The Frenzy Against Fruit Flies
We arrived at the Las Manos Border between Honduras and Nicaragua at nightfall. Our 24-person permaculture group had already been sitting in a van for nearly 24 hours, cruising the Pan-American Highway — the world’s longest “motorable road” — from Lake Atitlan, Guatemala across three countries.
As we slowed to a stop behind a lengthy row of cars, we spotted a man with a handkerchief over his face and very little else for protective gear. He was hunched forward, holding a metal hose in order to spray the lower parts of each passing vehicle.
Poisonous Gases Fumigation Area, was written in Spanish on a looming billboard.
Why wasn’t the man wearing proper safety equipment like an oxygen mask, overalls, boots, and gloves? What were they spraying on the vehicles, specifically the wheels? Did insects really hitch rides on tires? If so, which ones?
As someone who suffers from an autoimmune condition, I’m extremely sensitive to chemicals. This site freaked me out; it all seemed dangerous and foolish.
“We’re fucked to the max,” announced one of my fellow travelers, a former deputy D.A. from Colorado.
We were not warned. We were not advised. And we were not asked whether we wanted to vacate the vehicle until they finished with their sick rendition of a car wash.
Instead, we frantically rolled up our windows, asked our driver to cut the air, and hoped for the best. Had they searched inside, they would have found some fruit and a live iguana that we’d rescued on the side of the road for 10 bucks to keep so we could keep it from ending up on someone’s dinner plate (iguana is a popular meat in Mexico and Central America).
After our van was fumigated, we were immediately asked to wait in another long line to show our passports. My eyes stung, and I began to cough. Clearly, whatever they sprayed was drifting in the air, invisible but poisonous.
Welcome to Nicaragua.
Moscamed Program: An Opaque Definition of Sustainability & Success
In the evenings after permaculture class, I looked into that night’s “chemical attack.” ‘We were now on the last leg of our three-week journey, which was unfolding at the Surfing Turtle Lodge, a beachfront hostel, located on a beautiful stretch of empty beaches in Isla Los Brasiles, in the northern part of Nicaragua, on the Pacific Coast. The hostel was a five-minute boat ride across from the town of Poneloya and a 20-minute drive from the historic city of Leon.
The internet connection moved like molasses as I perched in my bed du jour. I shared a small, one-roomed wooden bungalow where the ocean practically crashed at our feet. Despite the slow connectivity, I persisted; I wanted to look into a lead my permaculture teachers Ronaldo Lec Ajcot, a Maya Kaqchiqel from Guatemala and Shad Qudsi of Atitlan Organics provided. They suspected it was a program called “Moscamed.'”
Moscamed (the Spanish word for “medfly”) is a transnational joint eradication program, financed by the U.S., that includes Guatemala and Mexico. The pest in question is the Mediterranean fruit fly or medfly, which one Florida newspaper described as “a destructive little fly that breeds 10 generations a year,” that has “slipped with ease across vast oceans.” The female medfly attacks ripening fruit and veggies, piercing the soft skin and laying up to 75 eggs in the puncture. The eggs then hatch into maggots, which feed deep inside the fruit pulp.
The fear driving this program is that the med fly will invade the U.S. Moscamed’s long-term mission to eradicate the fly throughout Central America.
“Maintaining a med fly barrier in Central America protects our multibillion dollar fruit and vegetable industry and allows us to maintain and expand market share in domestic and international markets,” states a blog on the USDA’s website.
Here’s a quick historical recap to get you up to speed:
1927: Cooperative programs to control fruit flies begin with Mexico, when the Mexican fruit fly is discovered in Texas for the first time.
1944: The Organic Act authorizes the USDA to work with other countries within the Western Hemisphere.
1955: The introduction of medfly, originally from Africa, reaches coffee crops in Central America, specifically Costa Rica. But since the fly lives off the coffee bean’s fruity skin and doesn’t harm the actual bean, it is ignored. From there it spreads northward into Nicaragua and southward into Panama. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations works with officials in Costa Rica and Nicaragua to establish quarantines, surveillance, and control measures.
