Life (and death) on Hvar
Hvar Island should be one of the healthiest places to live. However, ill-health is rife, with cancers, thyroid problems and neurological illnesses in alarmingly high numbers in such a small population. There are evident hormone problems, such as premature menopause in teenage girls, and difficulties breast-feeding in young mothers. Some of the ill-health is undoubtedly linked to the high incidence of smoking on the island. Environmental factors affecting soil quality, food production and the air that we breathe are also likely to be responsible. Environmental depletion is visible year on year throughout Hvar Island. In populated and cultivated areas there are fewer butterflies, fewer insects, fewer birds and much fewer bats. Fishermen complain that there are fewer fish. Bee-keepers in 2016 have even reported a lack of honey.
Are chemical pesticides to blame? It is more than likely. Glyphosate, the active substance in Roundup/Cidokor, which is widely used on the island, has been strongly implicated in cancers, especially prostate and breast cancer, as well as Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, not to mention innumerable other health and environmental problems.
Words and deeds
Hvar islanders pride themselves on the island's reputation for clean air, sea and land. It's something they take for granted. Asked whether they produce their wine, olive oil, fruits and vegetables organically, the majority of islanders will answer 'Yes'.
The reality doesn't always match up to the words. Chemical herbicides and insecticides are the stock-in-trade of many (perhaps most) Hvar farmers and gardeners. Many individuals use poisons of all kinds around their homes, gardens and fields. Some believe that pesticides are the best or even the only solution for the perceived problems of vermin, unwanted plants (aka weeds), and unwanted insects. Few think of, or care about the collateral damage caused. As for following instructions, well... weedkillers designed for annual use are often employed two or even three times in a year; recommended quantitites for application may be multiplied anything up to ten times; and poisons may be mixed together haphazardly for greater strength. Needless to say, any warnings about precautionary measures or possible health risks go unnoticed or ignored. The cumulative effects of the poisons inflicted on the island and its surrounding seas are building up year on year.
Local Council role
Jelsa's local Council (Općina) is not a role model for environmental awareness. We at Eco Hvar had reason to hope it might be. Some years ago, we were told that the Council had passed a Directive (odredba) by whicvh it was forbidden to apply pesticides in public spaces. However, two years ago, Eco Hvar learned that Jelsa's little local park had been sprayed with a glyphosate-based herbicide, with hardly any warning, despite the fact that mothers take their children to play there on a daily basis. As a result of our complaint, Eco Hvar learned that the Council's Ecology Committee (Odbor za ekologiju), consisted of just a handful of people. One of them actually stated: 'the advancement of mankind depends on the use of 'plant protectors...' ' - that's a euphemism for poisonous pesticides, in case you didn't know. An astonishing assertion, typical of the compelling rhetoric spewed out on behalf of the agrochemical companies.
Eco Hvar, naively as it turned out, assumed that reminding the Council about the Directive would be sufficient to put a stop to further unannounced pesticide applications in public spaces. In 2016, it became clear that this was not so. Eco Hvar questioned the Mayor and Council officials about the use of poisons in their area of responsibility. JELKOM, the Council company responsible for waste management and upkeep of public spaces like the local park, gave no clear answer on whether they had continued to use herbicide after the 2014 correspondence, but did admit to spraying the local park with insecticide against aphids. The reason for this action was obscure.
On April 11th 2016, Jelsa'a Mayor, Nikša Peronja, signed a statement encouraging local people to give up using dangerous pesticides. The document was produced and co-signed in collaboration with Eco Hvar, complete with official rubber stamps on both sides. It was to be put on all Council notice boards, according to the Mayor. That didn't happen. Not even on the board outside the Town Hall. Now it seems clear that the occasion was no more than a passing photo-opportunity. Meaningless in practice.
It should not have been a surprise that the Mayor's initiative was just empty words. Like the other local Councils on Hvar, Jelsa has a poor environmental record. One example is the continuing practice of distributing rat poison twice a year in flimsy cellophane bags. The instructions inside the bags are only in Croatian despite the number of foreign householders who are recipients of this largely unwanted 'gift'. Does poison solve vermin problems? No, mice and rats become resistant, leading to the inexorable rise of super-rats. There are better methods of vermin control, not least using their natural enemies, such as cats and certain terrier breeds of dog.
In fact, the rat poison Ratimor in the flimsy packaging ceased to be on the Ministry of Agriculture's Approved List in 2013.
Another pointless and dangerous practice on the island is the routine spraying of the streets in the height of the summer against mosquitoes. At least twice in the season a Dalek-like vehicle trundles round the streets in each Council area around Hvar Town, Stari Grad and Jelsa, spewing out a poisonous mist on either side. No quarter is given to pedestrians. There's no escape for any cars following the poison-emitter. The practice defies logic, it's the wrong time, wrong place.
Needless to say, far from solving the mosquito nuisance, Hvar is suffering from ever-increasing numbers of virulent isects as they become resistant to the insecticides. What are the poisons used? They change at intervals. In 2014, Permex 22E was used in a concentration of 12.36% - even though the official instructions recommend concentrations of 0.3-1% in water (page in Italian), or 3% in a solvent for confined areas. Eco Hvar warned the Council in August 2014 that Permex 22E was both dangerous and inappropriate. Yet in 2015 it was used again, this time in combination with two other poisons: Microfly and Twenty-one. Eco Hvar then made its concerns public.
As other local Councils on Hvar do much the same as Jelsa, the island is subjected to untold potential environmental harm on a depressingly regular basis.
The example of Roundup (Cidokor)
Roundup (Cidokor) has been used in vast quantities on Hvar Island over many years. Roundup was banned from sale in the European Union on October 1st 2016, but it will still be in use for many months (if not years) as the ban did not comprise an immediate total recall.
