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Silent Rivers
« on: October 21, 2016, 10:22:47 AM »
Silent Rivers
Paul Borja
Published on Oct 15, 2006 by The Bohol Standard Newspaper

Forty two years ago, American biologist Rachel Louise Carson published her book Silent Spring. The book would turn out to be a piercing alarm bell that riveted the world’s attention to the silent ecological devastation being wrought by massive use of chemical pesticides.

In her book, Carson, who used to work for the US Bureau of Fisheries and Wildlife but loved writing and poetry the most, documented the chemical warfare human beings were waging against the natural world. Many people now think that Carson, through her book, helped to fuel the environment movement that has now become a global crusade to save what remains of nature from the ravages of human destruction that continues without let-up today.

Carson mainly aimed her poetic pen at DDT, considered the most powerful pesticide the world had ever known. Unlike most pesticides, whose effects were limited to destroying one or two insects, DDT could kill hundreds of different kinds at once. DDT had been used during the Second World War to clear South Pacific islands of malaria-causing insects for US troops, and its inventor was later awarded the Nobel Prize.

After the War, DDT became available for civilian use, but very few people were alarmed at the environmental effects of this powerful chemical that was used indiscriminately as a “miracle cure” to stop the spread of insect-borne diseases. Taking her four years to write, Carson meticulously described in Silent Spring how DDT entered the food chain and accumulated in the fatty tissues of animals, including human beings, and caused cancer and genetic damage. Carson wrote lyrically about a nameless American town where all life – from fish to birds to apple blossoms to human children – had been “silenced” by DDT’s insidious effects.

For writing about DDT’s silent scourge, Carson was pounced upon by chemical companies. A chemical company executive complained: “If man were to faithfully follow the teachings of Miss Carson we would return to the Dark Ages, and the insects and diseases and vermin would once again inherit the earth.” For its part, chemical giant and now genetic engineering behemoth, Monsanto published a brochure parodying Silent Spring. Entitled “The Desolate Year,” Monsanto’s opus related about the devastation and inconvenience of a world where famine, disease, and insects ran amuck because chemical pesticides had been banned.

As it turned out, history and scientific evidence would vindicate Carson. US government-ordered investigation into the effects of DDT eventually led to the banning of the pesticide and prompted stringent regulation of all kinds of pesticides. Nevertheless, this development did not lead to the demise of pesticide use; and chemical companies did not exactly go bankrupt as a result.

On the contrary, the number of new chemical pesticides developed and commercialized and the volume of pesticides used worldwide have shot up phenomenally over the decades. Stricter government regulations simply challenged chemical companies to develop new product lines that skirted just within the regulatory standards and to package them more effectively to the public through the mass media. Whenever governments in the industrial countries banned use of certain pesticides, it did not become a surprise that these pesticides would find their way to or continue to be in use, legally or illegally, in poor and developing countries. These countries, including the Philippines, have literally become a massive toxic dumpsite.

Carson’s book came to mind when in Davao City last week, I met pharmacologist and toxicologist Dr. Romeo Quijano of the University of the Philippines – Philippine General Hospital (UP-PGH). Dr. Quijano had been invited by a Davao environmental network to talk about the impacts of pesticides used intensively by plantations in many parts of Mindanao. Dr. Quijano is not new to the controversy, having been slapped previously with at least two libel suits for speaking out against the use of certain pesticides in plantations, in which some of these chemicals had already been banned in other countries. Dr. Quijano had documented and written about human illnesses and deaths attributed to chemical use in plantations, which prompted the libel suits.

A week before Quijano’s visit, Davao City papers reported of a massive fishkill in a number of fishponds in Tugbok district of the city. The fishponds, which were mainly growing hito, happened to be located within a river catchbasin where several kilometers upstream a banana plantation operated. Fishpond owners alleged that chemicals used in the plantation had contaminated the river that led to the fishkill downstream. They cited their observations of dwindling numbers of frogs and freshwater eels in the streams that feed into their fishponds as indicative of accumulating pesticide contamination. Asked for his comment on the matter, Dr. Quijano said that although the real cause of the fishkill has yet to be established through chemical residue analysis he raised the likelihood of chemical pesticides used in the aerial spraying of banana plantations as being the culprit.

Meanwhile, the group that invited Dr. Quijano to Davao City had a curiously familiar name to it: Panaghoy sa Kinaiyahan. It turned out Bohol had a lot to do with the name and the launching of the network. The network was their effort to bring attention to the continuing devastation of the environment and the gradual killing of our children by chemicals running rampant.

Asked about Loboc River, I told some Davaoeno friends that it remains a beautiful sight to see, just like in the movie, but not necessarily when it becomes too crowded with tourist-bedecked floating restaurants.

I said that the river runs quietly but upstream and in the hinterlands from where the river collects its sources, new plantations of an exotic species have risen from the ground and soon a factory whose sewage will mix with streams flowing into the legendary river.

They say silent rivers run deep. Were Rachel Carson still alive today, she would have already alerted us to the call of our rivers from the depths of ecological despair. The world having just commemorated Earth Day last April 22, let it not be said that we are being deaf to the silent running of our threatened rivers.

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