1972: According to the USDA, an earthquake in Nicaragua results in a collapse of the medfly quarantine. Medflies spread into Honduras and El Salvador.
1975: Medflies are detected for the first time in Guatemala. The USDA establishes a cooperative agreement with the Guatemalan Ministry of Agriculture. Small-scale tests using sterile medflies to control the pest are conducted with support of the Joint FAO/IAEA Division. The sterile medflies are supplied from Seibersdorf, Austria and Wadenswil, Switzerland.
1977: The fruit fly infests Mexico’s southern Chiapas state. The U.S., Mexico, and Guatemala initiate a cooperative program known as Moscamed to eradicate the insect from Mexico and Guatemala and halt its northern spread. The USDA and the Mexican government establish a Memorandum of Understanding. According to local Mayans, Moscamed’s introduction coincides with the arrival of new agricultural pests. They witness planes flying over their villages and fields, spraying pesticides and herbicides. Children exposed to the chemicals cough and vomit.
1977 through 1999: The Moscamed program‘s insecticide of choice is malathion, considered highly toxic to humans, bees, fish, and shellfish. This potent, broad-spectrum pesticide is sprayed over large areas that include full villages, bodies of water, and endangered animal species — all in the name of “reducing world hunger.”
The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) assured me that they’ve “demonstrated a long term and unparalleled commitment to honeybee health.” They report that the Moscamed Commission “has a good track record of working with honeybee producers throughout Central America and serves as a model for other countries to emulate.”
But according to other reports, Moscamed indiscriminately sprayed malathion for 20 years, in many cases directly on people’s homes, which, in rural villages, are often located within sprayed fields. Spraying occurred without informing the inhabitants of the safety risks or necessary precautions, writes anthropologist Nicholas Copeland, who investigated mistrust of the program among indigenous villagers in rural Huehuetenango, a Guatemalan department located in the northwest, along Mexico’s southeastern border.
1978-1979: A mass-rearing facility is established in Metapa, Chiapas at the border of Guatemala to produce 500 million sterile flies per week. There, male fruit flies are zapped with radiation to make them spermless before they are dropped from planes to copulate with fertile females. Near the plant, the smell of fly pheromones wafts through the town, blanketing it with an acrid stench while bugs are bred and then heated in a vat. The flies are grown on trays of sugar cane, wheat and yeast, a specialized diet that nourishes the eggs to hatch into larvae.
1979: The eradication program now uses a combination of tactics on an area-wide basis: malathion bait sprays and fruit stripping to lower populations followed by the release of sterile medflies, using over-flooding ratios coupled with regulatory procedures to reduce wild populations.
1981: The U.S. signs separate bilateral agreements with Mexico and Guatemala to control the medfly using integrated measures, including use of the “sterile insect technique” (SIT). Young agronomists in Mexico don T-shirts emblazoned with an over-sized fly, Moscamed’s seeming mascot.
1982: Mexico is considered free of this pesky pest and a barrier extends cooperative efforts into Guatemala.
1985-Present: The USDA states it conducts environmental monitoring for pesticide residues by taking baseline samples. Samples of soil, foliage, fruit and water are collected and sent to the USDA National Residue Monitoring Laboratory in Gulfport, Mississippi. Results apparently show that only trace amounts of pesticide are detectable.
1988: The Consortium for International Crop Protection (CICP) conducts an environmental impact analysis (EIA) and discovers that stations used various formulations of toxic chemicals, such as dichlorvos and propoxur, which should have been phased out. They also find workers at one station playing cards in a methyl bromide fumigation chamber. Methyl bromide is highly toxic to humans. Other workers are found sleeping in the chambers at night. They learn of one incident where the fumigation chamber was equipped with only one respirator, and since it takes two workers to handle the fruit, the other worker simply wraps a handkerchief around his nose and mouth before entering.
