Nearly 100 banana workers are camping out in front of the Nicaraguan parliament building in Managua this month, demanding legislative help that will enable them to bring a class-action lawsuit against several large corporations which they believe are to blame for the deaths and diseases of close relatives and co-workers.

The banana industry is arguably the developing nation's most important; last year exports grossed US$13.6m and over 5000 people are currently employed in the sector. It grew to prominence during the 1960s and 70s, when land owned by local producers was leased to Standard Fruit Company, a company whose main strategy was to focus on export potential. In a bid to increase yields, growers used the pesticide DBCP, or dibromochloropropane, which was later condemned by the International Action Network Against the Use of Pesticides, and it is this which is now causing the problems.

The utilisation of DBCP is now understood to cause illnesses that have long-term effects across generations. It interferes with the central nervous system and the transmission of nerve impulses, causing hypersensitivity of the skin, headaches, weakness and nausea. DBCP can also have the long-term effects of sterility, eye damage, anaemia, thyroid damage and increased mortality in the young.

Francisca Picado, 45, worked at the banana plantations for 12 years. She said that her husband died over twenty years ago from DBCP poisoning, which was known at the time as "nemagoon," and she explained how the pesticide has affected her son Juan Carlos: "The doctors said he was damaged. They said that I had passed on the disease that his father had caught (from the pesticide)."

Poisoning the people for decades

The workers' lawyer, Walter Gutierez, has written to the parliament explaining that because the pesticide is non-biodegradable, it has remained in the environment for decades, and been transmitted to humans through natural drinking water supplies.

The workers in Managua this month claim that over 22,000 people have been affected by DBCP related illnesses, and that at least 83 former workers have died from its poisoning. They are campaigning for compensation from the pesticide producers, such as the Royal Dutch/Shell group, and the banana producers who used it, Chiquita Brands International and the Dole Food Co as well as the Standard Fruit Company. In 1996, banana workers proposed a law that would allow victims of DBCP to bring a class-action lawsuit against the companies, but until this is passed they cannot sue.

Responding to the recent action, legislators have now begun to debate the law, which will be the first of its kind in Nicaraguan history if it is passed, and it looks hopeful. Victor Hugo Tinoco, Sandinista Deputy, commented that, "there is a desire in parliament to find a way to help the banana workers." He said that he expects legislators to approve the law.

Substantial difficulties in proving DBCP poisoning

Texan lawyer Charles Siegel is sceptical, however, of the chances of banana workers to gain victory in a compensation case even if they get to court. Siegel specialises in environmental lawsuits and during the 1980s he successfully represented banana workers from Costa Rica suffering from sterility caused by DBCP poisoning. He noted that it was incredibly difficult to prove that illnesses were necessarily the result of exposure to the pesticide: "The sterility claim is a very strong claim, but claims beyond that are more difficult to prove."

Banana Producers in Nicaragua have been anxious to stress that the welfare of their workers now takes a high priority. Human rights officials have been contracted, however, to investigate allegations that producers are actually still using the dangerous pesticide. There is a lot of anger amongst the workers and their families who have suffered from DBCP poisoning, but it still remains to be seen whether, if they are even able to bring a lawsuit, their calls for compensation will be answered.