Residents of the village of Avia Terai, in the Argentine province of Chaco, live surrounded by genetically modified soybean crops. They say that this means regular spraying with pesticides, which they claim has brought them more health problems than such a small rural community would normally expect.
The villagers allowed photographer Jean-Jerome Destouches to capture their daily lives on camera.
María del Carmen Seveso, a doctor from the city of Saez Peña, about 12 miles from Avia Terai, says she has no doubt that the pesticides cause cancer and other serious illnesses.
Seveso claims that the number of newborns with congenital illnesses at the hospital where she worked jumped from 46 in 1998, around the time that pesticide spraying began in the area, to 186 in 2009.
These conclusions were included within a report published by the National Health Commission that also interviewed over 2,000 people in the area. It found that 31 percent of those interviewed in Avia Terai reported a relative with cancer in the last decade. The figure was three percent in another village called Charadai, far from soybean crops.
Dr. Damien Verzeñassi, of Rosario University, said the initial analysis of data collected related to 120,000 people living within a kilometer of sprayed crops, suggests cancer rates three times the national average. The study, he added, has yet to be published.
Argentina's authorities, meanwhile, have said they would need more than studies like these to make major policy changes. The country is a major world exporter of soybean oil, and industrial agriculture has an important wider role in the economy.
"I can't tell you how many documents and studies I've read, as well as videos against biotechnology, articles in the media, and in the universities, in Argentina and in Great Britain too," former Argentine agriculture secretary Lorenzo Basso told a press conference in 2013. "And the truth is that if you read all of this you end up in a kind of mix salad where everyone is confused."
Farmers in the Chaco region commonly rely on weedkillers that include glyphosate, such as the brand Roundup produced by agribusiness giant Monsanto.
The company has always insisted that glyphosate is safe to use if handled properly. Monsanto has the backing of some parts of the scientific community, as well as regulatory agencies all over the world. These include the Environmental Protection Agency in the US, which has approved and reapproved the use of Roundup.
Controversy over the chemical has nevertheless heated up in recent years, as its use has become more common.
The World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer pronounced glyphosate as "probably carcinogenic" in March 2015. The WHO appeared to reverse its position two months later when, together with the Food and Agricultural Organization, it released a report that concluded that glyphosate is "unlikely to pose a carcinogenic risk to humans." The second report, however, only referred to consuming crops that had been sprayed with the chemical.
Glyphosate was back in the news earlier this month when the European Union refused to make a decision on whether to approve a proposal to extend the permit to use the herbicide in the region, while further scientific study is carried out by the European Chemicals Agency. The issue is expected to be put to another vote shortly.
(All photos by Jean-Jerome Destouches//Hans Lucas Studio/VICE News)
Silvia Ponce lives in Avia Terai with her seven children in a house that lies 20 meters from crops that are sprayed with glyphosate. Ponce remembers that once, when she was pregnant with Aixa who is now nine years old, she was directly sprayed with pesticides and felt she was suffocating. Her new baby was then born covered with hairy moles, some of which have turned carcinogenic and been surgically removed. Aixa also suffers from fevers and near-immediate burning if she spends too much time in the sun, which is hard to avoid in the region where temperatures typically reach 104 degrees in the summer. Ponce says that another child in her barrio has the same condition. "I was told by doctors that her skin disease might have been caused by pesticides sprayed in soybean and cotton crops," she said. "But for my daughter's problem it is impossible to prove it at 100 percent."
Many of Avia Terai's inhabitants don't have running water in their homes. Instead they collect rainwater, often from gutters in their roofs. This opens them to the consumption of pesticides dissolved in the water after it was sprayed by planes and then blown into the community by the wind.
Soybean is not the only genetically modified plant cultivated in Avia Terai. Cotton is also grown in large quantities and regularly sprayed with glyphosate. A lab nearby specializes in developing new cotton seeds.
Camila Verón was born five years ago with Lowe syndrome, which means she suffers from glaucoma, kidney dysfunction, and cognitive disabilities. Camila's mother, Silvia Achaval, says that the doctors who first saw her daughter told her they couldn't explain the cause of her condition, but they did ask her if she lived near soybean crops. "When they asked me that I understood why my daughter was ill," she said.
Doctors from the University Network for Environment and Health estimate that 12 million Argentines face health risks from exposure to pesticides. "When we arrived here nobody told us that it was dangerous for our health," said Silvia Ponce. "Our children play every day in soybean and cotton crops."
Marisa Gutman runs a center in the nearby city of Saenz Pena dedicated to children with disabilities from Avia Terai and other villages in the area, many of which are also surrounded by GM crops that are sprayed with glyphosate. "Many of the children in my center suffer of severe congenital diseases. They have multiple disabilities," she said. "For us, soybean means illness."
Ángel Cano, Aixa's father, works in a brick-making workshop close to the house. He says that pesticide planes pass by several times a day, though the frequency depends on the weather. "There was a meeting in Avia Terai where farmers agreed to warn us before they sprayed the chemicals by plane so we could protect ourselves and our water well, but they never did," he said. "I knew a guy who used to grow soybean and used a lot of Roundup, but now he had to stop working because his skin started burning. He went to the doctor who told him that he has a skin cancer."
Follow Jean-Jerome Destouches on Twitter: @DestouchesJJ