Pesticides & Reproductive Defects in Brazil

The conventional ecofeminist framework focuses on the most classic examples of environmental degradation—water and air pollution, deforestation, oil spills, and the like. In reality, women’s issues and environmental issues connect in many diverse ways, and an ecofeminist lens can be used to analyze a wide range of problems and to identify unconventional solutions. Scholars have used the ecofeminist framework to examine several issues that seem irrelevant at first, including women’s household shopping habits, homophobia, and biopiracy. [1]

On first glance, the issue of pesticide use in Brazil seems to be restricted to the environmental sphere for its damage to biodiversity: the “pesticide treadmill” and eutrophication in runoff waters. The struggle against pesticides is really one facet of the worldwide struggle against industrial agriculture or “agribusiness.”

After the global Green Revolution and subsequent boom in industrial agriculture and pesticide use in the 1970s, ecologists began investigating the potential health impacts of agricultural chemicals, including pesticides, insecticides, and fungicides. Rachel Carson’s seminal work Silent Spring unveiled the harm that the pesticide DDT causes through bioaccumulation, or the buildup of small concentrations of fat-soluble toxins in animal tissues. [2]

More recently, scientists have begun to look at the effects of prolonged pesticide exposure on public health, particularly in large production countries that heavily rely on industrial agriculture. Brazil falls into this category as the highest consumer of pesticides in the world, using more than one billion liters of agricultural chemicals per year. [3]

But the question of how pesticide overuse applies to a feminist scholarly outlook still remains. Dianne Rocheleau, Barbara Thomas-Slayter, and Esther Wangari propose a variation of an ecofeminist lens, called feminist political ecology. This new framework brings together three important aspects of any environmental issue to transform it into both a feminist and environmental issue, or, as we argue, an ecofeminist issue. These three themes are gendered knowledge, gendered environmental rights and responsibilities, and gendered environmental politics and grassroots activism.

The theme that is most central to women’s ecofeminist concerns around industrialization is the first: gendered knowledge. Rocheleau et al define gendered knowledge as “an emerging ‘science of survival’ that encompasses the creation, maintenance, and protection of healthy environments at home, at work, and in regional ecosystems.” [4]

Women, as the primary caretakers and nurturers of the family, must face the burden of survival, not only for themselves in their workplace environment, but for their children and family as well. As mothers, women must concern themselves with undue health hazards that are out of their control—these hazards most often arise from industrialization. As Rocheleau et al argue, “This responsibility [of motherhood] puts women in a position to oppose threats to health, life, and vital subsistence resources, regardless of economic incentives, and to view environmental issues from the perspective of the home, as well as that of personal and family health.” [4]

Although there may not seem to be any reason for women to involve themselves with the use of chemical pesticides in industrial agriculture, one must not look any further than the health risks that pesticides pose to understand why this is an ecofeminist issue.

Movements Against Pesticide Use

In 2011, a coalition of Brazilian women from Via Campesina, Agricultura Familiar e Agroecologia, and the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST), calling themselves the Women Against the Violence of Agribusiness and Agrotoxins for Land Reform and Food Sovereignty, marched to protest the health risks of pesticides across Brazil. [5] As its name suggests, this cross-organizational movement works in tandem with the decades-long struggle for food sovereignty and agrarian reform in Brazil, coordinating its strategy with well-established activist groups. [6]

Over 100 social movement organizations (SMOs), including the coalition of Brazilian women against pesticides, signed onto a symposium publication about biotechnology. In this mission statement, the SMOs state their firm opposition to all facets of industrial agriculture, particularly the “Big Six seed/pesticide corporations that already control 75% of global private sector research and development in agriculture, [the same corporations that] oblige us to buy their patented GMOs every year as well as their toxic pesticides, indispensable to grow those GMOs.” [7]

Public officials often cite the lack of hard scientific data to justify inaction on pesticide overuse. As Rocheleau et al argue, however, women who are disproportionately affected by environmental risks push for “a more holistic approach to environmental and health issues…based on skills acquired in their socialization as women,” especially given the “inequity of participation and power in science-as usual.” [4]

For most Brazilian women, hard data is not necessary to explain the very real health effects of pesticides on their families—particularly the birth defects that ensue from pesticide overuse. Despite the women’s reluctance to overstate the importance of scientific methodology in justifying the risks of pesticides, the movement believed it necessary to arm themselves with reliable data in order to gain legitimacy and recognition from the government, regulatory agencies, and the agribusiness corporations against which they were fighting. Therefore, several public health collectives have quantitatively examined the biological persistence and health disorders that result from prolonged exposure to pesticides, both in real time and in utero.

