Pesticide Exposure & Contested Illness

Global Banana Production & Toxic Torts

Since the 1980s, a movement of former banana workers from Latin America has sought damages from US-based fruit and chemical companies over health effects of chemical exposure. Farmworkers from Nicaragua claim that Standard Fruit (now Dole), along with chemical companies Dow and Shell knowingly endangered their health through exposure to the pesticide DBCP. Despite the fact that the chemical was developed, manufactured, and distributed by US companies, the farmworkers were blocked from pursing justice within US courts for decades.

Agrochemical Exposure & Environmental Injustice: Legal Repression of Latin American Banana Workers (under review)

Victims of Nemagon march 140 km from Chinandega to protest at the capital in Managua (May 2007). Image credit: Giorgio Trucchi

How do state and corporate actors use legal tools to obstruct social movement challengers? Environmental movements and activists often seek to hold corporations accountable for health harms through legal mobilization. However, these efforts are frequently met with countermobilizing strategies from state and corporate elites. Political and economic elites hold tremendous power in shaping the legal opportunity structure within which activists press their claims. Corporations in particular devote substantial resources to anticipating and contesting civil claims brought by workers, consumers, and activists.

These social control efforts have received little attention from movement scholars. In this study, we expand the concept of legal repression by examining the legal tactics used by both state and corporate elites in the transnational DBCP cases. a series of civil litigation cases over pesticide exposure. Drawing on court, legal, and media documents, we analyze how state and corporate actors responded to the banana workers’ legal mobilization. Our analysis reveals that elite actors employed a variety of repressive legal tactics to avoid liability for environmental harms, escalating from legal avoidance and scientific obfuscation to vilification of the banana workers’ movement. This research has important implications for understanding how elite actors shape the political and legal context of movements, as well as corporate legal practices that uphold global environmental injustices.

Data & Methods: Qualitative documentary and historical analysis using court and legal data, media coverage, law reviews, and secondary historical sources.

Collaborators: Co-authors include Laura A. Bray, Nicholas J. Membrez-Weiler, and Thomas E. Shriver