Public poisoning as ‘communication’ in Ecuador: Lessons from the perpetuation of harmful technology

21 July 2012

To consider the intricate relations between practice, communications, and policy, we will reflect on over a decade of action-research on the use and harmful consequences of highly toxic pesticides in Ecuador.

Beginning in the early 1990s, research on this issue focused on potato production in the northernmost province of Carchi in Ecuador –a region that has been described as “the model of agricultural modernization” in the Andes. Although this could be thought of as a positive description of the region’s agriculture, pesticides were in fact becoming a dangerous companion of farmers’ daily lives.

This was confirmed by medical researchers who found that Carchi had among the highest reported rates of pesticide exposure and poisonings anywhere, with two-thirds of the rural population affected at levels that would justify legal indemnizations in many developed countries. Additionally, all research sites reported deaths of young children. This case is not isolated: according to the World Health Organization, globally, highly toxic pesticides may kill more people each year than homicides and wars combined.

What is behind this persisting situation? Pesticide dependence can be viewed as a “second-order” problem: it is born from the success of past technology and policy, in this case agricultural modernisation to address the shortcomings of traditional agriculture and the need for an intensified production model. Universally adopted in Carchi, pesticide technology was generally successful in controlling insect pests and diseases. This success turned pesticides into a key ingredient of the cultural and social landscape, tied to people’s identity as farmers. For example, one farmer told the researchers, “I do not know if I believe in a God, but I believe in pesticides. Thanks to pesticides, my family eats.’” Others found that being exposed to neurotoxins (for instance not wearing protective clothing or equipment) had become a marker for masculinity. Such realities made the prospect of safe use of pesticides, in particular the highly toxic ones, unrealistic.

Beginning in the early 2000s, a growing network of people working in rural communities, consumer groups, NGOs, universities and research centers began working on changing both the farmers’ practices in regards to pesticides and the laws that regulate them. The research, carried out from economic, environmental and health perspectives, was instrumental in helping farmers, the public, and policymakers to better understand the hidden costs of pesticide technology, recently leading to legislation to ban the sale and distribution of highly toxic pesticides. This process, however, was not free of challenges and lessons.

Two perspectives on communications

One of the purposes of this chapter is to reflect on two different perspectives of communications that the authors have faced in their work. On the one hand, we have the traditional view of communication within think tanks or research centers which is focused on conveying expert or scientific knowledge in such a way that a given proposal or idea is taken into consideration by policymakers. Andrea comes from this background and is much more familiar with a top-down approach of change: changing policies to impact society. The other view is that it is throughout our daily actions, activities and choices that we communicate. Myriam and Steve are more familiar with this approach were scientific knowledge can change practices at the personal and community level.

It is almost predictable that for most researchers communications comes as an after thought. After all, researchers have learned to focus on methods, validities and citations. As a result, communications may be undervalued by researchers and oversimplified to the tasks and chores that must be implemented to convey ideas to policymakers. Other times it is still viewed as a matter of elites and networks, in the sense that researchers focus on understanding the ‘who is who of politics’ to find the best connectors to reach decision-makers and convince them of their idea or policy change. The public and those directly affected by policy tend to be hidden on the process of communicating overshadowed by those making policy decisions.

The other perspective is more comprehensive: communications is not only the use language but more so it is about how practice ultimately becomes a public display of what is possible and what is desirable. From this perspective, practice and communications go hand in hand; which is why it becomes important to carry out creative activities. For example, in this story, researchers introduced fluorescent tracers into backpack sprayers and then returned to homes at night with ultraviolet lights as a means of helping families to see contamination pathways into the home.

The dialogue between these two perspectives of reaching out for change will bring important lessons for communicating complex topics that have become deeply rooted in a community.

You can find the book here: Communicating complex ideas: the book