Toxic Tropics



To begin this issue, we offer to change a little bit our regular formats in including two double-pages from the graphic novel Tropiques Toxiques (Steinkis, 2020) created by Jessica Oublié with drawings by Nicola Gobbi and Kathrine Avraam and photographs by Vinciane Lebrun.

Tropiques Toxiques consists in an illustrated report of Oublié’s investigation on the use of chlordecone pesticide (also known as Kepone in the United States) in Guadeloupe and Martinique’s banana farms between 1972 and 1993. The toxic product was banned everywhere in France in 1990 but, under the pressure of local capitalists (many of whom are Békés, i.e. descendants of French enslavers), the French government authorized the extension of its use in its Caribbean colonies for three additional years. Oublié talked with experts, farmers, workers, and activists to retrace the ways this colonial deadly exception came to be, the impact on Martiniquean and Guadeloupean people, soil, and water, as well as the activist and/or ecological projects undertaken to resist this colonial ecocide. The excerpts we are presenting here are pages 62-63 and 166-167 in the book. The person with the pink hat represents Oublié herself.

Oublie Funambulist 1

Translation ///

  1. Worker: “For that, you got to speak with the boss.”
    [In Creole] “Franck, come see!”
  2. Worker: “Miss wants to speak about chlordecone.” Franck Avril, manager of a 35 hectare plantation he inherited from his father.
  3. Jessica Oublié: “What makes the weevil so dangerous that we had to use chlordecone?”
  4. Franck Avril: “It’s a small animal but quite a ferocious one! It digs tunnels in the bulb and eats everything it finds in the trunk. This weakens the banana tree, which falls after a few weeks.”
  5. FA: “That’s why we were creating a chemical barrier by sprinkling chlordecone all around the banana tree. This way, in a 10 to 20 centimeter circle.”
  6. FA: “We would drop 30 grams with a spoon, once or twice a year on each trunk.”
  7. “Personally, I’ve spread a lot of chlordecone and I can tell you that the work conditions were truly ridiculous.” Marie-Hellen Marthe, aka Surelly, a farm worker for 36 years and General Secretary of the CGTM, the main banana workers’ union.
  8. MHM: “We were using all kinds of pesticides with no protection whatsoever. If you refused to use the product because you were feeling unwell, the manager would tell you to go home.”
  9. MHM: “How many times have I heard: ‘There’s no work for you today Marie-Hellen. Come back next week!’”
  10. MHM: “Until the beginning of the 2000s, some farms did not have bathrooms nor changing rooms for employees. If we were lucky to go by a river on our way home, we would wash ourselves there.”
  11. MHM: “But, most of the time, we would mix our laundry with the rest of the family’s.”
  12. JO: “Is it still like that today?”
    MHM: “Pfff, no one care about farm workers’ labor. We drafted a social progress contract, met ministers, prefects, elected people, but nothing changes!”
  13. FA: “As far as labor conditions are concerned, it’s true that there’s still some room for improvement. As for phyto pesticides, we don’t use them anymore.”
  14. JO: “Really? How do you fight against weevils then?”
    FA: “Once we forbid a molecule, humans always find something to replace it.”
  15. FA: “For several years, CIRAD researchers were working on a ‘weevil trap’; it was commercialized in 1993.”
    JO: “Quite a coincidence… the same year that the authorization to use chlordecone ended.”
  16. FA: “Weevils are attracted by the pheromones stored in this bucket, fall into the water and are stuck in the box.”
  17. FA: “The system works well. Have a look. Since we use those, the banana trees can rely much more on their root system. Those you see on the ground were pushed by the wind.”
  18. JO: “Hmm… The chlordecone, a supposedly miracle product but a much less chemical alternative was possible from the beginning.”

Oublie Funambulist 2

Translation ///

Upper box. November 23, 2019, 7am at Robert, Martinique. Anti-chlordecone activists are blockading one of the Bernard Hayot group’s supermarkets to demand reparation for the chlordecone pollution.
Activist 1: [in Creole] “You can do your grocery somewhere else.”
Shopper 1: [in Creole] “I agree with you.”
Activist 2: [in Creole] “Békés [descendants of French enslavers] took everything from the people so don’t give them money!”

Middle box. Shopper 2: “Leave me alone, you’re not the ones paying for my groceries, are you?!”

Background. Gwoka drums players: [in Creole] “Stand up, stand up.”
Activist 3: “Boycott is a weapon!”

Upper box. Person attacked by the French police: “You’re all criminals!”

Background. Activist 4: [in Creole] “Our hearts are armored!”
Activist 5: [in Creole] “We came to win our dignity!”
Activist 6: [in Creole] “We have nothing to lose!”
Activist 7: “Genocide-chlordecone!”
Sign: “Poisoning + authorization = first degree murder”

Bottom box. Five days later, seven anti-chlordecone activists are arrested by the police. During their trial on August 27, 2020, three of them are judged guilty of violence against the police and public property damaging. They are condemned to prison time, as well as deferment periods.