An open letter shared with SAND by Sandra Procópio da Silva who we met filming in Brazil:
HELP!!! WE ARE BEING POISONED!!!
I am a 51-year-old woman, and at the age of 40, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. At that time, I underwent chemotherapy and radiation therapy. I lost my hair, gained 20 kilograms, and became unrecognizable. I almost died. In 2015, I had a metastasis in my lumbar spine, and I experienced excruciating pain that could only be relieved by high doses of morphine. I lost the ability to walk and had to spend months in the hospital. After that, I used a wheelchair and had to relearn how to walk. In 2020, for the third time, I had to undergo cancer treatment, this time for cervical cancer. During the treatment, I lost my voice and the ability to eat, and I lost 10 kilograms in two weeks, all during the pandemic. Currently, I am undergoing my fourth round of cancer treatment.
I received most of my treatment through the public healthcare system in my country, which I proudly support. I believe that healthcare should be public, accessible, and of high quality. It was after turning 40 that I gained access to public policies and received a scholarship for a Master’s degree. I later became a university professor through a public examination. I pursued a Ph.D. and conducted research on settlements, women, indigenous peoples, agroecology, and food sovereignty.
I currently live and work in the region where I was born, in Dourados, Mato Grosso do Sul, in the Midwest region of Brazil, near the border with Paraguay. The numerous tests I have undergone have shown that my cancer was not of genetic origin but “probably” caused by environmental contamination.
We are going through a pandemic, and we have all fought hard for the continuation of life. However, in recent years, I have witnessed another epidemic unfolding before my eyes: the overwhelming increase in cancer cases. It used to be rare, and now everyone has a family member, neighbor, or friend who has been affected. According to the National Cancer Institute, there will be over 700,000 new cases of cancer per year in Brazil by 2025! That’s almost 60,000 new cases per month! The response from the government and companies is to build “cancer hospitals” instead of questioning the corporate food system anchored in agribusiness, which produces cancer!
Like me, thousands of people in Brazil and around the world are now being contaminated, and tragically, the children of the future will be born on a polluted planet without having had a chance to choose how they want to live. Before the pandemic, research in my area indicated that the average pesticide consumption per person was 40 liters per year, while in Brazil, it was 7 liters. Today, the numbers are certainly much higher.
Do we have the right to contaminate future generations? Don’t they have the human right to be born with dignity? Currently, I am undergoing cancer treatment using a combination of therapies that include pills produced by a company in the United States, which cost around 20,000 Brazilian reais per month, and monthly injections (currently covered by my health insurance, not without a fight). These are the same corporations that produce poison and medicine, a logic of commodifying care, life, and death. In addition to this treatment, I seek to understand a bit about natural medicine to detoxify my body. I use medicinal cannabis oil, consume agroecological food produced by settlements in my region, and I am learning about healthy cooking. I take care of my mental well-being and have a spiritual connection that sees God in all creatures that inhabit the planet.
I try to live a balanced life, balancing self-care for my health,.
I seek to live a balanced life, dividing my time between self-care for my health, taking care of my two young daughters and a 15-year-old teenager, maintaining a social life filled with friends, and being part of a large and beautiful extended family that provides support. I also have the demands of my work, as I love being an educator and being educated by my people! The life expectancy for women in Brazil is currently 80 years. I don’t know how many years I have ahead of me, none of us knows the mystery of Life! However, under healthy conditions, the expectation would be that I live another 30 years!
In recent times, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic, I no longer know what to do to survive. While I fight ardently to keep living and my doctors and I study daily on how to prolong life with quality, my environment is being completely poisoned!
I live in the region covered by the Guarani Aquifer, one of the largest fresh water reserves in the world, which spans Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay. The most important river that supplies more than half the houses in the city where I live – the Dourados River – is contaminated with 32 types of pesticides, provenly. Around my house, the pesticide called “weed killer” is used without any criteria for the so-called “chemical weeding” of urban land. Here, aerial spraying is done using airplanes, in addition to ground-level machines and tractors spraying pesticides. The air I breathe on the way from my house to my workplace is so contaminated – especially during the soy and corn seasons – that it produces a strong odor that causes me nausea, headaches, and even vomiting!
In Brazil, the permitted doses for pesticides such as glyphosate – the most widely used in the country – are up to 5,000 times higher than the allowed dosages in Europe. The factories banned in wealthy countries have come to our countries. They deceive us by saying that we are poor, but it’s a lie, our country has plenty of land, water, biodiversity, and hardworking people. I come from the rural people, from my ancestors. When I lived in the settlement, I experienced overcoming hunger with healthy, pesticide-free food. There are many ways to live and produce abundantly without poisons! As a teacher, I have witnessed an increase in cases of autism, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s, miscarriages, depression, suicide, and new rare diseases.
