Bhopal: 34 years later | Pesticide Action Network
Reclaiming the future of food and farming

Bhopal: 34 years later

Kristin Schafer's picture
Remember Bhopal

It’s hard to imagine how terrifying it must have been. Thirty-four years ago, families in Bhopal, India woke to toxic gas pouring over their city from a catastrophic leak at a Union Carbide pesticide plant. Somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000 people died, and community activists have been fighting for justice ever since.

Each year on December 3, PAN International marks the anniversary of the Bhopal tragedy, both to lift up the ongoing struggle of the affected families, and to remind the world that there is another way.

A failing system

Scientists know more about the dangers of pesticides than they did 34 years ago. It’s now clear that even at low levels, they can cause serious health harms — and children are by far the most vulnerable.

There’s no disputing that pesticides are dangerous. Some are more toxic than others, but from factory frontlines to farm fields, and from rural communities to kitchen tables, these chemicals are putting the health of people and ecosystems at risk.

Then there's the fact that study after study has shown that a food system dependent on pesticides is not sustainable. The dicamba drift crisis in Midwest fields over the past two years — with millions of acres of crops damaged — is a classic example of the pesticide treadmill. Many farmers want off.

Who benefits?

So not only is this system of pesticide dependence dangerous, it’s failing. Then why are we still using over a billion pounds of these chemicals every year, in the U.S. alone?

If you “follow the money,” the answer becomes crystal clear. Pesticides are big business, bringing in an estimated $14 billion annually in the US and $56 billion worldwide. The corporations that make these products invest millions to keep them on the market, from promoting their false “we feed the world” narrative, to paying for studies that benefit their bottom line and keeping regulations as weak as possible.

Of course the same corporations are also in the business of genetically modifying seeds to tolerate and promote use of their pesticide products — a clever and lucrative business model.

And that Union Carbide corporation responsible for the toxic gas in Bhopal? It was acquired by Dow Chemical many years ago, which recently merged with Dupont and then rebranded as “Corteva” — part of a flurry of consolidation over the past two years in an already highly concentrated industry. After Monsanto became Bayer and Syngenta joined with ChemChina, just three giant, powerful corporations control an astonishing 80% of the seed and pesticide market worldwide. Think about that.

“Our struggle is yours”

So in theory, Corteva is now accountable to the people of Bhopal for the devastation they suffered back in 1984. Two acquisitions distant, Corteva is of course denying responsibility, just as Dow did before the recent merger.

It’s an uphill battle, but it’s worth the fight. As the activists at the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal (ICJB) explain,

The struggle of ordinary people to assert their fundamental human rights in face of the power, greed and heartlessness of giant corporations will be the defining battle of the twenty first century.

We agree. As they’ve done many years before, ICJB is organizing a fast to mark the December 3rd anniversary. We urge you to support them however you can, because as the ICJB activists note, “our struggle is yours too.”

Photo courtesy: ICJB

Kristin Schafer
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Kristin Schafer's picture

Kristin Schafer is PAN's Executive Director. With training in international policy and social change strategies, Kristin has been at PAN for over 20 years. Before taking on the Executive Director role, she was PAN's program and policy director. She has been lead author on several PAN reports, with a particular emphasis on children's health. She serves on the Policy Committee of the Children's Environmental Health Network. Follow @KristinAtPAN