Methyl Bromide on Its Way Out in Brazil and Cuba
By Mario Osava*
Pioneers in Latin America, the two countries have reduced consumption of this ozone-depleting substance by hundreds of thousands of tons.
RIO DE JANEIRO - Although they are major producers of tobacco, Brazil and Cuba are several years ahead of schedule in attaining goals to curb the use of methyl bromide, a gas that damages the Earth's ozone layer and that is commonly used on tobacco fields.
With the aim of reducing methyl bromide use 20 percent by 2005, Brazil went from consuming 1,790 tons in 1998 to 440 tons in 2002, and kept consumption rates stable in the first quarter of this year at 115 tons, reports the Environment Ministry.
The program to reduce use of the agro-chemical began six years ago. The decline has been rapid and will hit 90 percent this year, and 100 percent in 2004, Jorge Kampf, agronomist and head of the Brazilian Association of Tobacco Growers, told Tierramérica.
Cuba, meanwhile, has already completely eliminated methyl bromide use in its tobacco plantations, but application of the substance continues among flower growers and in greenhouses, says Nelson Espinosa, director of the governmental Technical Office on Ozone.
Total Cuban consumption is just 35 tons a year, a third of the methyl bromide volume used annually in the mid-1990s.
Methyl bromide is one of the several gases that deplete the ozone in the Earth's stratosphere, a layer that protects all living organisms from the most harmful ultraviolet rays of the sun.
According to the Montreal Protocol, signed in 1987 with the aim of controlling and curbing emissions of ozone-depleting gases, developing countries must curb their use of methyl bromide 20 percent by 2005 and completely eliminate use by 2015.
The United States and Europe are required to ban this agro-chemical by 2005.
Methyl bromide is used in sterilizing soils and farm products and killing insects, mould, bacteria, nematodes and weeds.
It is a very efficient poison, but extremely toxic. Its impact on the ozone layer is 60 times greater than that of the famed CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) commonly associated with ozone depletion, according to the Brazilian Environment Ministry.
Latin America in general is complying with commitments to freeze usage levels as of 1999.
El Salvador, Panama and Uruguay are very close to achieving a 50-percent cut in methyl bromide use by 2005, says Miriam Vega, regional coordinator of the Ozone Action Program of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP).
The success of the Montreal Protocol, which 184 countries signed, is due largely to the fact that the world population quickly associated the depletion of the ozone layer with health risks, Vega told Tierramérica.
If the ozone layer is thinned by emissions of gases like CFCs and methyl bromide, more ultraviolet rays reach the earth's surface and contribute to skin cancer, reduce the oceans' production of proteins, and harm agriculture, as well as ecosystems in general.
Through the Montreal Protocol, Brazil obtained 2.34 million dollars for materials to eliminate methyl bromide use on the country's tobacco plantations, which provide a livelihood for nearly 144,000 families.
Based on a technique of floating trays in shallow pools, tobacco is seeded using steam-sterilized soil, enriched with fertilizers, explained Kampf.
This approach costs 15 to 20 percent more than the methyl bromide technique, but farmers are compensated by producing higher quality tobacco plants.
But methyl bromide has also traditionally been used on vegetable, flower and strawberry crops -- plants that require the soil to be sterilized.
A case-by-case study is needed, adapting alternative techniques like steam and heat, said Fernando Vasconcelos de Araujo, an official with the Brazilian Environment Ministry.
Progress will be slower than it was for tobacco, but Brazil hopes to eliminate methyl bromide use for these crops as well by 2006, he told Tierramérica.
Cuba, with the support of the Montreal Protocol fund, is drafting a project to put an end to all remaining usage of methyl bromide.
Neither Brazil nor Cuba produces methyl bromide. Only a handful of companies manufacture the gas. Because it is condemned to extinction, there is no interest in trafficking in the substance or in storing large quantities, noted Kampf.
* Mario Osava is an IPS correspondent. Patricia Grogg (Cuba) and Pilar Franco (Mexico) contributed to this report.