quinta-feira, 12 de março de 2009
Thursday, March 12, 2009
Twice a day, four day a week, 1,500 boxes are loaded onto a cargo jet near the Northern Uruguayan city of Artigas. They are carried high in to the air and then dropped on to the green fields below, which cover this hundred-kilometer region along the Uruguayan-Brazilian border. Each box carries 1,800 flies. But these are no normal flies. They are sterilized with nuclear energy, Caesium-137 to be exact. A radioactive isotope not found in nature, and only created when you explode a nuclear bomb or run a nuclear reactor.
The release is part of a 9-week project in the region to reduce the mosca-da-bicheira or human botfly population, a large ugly green fly with a nasty bite. The botfly has caused substantial losses to the region’s important livestock industry. Botfly larvae often thrive in the wounds of cattle and can even cause death to the animal.
According to the study, the nuclear-sterilized flies crossbreed with the native population, which then produce unfertile eggs, eliminating many if not all of the regional fly population.
Halfway through the project, it appears to be working. Nearly one third of the botfly eggs found recently in the region were infertile. That number is only expected to increase over the coming weeks.
"Everything is going as expected, and in fact we have been a little pleasantly surprised because in the other countries where this technique was used, they didn’t have such immediate results," said Brazilian Coordinator Joal Pontes, Regional Supervisor of the Department of Animal Production of Brazil’s Secretary of Agriculture in Alegrete, Rio Grande do Sul.
But if this seems like a peculiar way to control pesky insect populations, think again.
Although many may have never heard of Sterile Insect Technique (SIT), it was pioneered in the United States in the 1920s using X-rays to sterilize the insect larvae. Since the 1950s, when radioactive isotopes replaced X-rays, the technique has been used across the planet- primarily in the United States, Mexico and Central America.
According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), in the United States, this method has been used to eradicate or control the Mediterranean Fruit fly in Hawaii and California, the Caribbean fruit fly in Florida, the Mexican Fruit fly, Pink bollworm, the Codling moth, the Gypsy moth, Boll weevil, Stable fly, Tobacco hornworm, and the Cattle fevertick. As of the early 1990s, it was still being used in the United States to control the Caribbean fruit fly, the Mexican fruit fly, the Pink bollworm, the Gypsy moth, the Cattle fevertick and the Tobacco Budworm.
In his book, Nuclear Energy, nuclear engineering professor Raymond L. Murray, explains the "classic case" of SIT, which was used against the parasitic screwworm fly in Curaçao, Puerto Rico and the Southwestern United States. "After the numbers were reduced in the early 1960s, flies came up from Mexico, requiring a repeat operation. As many as 350 million sterile flies were released each week, bringing the infestations from 100,000 to 0. The annual savings to the livestock industry was approximately $100 million." Like the Botfly, the screwworm fly would lay its eggs in the wounds of animals, feeding on their flesh.
The process has also been used against mosquitoes in both the United States and India, the screwworm in Libya, and the sleeping sickness carrying-Tsetse fly in Zanzibar and in some parts of Africa.
As Pontes said early this week, "The technique is more than proven."
But is it safe?
A cursory Internet search reveals hundreds of documents and related pages on SIT and its successful application across the planet. Many lead with the words, "environmentally-friendly." None attempt to discuss the possible adverse health risks of releasing billions of radioactive bugs into the environment.
Pontes laughs at the idea. "It doesn’t have any health risks for humans or the environment. If you had to measure the radiation, a banana has a lot more radiation than all of our boxes of flies," he says.
"It’s not good science to compare 100 rads of background radiation with 100 rads of Ceasium-137 because they do different things to the body," says Joseph Mangano, executive director of the New Jersey-based Radiation and Public Health Project. "To say that it is not as dangerous because it’s a lower dose, is really like comparing apples and oranges."
Mangano explains that there are different types of radiation. Background radiation found in rocks, soil and cosmic rays; X-rays, developed in the 1890s; and radiation from atomic bombs and nuclear reactors developed in the 1940s.
"There are some similarities, but there are plenty of differences. When we are talking about Ceasium-137, you don’t find that in background radiation, you don’t find that in X-rays. It’s only found when you take a Uranium-235 atom and you split it," says Mangano.
The flies in the Brazilian experiment were sterilized in a facility in Chiapas, Mexico with Ceasium-137, but Cobalt-60 is also used in SIT technology to sterilize the pests.
Both are only created through nuclear fission, which occurs either when you explode an atomic bomb or when you operate a nuclear reactor.
