Interviewees: Edilberta Gómez
Interviewer: Martin Mowforth
Location: Clínica Xochil, El Viejo, Nicaragua
Date: 9th July 2009
Theme: General health of the population and health provision.
Notes: Please note that ‘XXX’ in the text signifies a part of the recording that could not be deciphered. This was particularly frequent in the Xochilt Clinic building which was next to a very busy road.
Martin Mowforth (MM): For the record, could you give us your name, the names of your colleagues and a bit of background about the Clínica Xochil?
Edilberta Gómez (EG): I’ll give you a bit of information about the Clinic. My name is Edilberta Gómez; I’m a trade union member of the José Elías Escobar Confederation and a member of the Workers’ federation of the …XXX… Farmworkers here in Chinandega department. Since 1999 we have been working with the Clinic, and specifically with the banana and sugar cane sector because that’s where we’ve had the problems. Why these two sectors? Because they are where chemical products are being applied and that is where we find men and women workers with skin problems, with …XXX…X [noisy] problems, liver cancers and other diseases. We give follow-up to find out what types of poisons lead to these types of illnesses in the workers.
MM: Many thanks. Could you give us a bit more information specifically about the types of illnesses?
EG: OK. The federation and this Clinic have their origins in womens’ trade unions where there was a need for gynaecology, because of the banana companies, and more generally there was no effective gynaecological treatment. It’s all pathology because they …XXX… [noisy] here. So …XXX… three unions, there are 1,200 workers affiliated and also there is a technical team which works in the unions and a separate team which is a medical team. Also we have the administrator who is …XXX… and there’s a team of doctors who treat all kinds of illnesses. We have a specialist for internal problems, a cardiologist, a specialist gynaecologist, a psychologist and we also have a paediatrician and a general medical doctor. The most frequent illness we have to deal with is kidney failure (renal insufficiency) – many people, men and women, are dying of this – their kidney dies out. We also get cancer of the liver – a lot. Some women also get cancer of the uterus, or sometimes in the neck of the cervix – when we get to the plantation we go to the toilet inside the plant and take up the product. To all these we give follow-up as a clinic, as a trade union and also with a team of environmental …XXX… because we coordinate with the hospitals at XXX Central – the Mauricio, the Spain, the José Rubí and the Berta Calderón.
MM: Do you know the specific chemicals used by the bananeros, the companies, as pesticides?
EG: Previously they sprayed with nemagon which today they are spraying in a product called SALON, and that is almost the same as nemagon – only the label has changed. But we’ve just developed a process with the full team, the environmental health team from MINSA, MARENA, all of us, the municipality and the police for …XXX… (noisy).
MM: Is it one of the Dirty Dozen?
EG: Also, in the banana and cane plantations now they are always using DURVA, which also goes into CUREVAN. Still there is CUREVAN in the banana and cane plantations and in whatever crops.
MM: TALOM, DURVA (yellow dust which is thrown and from which they prepare compost), CURAVAN.
EG: CURAVAN is the same as DEMACUR – no, DEMACUR comes from CURAVAN – they are just concepts, changes of labels which allow the same chemicals ….
MM: And do the workers have protection for the use of ….XXX …, protection provided by the company?
EG: Well, now there is a law …XXX… (noise) so that they carry out a process of follow-up, by order of the government, that all businessmen must protect their workers. But there are still companies which don’t comply with this. The majority of workers are not protected. And have no protective clothing and no face masks. There’s one team that they hire – already they don’t give this kind of thing to the ordinary workers – but they hire a middle-man, and they tell them to spray the product. But these people can’t be human, they wear hardly any protection, the breathing masks are poor, the face masks are broken, the lenses don’t work. So they still don’t comply with the protection that the new environment demands. But there is a process ….
MM: So, in this process, can you not approach the businessmen, the bosses, to inform them of the problems and to ask for more action, more prevention?
EG: Well, right now, two years ago there was a project called ‘Cultivation Project’. It came from the Gasificadora from the United States where …XXX… They came to coordinate with the unions, the workers and the bosses in order to give some awareness training about the use of the equipment. Also we have given the government and the union members a follow-up to this training. We have some materials and we go out to demonstrate, but it still hasn’t covered 100%. Only 150 workers have been trained. So for this ‘Cultivation Project’ I’ll give you the address – it would be good for you to go there because they have a lot of good information and it’s very important for you.
MM: Who’s to blame for not complying with these plans for improvement?
EG: For me, it’s the bosses, because the company should do the training and make the workers aware of the correct usage of the equipment. But if they …XXX… how are they going to know how to use it? Now they want to oblige the workers to use the equipment, whatever equipment, and it has to be adequate – so it’s up to me to use it and to buy it and bring it to work, or Chiquita brings the equipment and you have to pay a dollar to use it. You have to pay for it, and that causes depression. …XXX… (noisy) … of sugar, but they haven’t seen this – you have to see the reality of the characteristics of these people who are affected, as for instance with paralysis, if they eat well or don’t eat well. And in the company they give us three times the food, but it doesn’t seem to improve anything – at least the people who are doing the spraying with chemicals have the right to be given a glass of water or milk …XXX…
MM: Are the people aware of the danger when they are working or don’t they know about the danger of the chemicals?
EG: The people know that it’s dangerous but it’s work, and in the economic crisis that we are facing at the global level, well we risk our lives for a salary, for our children; but yes, they know it’s dangerous.
MM: And what kind of treatments can you give to the workers here?
