The chlordecone health and racism scandal in the French Antilles: case dismissed, but the fight goes on

The chlordecone health and racism scandal in the French Antilles: case dismissed, but the fight goes on

Numerous rallies like this one in Paris on 27 February 2021 have been held over the past 16 years to demand justice for all the victims of chlordecone poisoning in Martinique and Guadeloupe.

(Noémie Coissac/Hans Lucas via AFP)

“They’re poisoning us! They’re killing us!” read the placards at the anti-chlordecone demonstration held in Martinique on 28 October 2023. The protest was the culmination of a week of mobilisation held under the banner Simenn Matinik Doubout - Gaoulé kont klordecone (‘Martinique Rise Up Week - Protest against Chlordecone’ in Creole), launched by a collective bringing together some 30 organisations from the French overseas departments and mainland France.

“We want the French state to acknowledge its responsibility in the chlordecone affair, and not only to acknowledge its responsibility but also to make amends for its crimes and ensure that the land is decontaminated,” says Théo Lubin, president of the 10 May Organising Committee (a memorial association so named after the day commemorating the abolishment of slavery in the Caribbean and the Indian Ocean), which is leading the campaign in France.

Chlordecone is a pesticide that was used in the banana plantations of Martinique and Guadeloupe between 1972 and 1993 to combat the banana weevil, an insect causing serious crop damage.

The United States banned its production and marketing back in 1976. In 1979, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified chlordecone as a possible human carcinogen, yet it was authorised in France from 1981 to 1990.

Why is that? Many people, like those at the INRA (France’s National Institute for Agronomic Research), are asking themselves this very question. But the INRA will not be able to find an answer, because the report by the Toxics Committee (studying the use of toxic substances in agriculture), which is responsible for assessing the toxicity of products before they are marketed, has simply disappeared.

Adding insult to injury, once chlordecone was finally banned, the large landowners in Guadeloupe and Martinique secured an extension from the state allowing them to continue using it, only on the islands, despite its proven toxicity and the availability of effective alternatives.

“This is clearly a crime organised by the French state. They knew it was toxic for humans, so they protected their population in Metropolitan France, but for us it wasn’t a problem, we could be poisoned. It’s yet another sequel to the colonial experience,” exclaims Philippe Verdol.

This senior lecturer in economics at the University of the French Antilles and Guiana, who has written several books on chlordecone, adds: “We find the same actors, the state and the Békés on one side, and on the other, the Afro-descendant peoples who are exploited and poisoned.”

The Békés are the descendants of white families who owned slaves. According to the French newspaper Libération, they represent just one per cent of the population of the French Antilles but own 50 per cent of the land and control 90 per cent of the agri-food industry. In the 1980s, it was De Laguarigue, a company owned by a Béke family, the Hayots, that held the patent for the chlordecone-based pesticide that was used extensively in the Antilles. So the parallel drawn is understandable.

And the impact is staggering. According to the authorities, 90 per cent of Guadeloupeans and Martiniquans have traces of the pesticide in their blood, it will take around seven centuries for it to be completely eliminated from the soil, and the French Antilles hold the world record for the number of prostate cancers.

CGT support for the victims

In 2006, a legal complaint was filed. In January 2023, the judges in Paris dismissed the case for lack of evidence, while acknowledging a health scandal. So there will be no trial. The decision came as a major blow, both in Paris and in the French overseas departments. “We do not accept the dismissal of the case and we will continue to fight until we achieve justice. While we wait for a judicial follow-up, our new battle is information”, asserts Lubin. “There are many people in the French Caribbean diaspora in France who are contaminated but don’t know that it is linked to chlordecone. Many have already died. People also don’t know that you can now go for free screening in Paris. There’s no information out there and we want to raise awareness so that the victims can be taken care of and compensated.” In Paris, he organises regular workshops and meetings, as well as radio shows on the subject.

In Guadeloupe, the aim is the same. Every Monday at 3.30 pm, the CGT-G (General Confederation of Labour - Guadeloupe) runs a chlordecone help desk in Capesterre on the island of Basse-Terre. “For the past two years, we’ve been trying to draw up a list of people who have worked in the banana industry and who are contaminated. For the moment, all the people who come to see us are. We’re helping them with the administrative procedures to get compensation,” explains Jean-Marie Nomertin, general secretary of the CGT-G.