Ceasium-137 has a radioactive half-life of 30.2 years, and if exposed to the human body in high enough dosages it can lead to mutation, cancer or birth defects, and can also be passed along through the reproductive process. Cobalt-60 has a half-life of 5.2 years and if exposed to the human body can also cause cancer. Cobalt-60 is often used in medicine for radiotherapy or radiography, and both isotopes have been used in food irradiation.
The million-dollar project along the Brazilian-Uruguayan boarder was financed by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). SIT has been promoted by the FAO, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
"This has been highly investigated. It’s a very safe technique," said Pontes. Nevertheless, cancer rates are rising across the planet. According to the California Cancer Registry, the incidence of invasive cancer in the Golden State grew by nearly 20% over the last three decades.
"I don’t know a lot about screwworms and fruit flies", says Mangano. "But, I do know this. There is no radiation dose that’s not totally free of harm. We know that… It’s not to say that these are terrible things. They do have a purpose, but you just have to understand the risk. Of course, it’s not that easy in real life."
Thursday, March 12, 2009
More than six thousand women from Vía Campesina and the Landless Workers' Movement (MST) participated in protests across Brazil on March 9. The direct actions were in celebration of International Women's Day, and against the government's continued support of multinational agribusiness in the country.
The protests took place in more than eight Brazilian states. In Brasília, 800 women marched on the Ministry of Agriculture. In the state of Rio Grande do Sul, another 700 occupied a plantation owned by the Votorantim paper pulp corporation. In Espírito Santo, nearly 1,300 women gathered at an export port of the paper pulp company, Aracruz. And in São Paulo, close to 600 women occupied the Cosan plantation, which holds the largest agro-ethanol factory in the world.
The sweep of actions across the country comes less than two months after the MST's 25th anniversary. "When the MST began, our pinciple enemy was the large landowners," says Ana Hanauer, spokesperson for the MST in Brazil’s southernmost state, Rio Grande do Sul. "Now our principle enemies are the multinational [agribusiness] corporations, which are taking over land that should be used for agrarian reform."
The international financial crisis has hit Brazil's industrial agricultural sector hard, causing over 100,000 lost jobs last December alone. The Brazilian government has earmarked $20 billion dollars in investments for the sector over the next three years. But representatives of Vía Campesina complain that the funds and land should be used to promote agrarian reform and small-scale farming, not to bailout big business.
Members of the MST in southern Brazil are particularly upset over government loans that enabled the Votorantim paper pulp company to buy up a significant stake of its failing rival, Aracruz Celulose. The addition of Aracruz gives Votorantim a total of more than one million hectares of land, with what the company says is a productive capacity of 5.8 million tons of pulp a year.
The MST says that mono-cropping eucalyptus for pulp has led to the destruction of natural habitat, resulting in a loss of topsoil, and desertification. The environmental destruction is one reason 700 women occupied Votorantim’s "Ana Paula" plantation in Rio Grande do Sul.
The MST grew out of a struggle for land in this southern state in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Over the last three decades the movement has grown and developed in 24 of Brazil's 26 states, acquiring 35 million acres of land on which nearly 400,000 MST families are currently settled.
Rio Grande do Sul has remained a frequent site of MST protests, largely due to the group's long history in the region and the fact that the state still has many large plantations in the hands of an elite few. The movement scored a big victory in the state last December, when it managed to settle 700 families on land that landowners had defended violently for centuries.
One day into the Votorantim plantation occupation, the National Guard arrived to break up the protest. Authorities arrested hundreds of woman from Vía Campesina and the MST. The activists were held without food, while troops destroyed their impromptu encampment.
Authorities registered the women's personal information, leading to fears the government could use the information in the future to persecute the activists or their families. A spokesperson for the MST in Rio Grande do Sul says the arrests are part of an intensifying campaign of repression directed by state governor Yeda Crusius of the centrist PSDB party. In fact, the criminalization of the movement reached new heights last June when Rio Grande do Sul’s Justice Department called for the movement’s “disbanding” throughout the state, labeling it a “threat to national security.” The repression continues.
The Crusius government is now pushing to close the world-famous itinerant schools on MST encampments throughout the state. The state National Guard has been quick to use intimidation, arrest, and repression against the MST and other local social movements. A state police helicopter kept watch over the MST’s 25-year anniversary celebration in January, and the Rio Grande do Sul military brigade erected a checkpoint where they searched and registered the names of individuals entering and leaving the MST settlement where the event was taking place.The women arrested at the "Ana Paula" plantation occupation were released later the same evening. The following day, they carried out a defiant march in the nearby city of Bagé, where they distributed fliers about the negative effects of monocultured eucalyptus, the paper pulp companies, and Brazil's agroindustry.