Brazilian farmer sues tobacco firm over health effects of pesticide

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Jose Wanderlei da Silva now has difficulty even crawling out of bed, yet the tobacco farmer from southern Brazil is is suing a giant of the tobacco industry.

After using the potent pesticides the company sold him to treat his tobacco crop for several seasons, Mr Wanderlei da Silva now finds himself crippled with chronic fatigue syndrome. His strong arms are beginnning to atrophy and he is severely depressed. He claims that, aged 32, he is unable to earn a living any more.

One of 45,000 smallholders contracted to grow tobacco by Souza Cruz, the local subsidiary of the multinational British American Tobacco, the despairing farmer receives little company sympathy. Souza Cruz denies any responsibility, insisting it met its legal obligations. The company says it provided training and advice and adequate protective clothing.

The British charity Christian Aid is taking BAT to task for failing to meet its own corporate standards of social responsibility and says that Wanderlei da Silva's is not an isolated case.

Spraying season brings similar complaints from many tobacco farmers, the charity points out in a two-year study released today. Harvest time, when entire families provide the extra field labour, exposes children to the residual pesticide poisons that can stunt growth. It is pressing for an independent scientific study to establish the extent of health damage in Brazil's tobacco fields.

At the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, which ends tomorrow, 50,000 activists gathered to demand social justice for the world's workers. Christian Aid volunteers raised concerns over environmental, health and safety lapses that adversely affect tobacco growers across southern Brazil.

Their new report also alleges that Souza Cruz profits from its pesticides sales but does not fully warn growers of all the dangers. They complain that the company frequently underwrites loans to individual farmers, securing credit from the Brazilian government in their names. Often, they allege, this is arranged without the farmers' knowledge, and that many Brazilians get hooked on the easy credit provided by the tobacco company and, although they agree to grow crops exclusively for the multinational, they are not always paid competitive prices.

Andrew Pendleton, who compiled the report, said: "Christian Aid believes global corporations must be held legally accountable at a global level for their own actions and those of their subsidiaries."

British American Tobacco Company did not return The Independent's phone calls about the allegations.

* Hours before delegates in Brazil were to begin discussing terrorism and violence yesterday, police waged a gunfight with a suspected robber at the entrance to the university where the five-day World Social Forum, a counterpoint to the World Economic Forum in New York, is being held. The incident happened at 7am local time at the entrance to Porto Alegre's Catholic University.

Four robbers armed with pistols and a sub-machine-gun tried to overpower security guards loading up cash machines with money from an armored car, said Colonel Nelsohoner Sebajes. The guards opened fire, shooting dead one of the suspects, he said.

Delegates filed into the conference centre through an adjacent garage. walking past spent cartridges that were lying in blood. Bullet marks pocked a wall opposite the entrance.

Colonel Sebajes said no money was stolen and the other three robbers escaped, though police later found an abandoned vehicle with a cache of ammunition.

"Nobody at the forum was hurt," Colonel Sebajes said.