(Posted by Marta Berbes-Blazquez)
The creation of communities of practice of ecosystem approaches to health has favored the adoption of the ecohealth approach in a variety of countries and contexts in the Americas. The Latin America and Caribbean community of practice in ecosystem approaches to health (CoPEH-LAC) and its Canadian counterpart (CoPEH-Can) are two such communities of practice conducting ecohealth research.
While the CoPEHs share institutional ties, funding sources and theoretical frameworks, there is an interesting difference: A large number of the projects of the CoPEH-LAC are centered on the intersection of health, environmental and labor issues. A cursory review of the literature demonstrates that the emphasis on labor emerges as a distinct particularity of ecohealth work in the Latin American and Caribbean region, with many projects focused on the health and well-being of workers and resource-dependent communities. Some examples from CoPEH-LAC research centers include: pesticide exposure in banana plantation workers in Costa Rica (Wesseling et al., 1993, 2001) and Nicaragua (Rodriguez et al., 2011), heat stress in sugar-cane workers (Crowe et al., 2009), pesticide exposure in floricultural workers in Ecuador (Breilh, 2012), mining in Ecuador (Betancourt et al. 2005), manganese exposure of children in mining communities in Mexico (Riojas-Rodríguez et al., 2008, 2010), etc. By contrast, most of the CoPEH-Canada projects with which I am familiar focus more squarely on the health and environment nexus, without delving much in the labor conditions of workers. I would like to draw attention and invite reflection to why this might be the case, and what are the implications for scholarly research.
Perhaps part of the reason why labor is so central in ecohealth research in Latin America and the Caribbean is that these countries economies depend, to a large degree, on resource-extraction activities, such as agriculture, livestock, aquaculture and mining. Hence, these countries have a considerable population of landless laborers whose working conditions determine their socio-economic circumstance and, by extension, their health and well-being. It is also important to note that the majority of the goods resulting from these extractive activities are for export to countries in the North and that transnational companies from the North often manage the resource extraction activities. How does this particular North-South dynamic impact research? And more precisely, how does it impact interactions among research teams when researchers from the North likely enjoy the benefits derived from the unequal exchange, in the form of an over-abundance of commodities and enhanced consumer power, while at the same time advance their careers by attempting to fix, reduce or contest the flow of these commodities?
More importantly, what is the impact of this form of research on the well-being of workers and resource-dependent communities? I remember asking this to someone who works with banana plantation workers in Costa Rica and she mentioned that, in one occasion, their research showed that workers living in company quadrants were unduly exposed to agrochemicals. Eventually, the company moved the workers to a community further away from the plantation. As a result, the workers are not exposed to pesticides (as much), but they have to wake up much earlier to catch the bus that takes them to the plantation. I met single mothers in some of these communities that were away from their homes from 4:30 AM until 7 PM six days per week. I also met workers for whom exposure to agrochemicals was a relatively minor concern compared to the lack of food, shelter or clothing. Considering the absence of organized labor in many of these plantations, the presence of global trade agreements, etc., uncomfortable questions come to mind: What is the likelihood for structural change stemming from ecohealth research? How should scientific research be used in organizing labor for meaningful change? What are the dangers of internalizing the terms of success of the oppressor?
Perhaps the particular historical legacy, the tradition of social movements and the economic and political landscape in the Latin American and Caribbean context leads to a heightened class conscience. The troublesome part is that it makes us question: what does it mean to do ecohealth research without considering labor? What are the important links that, from a Canadian perspective, we are missing by focusing primarily into health and environment questions? What would it mean to make the link between ecohealth and labor in the Canadian, or other, contexts? What are the lessons that should be learned?
Betancourt O, Narvaez A, Roulet M (2005) Small-scale gold mining in the Puyango River basin, Southern Ecuador: A study of environmental impacts and human exposures. EcoHealth 2(4):323-332
Breilh J (2012) Coping with environmental and health impact in a floricultural region in Ecuador. In Ecohealth Research in Practice: Innovative Applications of an Ecosystem Approach to Health. Charron DF (editor), New York: Springer/Ottawa: International Development Research Centre pp 59-68
Crowe J, van Wendel de Joode B, Wesseling C (2009) A pilot field evaluation on heat stress in sugarcane workers in Costa Rica: What to do next? Global Health Action 2, doi:10.3402/gha.v2i0.2062
Riojas-Rodríguez H, Rodríguez-Agudelo Y, Schilmann A, Solís R, Hernandez D Rodríguez Dozal S (2008) Neuropsychological effects of manganese exposure on children living in communities near processing plants in Mexico. Epidemiology 19(6):S153-S154
Riojas-Rodríguez H, Solís-Vivanco R, Schilmann A, Montes S, Rodríguez S, Ríos C, Rodríguez-Agudelo Y (2010) Intellectual function in Mexican children living in a mining area and environmentally exposed to manganese. Environmental Health Perspectives 118(10):1465-1470
Rodriguez T, van Wendel de Joode B, Lindh CH, Rojas M, Lundberg I, Wesseling C (2011) Assessment of long-term and recent pesticide exposure among rural school children in Nicaragua. Occupational & Environmental Medicine doi:10.1136/oem.2010.062539
Wesseling C, Castillo L, Elinder CG (1993) Pesticide poisonings in Costa Rica. Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Health 19(4):227-235
Wesseling C, van Wendel de Joode B, Monge P (2001) Pesticide-related illness and injuries among banana workers in Costa Rica: a comparison between 1993 and 1996. International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health 7(2):90-97