2000: Moscamed switches from malathion to spinosad, which is the USDA claims is less toxic to non-target insects. “Spinosad bait spray also offers other advantages: it is approved for organic production by the USDA National Organic Program and other international certifiers, and it repels honeybees and other pollinators. The bait component contains ammonium acetate, that attracts female medflies and repels honeybees,” states APHIS. But according to EPA documents, Spinosad, too, is highly toxic to beneficial honeybees.
2015: The U.S., Mexico, and Guatemala enter a new trilateral cooperative agreement to control the medfly and other fruit flies of economic significance. These three governments now operate the medfly program activities under the Moscamed Commission.
Low Intensity Chemical Warfare?
According to APHIS, Moscamed is a successful program. But how does one measure success when they’ve been waging war against the same insect for almost 40 consecutive years? When I reach out to APHIS, the “Public Affairs Specialist” is quick to tell me that they only “use biological and organic means of pest control” and currently support a bee-keeping training and development center in Guatemala.
In my opinion, they have a twisted definition of biological and organic means. For instance, their non-chemical solution is to zap 2.7 billion fruit flies with gamma rays, and then drop the sterilized males from the air in paper bags each week. Last I checked, introducing a foreign species into an ecosystem causes disruption. And how about farmers like my teacher, Shad Qudsi, who has found sterile flies on his private organic farm?
A Zapatista communiqué described Moscamed as “low intensity chemical warfare” against communities in rebellion. Of all the governmental programs in Guatemala, Moscamed is arguably the least popular among rural Mayans. In his 2014 article, Mayan Imaginaries of Democracy, Nick Copeland describes how most Mayans in the northwest region believe that the program is part of a agribusiness and government scheme to undermine rural agriculture, particularly maize, by spreading pests that will require farmers to buy expensive pesticides. In addition to wondering what this conspiracy reveals about how indigenous people perceive and experience politics, he called for an independent investigation of the environmental effects of the Moscamed program on indigenous communities.
Some contend that medfly populations could be better managed through diligent collection and disposal of affected fruits and an effort to keep populations of beneficial insects healthy. Spraying coffee, maize, beans, pineapple, bananas, and other crops has created stunted fruits and vegetables that mature and rot earlier than usual. Yields have also been dramatically reduced. Meanwhile they have witnessed explosions of worms and new outbreaks of pests, such as the coffee borer.
“The people would say, ‘Before this used to be a clean area,'” says Ana Gonzalez, a biologist who worked in Lachua, an agricultural region in northern Guatemala. “But that was until the planes came and dropped bags full of worms all over our crops.”‘
In Lake Atitlan, a region nestled in the highlands of Guatemala, modern techniques, including chemical fertilizers, insecticides, and monocultures, has led to soil degradation and malnutrition. Meanwhile agricultural run-offs have contaminated this once pristine lake.
The Moscamed program protects a multibillion dollar U.S. fruit and vegetable industry and allows for continued expansion of market share in domestic and international markets, says Abbey Powell, a spokesperson for APHIS. Estimates claim a widespread medfly infestation in the U.S. would result in losses of more than $2 billion a year. Annual losses in Mexico, should the fly become established, is $1.6 billion. MOSCAMED’s annual budget is approximately $40 million.
“This contribution helps to achieve the millennium goal of reducing hunger in the world, by preventing potential losses which may occur in the absence of the MOSCAMED Program, in host fruit and vegetable crops,” Powell adds.
Yes, it seems that whenever it comes to genetically modified crops, spraying of toxic chemicals, or dropping mutated flies from the sky, the “reducing hunger in the ‘world” card is pulled.
While I inadvertently discovered a ton of information about Moscamed, this was not the program responsible for spraying vehicles at the border. According to APHIS, that program is the Organismo Internacional Regional de Sanidad Agropecuaria (OIRSA).