In 1989, the environmental agency of the state of Rio de Janeiro deposited tonnes of HCH and DDT, two extremely toxic pesticides, in a poorly managed waste facility in the small town of Cidade dos Meninos, coincidentally where much of the state’s vegetables, milk, and meat are produced. Nearly two decades later, researchers sampled the four most common toxic exposure pathways—surface soil, access roads, food chains, and ambient air—to examine how much HCH and DDT remains in the soil, water, air, vegetables, and grasses in Cidade dos Meninos and the surrounding areas. The researchers discovered extremely high levels of DDT and HCH that have persisted, and found a very high risk of public health problems from the long-term, high-concentration exposure. [8]

In a following analysis of the current level of organochlorine pesticides that remains from the same dumping in Cidade dos Meninos, and compares those figures to the recommended limits of daily exposure. The pesticides HCH and DDT, which are fat-soluble and bioaccumulate in the tissues of all animals, including cows (milk), chickens (eggs), and humans (breast milk), were found to exceed the minimum risk levels by almost one hundred times, especially for women and children who are chronically exposed. [9]

Via Campesina

These analyses are helpful for building a historical argument that cites the disproportionate impact of pesticides on women, particularly the findings on bioaccumulation of chemical pesticides through body fat and breast milk. Another study commonly cited by the women’s movement specifically examines the birth defects caused by pesticides, analyzing 3.5 million births from 26 states in Brazil. The results found that, across the country, pesticide use was highly correlated to mortality and infant death by congenital abnormality, and moderately correlated to low birth weight. [10]

Armed with these weapons that conferred legitimacy upon them, the women marched, closing down highways and striking from their agricultural work, and protesting the elevated risks of reproductive tract abnormalities, breast cancer, and thyroid disease that they face. [5]

Despite the existence of “hard” scientific data on the subject, one must examine the accessibility of such information to the women protesting. As Rocheleau et al argue, women who are affected or whose children are affected do not see the pressing need to examine the larger trends of reproductive defects and cancer from pesticide exposure. Even if no statistically significant relationship exists, that does not negate the daily struggles and lifelong health hazards that disproportionately affect women.

The ecofeminist strategy that the women’s anti-pesticide SMO took on fits into the larger movement against agribusiness in Brazil, uniting several marginalized groups. The common discourse, as shown in the Via Campesina poster above, advocates for family farms, in contrast to the faceless, capitalist corporate model of agriculture that currently dominates the Brazilian economy. This flows well with yet another tenet of ecofeminism—the capitalist model of agriculture prioritizes profit over everything, particularly biodiversity and women’s interests. The GMOs and chemical pesticides mandated by agribusiness simultaneously destroy soil integrity, eliminate seed biodiversity, and pose irreversible and serious health risks for women and the family, all in the name of maximizing production and consumption. Together, the workers, depicted as a brown, working-class Brazilian family, can rise up against the “false solutions of green capitalism,” and defeat the behemoth corporations that threaten the earth and the lives of women and children.

[1]  Dobscha, Susan. “Women and the Environment: Applying Ecofeminism to Environmentally-Related Consumption.” Advances in Consumer Research 20 (1993): 36-40. Davion, Victoria. “Coming Down to Earth on Cloning: An Ecofeminist Analysis of Homophobia in the Current Debate.” Hypatia 21 (2006): 58-76. Isla, Ana. “An Ecofeminist Perspective on Biopiracy in Latin America.” Signs 32 (2007): 323-332. 

[2] Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring. New York: Houghton-Mifflin, 1962.

[3] Friends of the MST. “More Than a Thousand Women March Against Pesticides in Ceará.” Friends of the MST. March 2, 2011.

[4]  Rocheleau, Dianne, Barbara Thomas-Slayter, and Esther Wangari. “Gender and the Environment: A Feminist Political Ecology Perspective.” In Environment in Anthropology, edited by Nora Haenn and Richard Wilk, 27-33. New York: New York University Press, 2005.

[5] Rodale, Maria. “Thousands of Women Farmers in Brazil Protest the Use of Pesticides.” Beyond Pesticides. March 07, 2011.

[6] United States Food Sovereignty Alliance. “USFSA Statement on International Day of Peasants and Farmers Struggles.” La Via Campesina. April 17, 2016.

[7] UN Food and Agriculture Organization. “FAO Symposium on Biotechnology.” La Via Campesina. February 15, 2016.

[8] Brilhante, Ogenis M. and Robson Franco. “Exposure pathways to HCH and DDT in Cidade dos Meninos and its surrounding districts of Amapa, Figueiras, and Pilar, metropolitan regions of Rio De Janeiro, Brazil.” International Journal of Environmental Health Research 16, vol. 3 (2006): 205-217.

[9] Asmus, Carmen Ildes R. Fróes, Herling Gregorio Aguilar Alonzo, Marisa Palácios, Alexandre Pessoa da Silva, Maria Isabel de Freitas Filhote, Daniela Buosi, Volney de Magalhães Câmara. “Assessment of human health risk from organochlorine pesticide residues in Cidade dos Meninos, Duque de Caxias, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.” Cadernos de Saúde Pública 24, vol. 4 (2008): 755-766.

[10] De Siquiera, Marília, Cynthia Braga, José Eulálio Cabral-Filho, Lia Giraldo da Silva Augusto, José Natal Figueiroa, Ariana Impieri Souza. “Correlation Between Pesticide Use in Agriculture and Adverse Birth Outcomes in Brazil: An Ecological Study.” Bulletin of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology 84 (2010): 647-651.


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