have to explain something very difficult to you.
My story is not a nice one.
You can see that I am sick, and I want you to know why.
I used to work in the soybean fields.
I flew the planes that fumigate the soybean plants.
To fumigate is to spray poison on the plants.
This poison doesn’t kill the soybeans, it kills everything else.
The fields are full of different plants that grow naturally,
without asking for anyone’s permission, of course.
But the men who grow soybeans don’t want any of these other plants to grow.
So they call all the plants that they don’t like “weeds”
And that’s why they poison them, to kill them.
When I started this job, I didn’t know quite what I was doing.
And I would ask myself: is this good work?
But of course, after I got sick, I realized:
To kill all the forms of life that we don’t like is wrong.
It’s wrong to kill all the quails, the rodents, the daisies, and the songbirds,
only to grow a single type of plant that makes money.
It’s wrong, because it harms the earth.
Because the earth needs all of its plants, birds, and critters.
And also because it ends up hurting us humans, like it hurt me.
Even though we seem very different from one another — the animals, plants, and flowers — we’re actually very similar.
We’re all made of building blocks called “cells”
So the poison they apply to the plants hurts us too.
Plus, those plants become resistant from receiving so much poison.
They become harder and harder to kill, so more and more poison has to be used. And that’s how more and more people get sick.
Did you know it’s possible to grow crops without using poison?
But they don’t do it, because they forgot how.
And the people who sell the poison don’t want them to remember.
They don’t want us to remember that we used to grow beautiful corn and wheat without using any chemicals at all.
That’s why it’s important for you, the adults of tomorrow, to know
that people and nature have to be friends.
If we harm nature, we end up harming ourselves.
As you get older and you make decisions about your lives, whether to go to work or continue studying, I hope you’ll remember this letter.
And realize that we, the adults, did a lot of things wrong.
That you shouldn’t emulate us.
You can’t do well on your path if you harm others.
Put simply: don’t kill.
A big hug to you, my new friends.
My name is Fabián Carlos Tomasi. I hope you won’t forget me.
Translated from Spanish by Tanya Kerssen. Source: https://youtu.be/RiJmAAxzAGY
Header image: Fabián Tomasi, photographed by Pablo Piovano in Basavilbaso, Entre Ríos province, Argentina, 2014
This article originally appeared on Medium