The agrochemical industry has huge marketing power. Apart from going to great lengths to discredit any scientific evidence showing the harm done, the agrochemical companies exert a lot of influence through the internet. Well targeted Google ads often pop up alongside any article about agriculture. Glyphosate-based herbicides are foremost among the poisons given a benign makeover to encourage public consumption. Even paraquat (gramoxone), which was banned in Europe in 2007, is advertised in Google ads on European-based websites. Paraquat was used on Hvar, and is still widely used worldwide, although there is no doubt about its health risks, which include death. Marketing spin glosses over any unpleasant facts. It is not surprising that professional and domestic chemical pesticide users are lulled into a sense of false security about the products they are buying.
If you consult the 'Glyphosate Facts' website, it claims that that glyphosate can be used in all kinds of places, from private gardens to crop plantations, to 'aquatic environments' to forests; it is said to control all kinds of weeds, including the notorious Japanese knotweed. There are pictures of thriving fruit trees, butterflies, sunny fields. It's all very convincing to those who do not know about the mass of evidence showing the harm glyphosate can do. In 2001, a case was brought against Monsanto in the French courts, claiming that their advertising had misled the public on questions of environmental safety, specifically claims that their product was 'biodegradable' and 'left soil clean'. Despite two appeals, Monsanto lost the case in a final decision delivered in 2009. Undeterred, the propaganda machine rolls on, riding roughshod over such irritating setbacks. They are quickly pushed into oblivion so far as public aawareness is concerned.
Do herbicides work? What actually happens in practice?
The pictures below show a field near Pitve on Hvar Island, which was sprayed with Roundup (Cidokor) in March 2014. This was the first time the field was sprayed. It had been unattended for very many years, then ploughed up and planted with olives. The owner in fact wanted to cultivate his olives organically, but a workman took it on himself to use herbicide rather than strimming. The effect of the herbicide started to show about ten days after the application.
After a couple of weeks, most of the plant growth was a burnt-out sorry-looking mess. It would be a major stretch of the imagination to describe the field as 'clean'. There were pheasants in that field until the spraying, but they disappeared straight away. Many months later, the body of one female pheasant was found (although it was not certain how she died). Two dogs who by chance were in direct contact with the herbicide fell ill with leishmaniasis, and are on long-term medication for this incurable condition. (Leishmaniasis is endemic on the island. In all the cases I have come across, the dogs were in contact with soil sprayed with herbicide. Coincidence? I for one do not believe that.)
A couple of months after the spraying, new growth began to appear.
Another month, and the field was well covered, with bare patches of depleted earth as testimony to the effects of the herbicide. The following year, the depletion of the soil was still evident, but there was an abundance of wild growth. No pheasants though, they kept to surrounding areas which were not directly dowsed with herbicides.
Just over a year post-herbicide, 16th April 2015. Photo: Vivian Grisogono
So did the Roundup application eliminate the unwanted plants / weeds? No, obviously not. Did it cause collateral damage? Yes, undoubtedly. Are there long-term ill-effects? Pretty certainly. The person potentially most at risk is of course the workman who applied the herbicide.
Over a year post-herbicide, 4th May 2015. Photo: Vivian Grisogono
No escaping the ill-effects
Using herbicide affects much more than the target plants. The poison spreads. It is also spread around by footwear, especially if public paths are contaminated. One can see the telltale trail of yellowing plants when people walk over sprayed earth and then on to areas which have not been treated. Obviously, the poison can be transmitted in the same way into people's houses, a worrying thought, especially in homes where children play on the floor.
Herbicides have lasting effects
Plants grow again after herbicide application. Some show the effects of the herbicide, sometimes for years afterwards. Grass, for instance, shows an unnatural yellow-orange tinge. This can happen even in areas which have not been sprayed directly, but which have been contaminated by footwear or by spray drift through the air.
Of course, the manufacturers do not claim that a single application will remove unwanted plants forever. They want you to buy more. They don't tell you about the resistant plants which floourish after herbicide applications. The more attractive ones include creeping buttercup, poppies and arum lilies. For the increasingly resistant weeds, the agrochemical industry provides the stock answer: more and stronger herbicides. The Paraquat website boasts of paraquat being effective against glyphosate-resistant weeds. The weeds get tougher and tougher. Soil exposed to herbicides is more and more depleted, and remains contaminated for much longer than the manufacturers claim.
How can you trust them?
Smooth advertising spin from the agrochemical industry, coupled with official reassurances from regulators, make it seem that chemical pesticides are safe. Contrary information goes unseen. The manufacturers, of course, deny the damage which glyphosate-based herbicides are known to be associated with. To counter the agrochemical industry's well-oiled propaganda machine there would have to be a massive advertising campaign. But who would fund it?
It's your choice
Public health - that is yours and mine - has been put at risk for years by the use of tonnes of chemical pesticides. Every individual has the right to choose whether to use legally authorized substances or not. If you use, or intend to use chemical pesticides, BE INFORMED.
BEAR IN MIND that chemical pesticides are poisons which have not been, and cannot be proven safe. If you use them you risk your own health, the health of those around you, and that of future generations - of your children and theirs. You are also causing potential damage to the environment, ultimately creating more problems than you were trying to solve in the beginning.
THINK OF THE ALTERNATIVES. There are plenty of natural methods for controlling weeds, unwanted insects and rodents. Apart from the methods used by our forbears before chemical pesticides came into general use, you can find many different techniques on the internet.
THINK OF THE SAVINGS. Pesticides cost money. Pesticides cost health. Healthcare costs money. HEALTH IS BEYOND PRICE.
IT'S UP TO YOU!
© Vivian Grisogono MA(Oxon) 2016