“It is definitely OIRSA who sprays the cars at the borders,” John Hurley of APHIS told me via email. “They also work at all the airports and seaports. They even give you a receipt …. I’ve been sprayed going into Belize and Mexico from Guatemala by OIRSA.”
OIRSA is an intergovernmental organization founded in 1953 that provides technical assistance to the ministries and departments of agriculture and livestock of nine member states: Belize, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, El Salvador, Mexico and Costa Rica.
Poisons to My Left, Poisons to My Right
The final leg of our trip was to a festival called Envision in Costa Rica where I gave a talk on honeybees. I’d traveled back to Leon, Nicaragua a day earlier than my group. Upon arriving, a couple informed me that their hostel had been fumigated. They were in their room getting dressed when suddenly someone inserted a hose underneath the door. Before they knew it, they’d been gassed.
I asked the boutique Hotel Azul, where I was staying, if they’d also been fumigated; the pregnant concierge informed me that they turned down the request. Later that day I discovered that the owner of an organic juice bar had also objected to the fumigations.
It turned out that President Daniel Ortega sanctioned regular fumigations throughout the capital of Managua, as well as Chinandega and Leon, in order to tackle chikungunya — pronounced chick-un-GOON-ya — a virus transmitted by mosquitoes. The nation issued a health alert based on the recent death of a child due to chikungunya and two deaths from dengue. As part of the measures, the government now fumigates every seven days. Chikungunya has rampaged through the Caribbean and Latin America, already infecting nearly one million people.
While I escaped being fumigated in the streets and in my hotel room, when our group reached the Nicaraguan and Costa Rican border, we encountered yet another fumigation area. And, once again, we were exposed to poisons.
Ring, Ring, Nobody Home
Upon my return to the United States, my autoimmune disorder flared up. When I visited the doctor, my test results indicated that my thyroid levels had plummeted below normal. I often tell people that those who suffer from autoimmune conditions are environmental indicators, just like our honeybees. Meanwhile, I literally spent the next four months trying to contact Raúl Antonio Rodas Suazo, the director in charge of quarantines at OIRSA. He was always busy or out of the office. Finally, he responded via email, asking me for more details. But despite my prompt response, I never heard back. I wrote to him one last time, stating that I would assume his non-response meant that whatever they were spraying was dangerous to humans.
“The current situation in OIRSA is chaotic, do not expect any response from them,” confirmed Pablo Liedo, who holds a doctorate in entomology and performs research at El Colegio de la Frontera Sur (ECOSUR), a public scientific research center which aims to contribute to sustainable development of the southern border of Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean.
Liedo, who incidentally worked for MOSCAMED in the late ‘70s, tried to contact them on my behalf with no success.
“What … they apply to cars at the border are pyrethroids, the same products they sell for home and garden use. These insecticides are the most safe for humans, but I am very skeptical about the usefulness of these applications to prevent the introduction of pests,” Liedo said.
Pyrethroids have been known to cause immediate adverse reactions such as coughing, wheezing, and difficulty breathing. And many pyrethroids, according to Beyond Pesticides, have also been linked to the disruption of the endocrine system by mimicking the female hormone, estrogen. ( There is also evidence that pyrethroids, which are classified by EPA as possible human carcinogens, can harm the thyroid gland. Neurotoxic effects include: tremors, incoordination, elevated body temperature, increased aggressive behavior, and disruption of learning. These are, by the way, the same “safe” poisons they use in passenger planes.
And like all toxins, pyrethroids are indiscriminate; they affect all organisms that come into contact with them in the air, on plants, on the ground, in the soil, and in the water. And, since particulates are easily airborne, they travel, often great distances, from the actual point of application.
So, if you’re traveling across Central America in a vehicle, plan on getting sprayed at the border. You may be even asked to pay a fee for this service, but unfortunately it will cost you a lot more than just a few quetzals or colónes.