In 2019, a compensation fund for pesticide victims was set up by the French state. Vilner Croichy went to the help desk in November to see how he could take his case forward. He has worked all his life in a large banana plantation not far from the union office. He is now almost 65 and has prostate cancer.

“I was diagnosed a year and two months ago. Since then, I’ve had three operations and I can’t work any more, so I was sacked. I’m in so much pain that I have to take as many as three painkillers at night, otherwise I can’t sleep. I’m trying to get compensation, but when I was trying to get my papers together, I realised that my employers didn’t declare me for years, so I don’t get any compensation.”

The fund only compensates employees and farmers (active or retired) exposed to chlordecone as part of their work, as well as children exposed prenatally due to the work of one of their parents. Once the condition has been recognised, those suffering from it can receive compensation.

“Once the illness has been recognised, the fund sends a letter to the victims informing them of the compensation they will receive. For adults, it’s a monthly allowance of between €300 and €1,500 a month, depending on the degree of incapacity. For children, it depends on their age and the pathology, but it can go up to tens of thousands of euros, plus a monthly allowance,” explains Edwige Duclay, project director in charge of coordinating the Chlordecone IV plan.

The Chlordecone IV plan is a series of measures put in place by the French government in 2021 to combat chlordecone contamination. For those who have chlordecone in their blood but have not (yet) developed a pathology, Duclay proposes a solution: “You can get rid of chlordecone if you stop eating products containing chlordecone. Between four and six months, the level of chlordecone in the blood can be reduced. It can be eliminated, and the priority is to have a zero chlordecone risk diet,” she explains.

The plan recommends that producers’ soils should be analysed and free group workshops should be held to help people adapt their food consumption. The foods affected include root vegetables, eggs, fish and shellfish from areas where fishing is banned.

At the mention of the plan, laughter breaks out at the CGT-G’s chlordecone desk: “It’s contemptuous! The government told us that it could take 700 years for the pesticide to disappear, and now all we have to do is eat properly? And when you see the number of people who have died...[.] We’re in the process of drawing up a list and in the last six months alone more than 200 of the workers we listed as victims have died. This kind of talk is just a way of hiding the state’s serious wrongdoings,” says Nomertin, indignantly.

Although Duclay’s statement is based on scientific studies, the mistrust is understandable. First of all, the scandal took years to come to light, then, potentially compromising documents went missing and, even now, despite all the evidence available, justice has not yet been served.

Cancer risks

What’s more, the government continues to release information that raises more than a few eyebrows. The chlordecone section of the French social security health insurance website, for example, states: “Over the period 2007-2014, in Guadeloupe and Martinique, the number of new cases of prostate cancer was almost twice that estimated for metropolitan France. This difference can be partly attributed to the sub-Saharan origins of the population, an ethno-geographic group with a higher risk of developing this illness.”

But this is not the case. According to a study published in 2011 by Columbia University in the United States, “the available data from IARC showed that rates among blacks were highest in the East [of Africa] (10.7–38.1 per 100,000 man-years, age-adjusted world standard) and lowest in the West (4.7–19.8).” The rate among French Caribbeans is around 200 persons out of 100,000 a year, which is a long way off the mark. When confronted with these results, Edwige Duclay undertook to verify the claims made on the social security website.

In the meantime, in Guadeloupe, although the support team is working in good spirits, the atmosphere remains tense. Not long ago, they lost one of their members, a woman who had worked for a long time in the banana sector, right here in Capesterre. “She was always complaining of back ache. She ended up having an MRI and was diagnosed with cancer of the spinal cord. The cancer had spread. She was told, ‘if we operate, you’ll lose the use of your legs, and if we don’t operate, you’ll lose the use of your legs too’. She had the operation. When we saw her again, she was in a wheelchair. Two weeks later, she was buried. It hurt. I don’t want that to happen again,” says Annick Hery, a trade unionist at the CGT-G.

This article has been translated from French by Louise Durkin