In our land, you travel hundreds of kilometers seeing only monocultures of soy, corn, sugarcane, and eucalyptus. From my place, they removed the trees right up to the edges of the roads, they expelled the indigenous people who lived in makeshift tents on the roadside to make way for soy! And the younger generation who were born here, for the most part, don’t even imagine that our region was largely dominated by the Atlantic Forest biome, with its giant trees that used to reach the skies.
In my place, there is an alliance between politicians, big corporations, institutions, corporate media, and lobbyists, where money is always more important than anything else. In my place, the political system has nothing to do with the origin of the word, the pursuit of the “polis” or the common good, as it should be. There is a daily campaign to win people’s consciousness in defense of the so-called “agribusiness” project, which should be called “gro-business.”
When “they” arrived here – the ruling elites – they killed the indigenous peoples and continue to kill them even today. They created a false image that they are “modern” and responsible for a so-called “development,” which actually translates into poisoning and environmental destruction, territorial violence, and increased social inequality. In this place, 2 out of 5 indigenous babies died of hunger at just 1 year and 3 months old. They came and made deals behind the scenes: politicians, businessmen, the wealthy who mostly live in São Paulo, Paraná, Rio de Janeiro, or abroad, and they use our land as a dumping ground for waste, chemical pollutants, and intense exploitation of vulnerable workers, especially indigenous people and women, all for the sake of profit. Nobody asked us, the people here if we allow them to poison our bodies, our water, our food, our air. Even the contamination of breast milk has been proven in our region. How can a woman have a child and know that even her milk is poisoned? In Brazil, it is shameful how the television propaganda in favor of this production model is misleading and constantly tries to instill in people’s minds that agribusiness is the salvation of our country. Millions of dollars are invested in advertising, unpaid taxes, numerous laws to benefit the farmers, infrastructure for them; it is a big business financed by the Brazilian state. What about the same value for agroecology-based production?
And believe it or not, now this agribusiness production model is gaining more space in prime time television through a soap opera that glorifies and idealizes soy agribusiness, hiding slave labor, environmental destruction, and contamination of people… And it was filmed in my land. Why don’t we have a soap opera talking about agroecological production methods? They changed our environmental legislation to allow even more destruction! Where are they from? Because on Earth, we need water, land, air, and food to live! In Mato Grosso do Sul, 83% of the land is occupied by giant latifundia that do not produce food for the state. We import over 80% of our food. I don’t know whom to turn to: the mass media turns a blind eye, and few fulfill the social and responsible role of promoting serious debates and alerting the population. The political class, both the executive, legislative, and judiciary, for the most part, win their elections through sponsorship from large corporations!
Help! Who can we plead with to respect our human rights to have water, food, air, and land free from poison?
This Brazil is ours, the people who work! We should trust our elected leaders, and they should ask us, “What do we want for our country?” because we have the right to decide. A country can only have sovereignty if its people have land and conditions for a dignified life. In a country of this size and with such agricultural potential, if agribusiness were fair, no one would go hungry, and no one would die of hunger and cold on the streets.
They should supervise, limit, legislate in favor of a program to reduce pesticides, not increase authorizations to release more poisons. They should transition to other forms of production and living. Here it’s the poison, in the Yanomami lands, it’s mercury, in Bolivia, it’s aluminum… Can’t humanity see the impacts of this way of producing life on humans, animals, plants, and climate change? The state of Ceará is the only one in Brazil that has a law against aerial spraying. And the ruralist caucus, financed by the agro lobby, took the case to the Supreme Court to overturn the law when, in fact, the law should serve as a reference for all states.
It’s simply desperate: I feel expelled from my own land! How can I continue living amidst poison? My treatment is complex, long, and continuous. And I know that it largely depends on having good nutrition, tranquility, and balanced environmental conditions.
I love life so much! I really want to keep living! I live well, I don’t have other illnesses, I have family, friends, projects, spirituality, I love art, poetry, culture, traveling, kindness, knowledge! I understand that life is fragile and strong! And within us resides the capacity to overcome, invent, build, love, survive, and fight every day for what is good, beautiful, and just! Our passage on this planet is very brief! What can we do here and now?
Sandra Procópio da Silva – Dourados/MS, World Environment Week, 2023.