By Rokhayo Diallo
In 2006, years after a toxic pesticide led to widespread contamination in the French overseas territories of Martinique and Guadeloupe, seven organizations filed a complaint against the government for “reckless endangerment.” After nearly 15 years, on Jan. 21, the case was finally heard by magistrates from the High Court of Paris. Though there are still serious concerns the case will be dismissed before justice is achieved, this was long overdue given the scale of the tragedy — one of many similar stories across France’s former colonies.
Chlordecone was a pesticide created in the 1950s in the United States and sold under the name “kepone.” It generated a historic trial that raised much media attention and was banned in the United States in 1975. Four years later, the chemical was classified as potentially carcinogenic by the World Health Organization. In 2009, it was included in a list of persistent organic pollutants under the Stockholm Convention, banning its production worldwide.
France started to use it in the Caribbean on banana plantations in 1972 and officially approved the product in 1981. It was ultimately banned in mainland France in 1990, but even after that, a ministerial permit allowed its use until 1993 in these “departments,” a French designation for administrative units of local government such as those in place in Martinique and Guadeloupe. In this, health agencies and agribusiness lobbies were complicit, as Jessica Oublié highlights in her graphic novel “Toxic Tropics.” The dramatic consequences have led to a context of environmental pollution unique in the world, which could last up to 700 years.
With soil, waterways, livestock and agricultural stocks poisoned, thousands of people have been physically affected. An estimated 95 percent of Guadeloupeans and 92 percent of Martiniquans have been exposed to the pesticide, and the departments had the highest rates of prostate cancer in the world in 2018. A parliamentary committee of inquiry led by Martiniquan member of Parliament Serge Letchimy has demonstrated that the contamination could affect children’s brain development and increase the risk of premature births. According to the document, the state has been aware of the potential danger of chlordecone since 1969.
As a legacy of its colonial empire, France is the only country to be situated on four continents. Like several other former colonies that are now departments, Guadeloupe and Martinique used to be territories designed for the exploitation of enslaved Africans after the slaughtering of the original indigenous populations. Today those islands, inhabited by a majority of people of color, suffer wide economic and social disparities in comparison with France’s mainland. And many of the biggest banana plantation owners are the “békés,” a White minority descended from slave owners.
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It is common to hear that such a scandal, a “colonial crime” in the eyes of many, would never have happened in the European part of France. And it is not the only time that France mistreated those whose ancestors were dominated by the colonial power.AD
For example, French law prohibits the aerial spraying of pesticides, which could spread over private homes and schools, but the government has considered exemptions specifically drafted for the overseas territories, such as for rice cropping in French Guiana.
In French Polynesia, the effect of nuclear tests conducted between the 1960s and the 1990s were hidden by the French army for a long time. Today, the victims of are still struggling to be compensated.
Political scientist Françoise Vergès has published a book about the scandal in Reunion Island in the early 1970s, when hundreds of women were unwittingly sterilized or made to have abortions without consent. At a time when abortion was illegal in France, the perpetrators enjoyed an incredible degree of leniency.
Other tragedies affected the island: Between the 1960s and 1980s, thousands of children, abandoned or not, were deported and placed with White families in other departments. The “moral responsibility” of the state was finally admitted in 2014, but no compensation was given to those who pressed charges for kidnapping.AD
And in the chlordecone scandal, it took more than a decade for France to admit its responsibility, when President Emmanuel Macron called it an “an environmental scandal” that was enabled by “collective blindness” in 2018. But less than a year later, the president was still denying its devastating effects on health, insisting “it should not be said that it is carcinogenic.”
This context has lent urgency to calls for justice. In a petition by French MP Olivier Serva to Macron and three ministers, public figures — myself included — voiced the fear that the judges might dismiss the procedure. “The polluting of our lands has contributed to the illness of many of our compatriots,” reads the petition.
The leading Black poet and intellectual Aimé Césaire, who was elected mayor of Fort de France, Martinique, in 1945, famously used to ask of those in France’s departments who appear to be treated as second-class citizens: “Fully a part of France, or fully apart from France?” The question remains open.