Last Friday, three global pesticide corporations threw the legal equivalent of the kitchen sink at the island of Kaua’i. The suit filed in federal court is the latest in a long stream of corporate bullying that has become commonplace on the island and around the world.
For years, the Hawaiian islands have been a global epicenter of testing genetically engineered (GE) seeds. This means big money for pesticide and biotech corporations. And as momentum grows to restrict GE testing and pesticide use thoughout the islands, corporate bully tactics are becoming increasingly agressive. And desperate.
Last Friday, I was on Kaua'i when we got word that Dow, DuPont Pioneer and Syngenta filed suit against the County of Kaua'i. And the high-powered attorneys trumped up every possible legal argument to try and tank an important new law.
The suit comes on the heels of a historic victory; last fall, Kaua'i passed a county law (Bill 2491) that would allow greater public disclosure of pesticide use, as well as modest no-spray protection zones around schools and other places where children live, learn and play.
This lawsuit in reaction to passage of this legislation isn't entirely unexpected. Corporate attorneys threatened as much during one of the first Kaua'i County Council hearings on the bill. And this corporate tactic is not new.
The world's largest pesticide corporations — collectively known as the "Big 6" — have a long history of bullying anyone challenging their market dominance. They recently sued European governments intending to protect bees. And there have been many instances of litigiously pursuing farmers accused of saving patented GE seeds.
Highly hazardous exposure
Communities on Kaua'i — especially a large group of mothers — are standing their ground in the face of this lawsuit. The stakes are just too high. Malia Chun, a local mother and native Hawaiian, called the suit “shameful" and said:
“As a west side resident who is surrounded by the test fields of these companies, it is my basic human right to know what they are exposing me and my family to on a regular basis.”
Like many island residents, Malia has seen how pervasive pesticide use (associated with GE seed operations) has become across Kaua'i. And as part of legal disclosure with residents in one town, concerned residents learned a bit about DuPont Pioneer operations there — much of it shocking.
Data show that DuPont Pioneer sprays pesticides 250-300 days a year on Kaua'i fields, 10-16 times per day. And among the chemicals applied are large amounts of highly hazardous pesticides like paraquat, chlorpyrifos and atrazine — which are linked to Parkinson’s, cancer, learning disabilities, birth defects and more. But even these dramatic numbers don't do justice to the impacts on the ground, and the harm these chemicals are inflicting on communities.
Taking on Goliath
The current battle in Kaua'i bears resemblance to the biblical parable of David and Goliath. Dow, Dupont Pioneer and Syngenta marshall approximately one-third of the world's seed market and one third of the world's pesticides. By any measure, they are Goliaths. And the diverse group of moms, native Hawaiians, physicians, farmers, teachers and others are David in this story.
Resources do matter, and pesticide corporations have demonstrated a willingness to spend tremendous amounts of money and staff time in attempts to squash opposition to their GE or pesticide products. But the depth of commitment, and the ability to adapt, is what allows people to prevail in the face of substantial corporate resources.
And it's not just persistence that results in successfully pushing back against pesticide Goliaths, but the ability to use available resources in effective ways. Harvard organizing scholar Marshall Ganz calls this “strategic capacity.”
The strategic capacity of the united coalition on Kaua'i allowed them to triumph over pesticide giants to pass Bill 2491. When corporations effectively paid their employees to attend hearings, volunteer community leaders showed up earlier. When industry ran paid ads on print, TV and radio, community members ramped up door-to-door canvassing and social media outreach to broadcast their message.
The lawsuit will wind its way through a series of procedural motions and arguments in the coming weeks. But the recently won law to better protect Kaua'i residents from pesticide exposure is on solid footing. With the deep well of commitment to ohana (family, community) and to the ‘aina (land) — along with residents' willingness to articulate and advance a better vision for the island — Kaua'i communities will continue to prevail over the giant pesticide corporations.