Brazil’s failures to protect rural communities exposed to the spread of agrochemicals
In May 2013, a plane sprayed agrochemicals over the rural São José do Pontal school, located amidst vast corn and soybean plantations around Rio Verde, a city in the state of Goiás, Brazil. About 90 people-most of them children in school-were immediately hospitalized. The incident shocked the country and soon thereafter Brazil was concerned about the problem of poisoning by pesticides in rural areas.
Although this attention has faded since then, little has changed: people in rural areas across the country continue to be intoxicated by pesticides. Ordinary people in their daily routines are exposed to the toxic applications of pesticides that often occur in the vicinity of their homes, schools, and workplaces. They are exposed when sprayed pesticides on plantations disperse during application or when pesticides evaporate and move to adjacent areas in the days after spraying.
From July 2017 to April 2018, Human Rights Watch interviewed 73 people affected by pesticide drift in seven locations in rural areas in Brazil, including rural communities, indigenous communities, quilombola communities and rural schools. These locations are located in the five geographic regions of Brazil.
At all seven sites, people described symptoms consistent with acute pesticide poisoning after spraying pesticides nearby, or smelling pesticides recently applied to nearby plantations. These symptoms usually include sweating, high heart rate and vomiting, as well as nausea, headache and dizziness.
There is no reliable government data on how many people in Brazil suffer from pesticide poisoning. The Ministry of Health acknowledges that underreporting of pesticide poisonings is a concern and it seems clear that official data underestimate the severity of this problem.
Although this report documents cases of acute intoxication, chronic exposure to pesticides-that is, repeated exposure to low doses for an extended period-is also a serious public health concern. Chronic exposure to pesticides is associated with infertility, negative impacts on fetal development, cancer, and other serious health effects-and pregnant women, children, and other vulnerable people may face greater risks.
In many cases, there is no national, state or municipal legislation that protects people from the drift of pesticides. There is no national regulation establishing a safety zone around sensitive sites where land spraying of pesticides is prohibited; and most states do not have such a law.  Human Rights Watch has found that even in the few states that provide safety zones for land spraying, these rules are often disregarded.
There is a national regulation that prohibits the aerial spraying of pesticides within 500 meters of villages, towns, villages, neighborhoods and water sources. However, as with ground-based land-spray safety zones, such regulations are not consistently observed.
In general, acute pesticide poisoning and chronic exposure do not draw the attention of the general public and Brazil’s public policymakers. One of the most perverse reasons for this invisibility is the fear that many members of rural communities feel of reprisals by large landowners. In 2010, a rural farmer and pesticide use activist was shot dead after lobbying the local government to ban aerial spraying that year. In the course of the investigation for this report, threats or fear of retaliation were mentioned in five of the seven sites visited.
Brazil urgently needs to take measures to limit exposure to pesticides that are harmful to human health. The Brazilian authorities should conduct a detailed and immediate study on the health and environmental impacts of the current treatment of pesticides. Until this study is concluded, Brazil must impose a suspension on aerial spraying, as well as impose and ensure an immediate ban on terrestrial spraying near sensitive places.