EG: Well we’ve worked for four years looking for friends and supporters, and some have supported us with different types of medicines. We have seen what we need, vitamins, tablets for infections, psychological treatments because at times the workers are confused and closed and need the attention of a psychologist. Also we’ve been talking with some friends who have given us part-time or one or two months; and we’ve also been making use of the resources that we have ourselves; so we’ve sorted out lots of workers. The clinic is modest because although we receive, we give it to others. You come to pay your consulting fee if you can, but it’s free for those who can’t and the cost of your consultation is passed on to those who can afford it. So, anyway, we live like this because we explain it to all those who have the means. If you give help, you help another woman, another person. We have lived like this and you can see that we have some friends. Our thanks to all those who have made some kind of contribution to us. …XXX… (noisy). We’re very proud because really they …XXX… and they’re afraid that we’ll give to those who have nothing.
We’ve imposed on the workers a fee of 10 córdobas [about 50 cents] but have explained that these are for buying medicines which they themselves will use. So they’ve seen that it’s necessary and feel happy about what’s happening. I had a moment when I said “No more, I’ve had enough. Why am I doing this? I’d be better off going home. I want to live another life.” But there’s always a commitment in my heart to help people – I was born to help people. So that sense of duty has carried me along, to be here, because I don’t have a salary here – I don’t get a córdoba; only my husband manages to provide for me, and even at times my sons and daughters make a contribution. They say to me, “Why are you staying here, giving your life …XXX… (noisy).” But I say to them, “If I go to another clinic, I’d have to help other people, and I have learnt …XXX…”
Something like three years ago when Martin came – do you remember? – you gave us a donation of a lamp and thanks to that lamp …XXX… (noisy). And a little lamp which was stolen from us by a meddling burglar who took away only the lamp but left all the equipment.
MM: How long ago?
EG: Last year, in the house which we were renting at the time, a lousy house – another one over there. So we’ve been looking for another little lamp throughout El Viejo, but without any luck. But we do have here the panel, the socket – all that remains is …XXX… I think the people at times …XXX… One has to look after …XXX…
We’ve been wanting to have contact with friends from the United States because we’re doing some work in the communities. Why are we going to the communities? Because our workers are within the communities …XXX… (noise) and the problems are there in the communities. People around me live around the cane fields and by the sides of the banana plantations. So they have been wanting to see what kinds of environmental effects they have, because they certainly have environmental effects …XXX… They sow an aguacate tree, it dries out and dies. They sow pipian and it dies. We’ve also been talking with all the …XXX… that the plantains, or their bananas or their cane – they sow it and I don’t know how many steps inside …XXX… (noise).
MM: How many workers are you treating here per day?
EG: More or less 10 or 12 a day. Because in the finca …XXX… (noise) to authorise a private doctor. We have managed five of these, by agreement, by struggle, we have five. And that is where the workers are. They’re worse with the virus that was …XXX… [This was probably a reference to the swine flu – prominent at the time.]
MM: And the doctors work voluntarily?
EG: Well, we’ve made some heartfelt commitments. They get the consultation fee when the patient pays. So we pay him and he carries out the consultation at the clinic. Then when we don’t have any [financial] resources …XXX… we can’t do anything, but he continues with a diagnostic and we tell him that we want him there …XXX… and they continue giving an hour of their time from 12 to 1. If they don’t have the time to do diagnostics, they tell me when. …XXX… And they come during their lunch hour to sit at this desk to attend to the patient. The salary we can pay is at least $50 per month.
MM: Much less than the basic basket of goods?
EG: Uh! Well, as we are trade unionists we cannot exploit our colleagues because we know their rights. I have to tell them that there is more work and if they come to us to collaborate we are going to collaborate with them.
MM: So she [Santa Italia who was there at the time] is working in her own time?
EG: And the rest of her time as a social worker, because she is a social worker.
MM: And her name again?
EG: Santa Italia.
MM: In the past we (ENCA) have given various small donations, but we have no power, we have no funds, we have no influence. We have a few funds to give to grassroots organisations in Central America. And last year was a bad year for us, we received hardly any funds. Now this year has been a little better and we want, if you could prepare (if you want to) a small proposal, only a sheet or two, with a budget, and submit it to us by email to me. I’ll then submit it to the people of ENCA for their consideration, so that in the future when one of our members returns, he or she can deliver a small donation for that purpose; but always we need a proposal. But we are disposed to help.
EG: Just one little grain of sand is important for us. We know that one grain in the pile makes us more alive and more committed.
MM: And the other thing that we can do is provide more publicity for your cause and for your needs. So if you have any specific or special campaigns for which you need more publicity, then let us know and we can include articles or whatever in our newsletter.
EG: Right now the campaign which we are promoting in the communities is the prevention of cancer. We have some difficulties with transport and providing refreshments because at time the women say to us, “if you want to hear us, OK, but bring us some chocolate!” So as a part of the campaign we’re trying to provide cheap refreshments. We’ve got four communities which are already in the campaign, and the women are very motivated because there are lots of problems of sexually transmitted diseases and also many biopsies, many cauterizations (to get samples for taking cancer from the womb). Right now we have a piece of equipment …XXX…, but we have difficulty with …XXX…
MM: Is it a training campaign for the people?
EG: For the people. And we’re also talking about a new environment for everybody, in their house, in their work. It’s a campaign. We have a plan with the Environmental Relations Office here in El Viejo. We have a video – if you’re around tomorrow morning you can see it. Remigio comes in the morning and we can talk a bit more, he can give you more information. Tomorrow morning, first thing.
MM: At what time?
EG: At 8 in the morning if you want.
MM: For these two, that’s too early. For me it’s OK, but for them – they’re very lazy.
EG: But I understand them. Punctual by the calendar, but today I was asleep. Martin told me 4 pm. …
MM: My fault, my fault. At 9 am because we have a meeting with SELVA at 10 am, so we could come back at 9.
EG: OK. You can interview the doctor, Remigio, so that she can give you more idea of the work of the campaign, its weaknesses, some difficulties and some strengths.