The European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights

Bertha Justice Partner ECCHR, alongside a group of Indian lawyers, has been raising legal claims against global agribusiness company Syngenta, for selling pesticides that have poisoned and led to the deaths of Indian farmers.

Since 2015, the team at the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) has worked together with the Maharashtra Association of Pesticide Poisoned Persons (MAPPP), the Pesticide Action Network India (PAN India) and the Swiss organization Public Eye to combat global agribusiness company Syngenta’s use of dangerous pesticides in Yavatmal, Maharashtra. This work has led to a complaint filed in 2020 representing 51 farmers in India who were harmed by Syngenta’s pesticides. The complaint was submitted to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) against Syngenta, who sells the pesticide Polo.

While banned in Europe, use of this pesticide in India has caused hundreds of farmworkers to suffer from severe health impacts due to pesticide poisoning. According to the Special Investigation Team commissioned by the government of Maharashtra, 886 farmers were admitted for treatment at local hospitals for poisoning through insecticide spraying. Official police records show that 96 of those documented as suffering pesticide poisoning in 2017 used Polo. Sixty used Polo along with other pesticides, while 36 used only Polo.In addition, in two instances of death, government officials specifically documented Polo usage.

The complaint seeks remedy for the violation of the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises by Syngenta AG and Syngenta India Ltd. Farmers of Yavatmal are cotton growers with high rates of poverty and low levels of literacy and education, which increases the risk of unsafe pesticide use. The farmers do not receive precautionary training on the safe use of pesticides. Additionally, many farmers are unable to read the heavily technical instructions on the pesticides’ labels, and access to personal protective equipment is virtually nonexistent.

On that basis, the OECD complaint argues that Syngenta AG has violated Indian farmers and farmworkers’ right to health, right to decent working conditions – in particular to safe and healthy working conditions – and right to an adequate standard of living by jointly manufacturing and selling a toxic product with insufficient warnings and in full awareness of the lack of any available means to protect against intoxication. In addition, the company failed to provide any remedy to those whose human rights were affected by their actions and omissions and, in fact, it continues all of the above violations to date. Alongside the OECD complaint, the wives of two deceased farmers decided to directly sue Syngenta in Swiss civil courts, demanding compensation for the death of their husbands and the health damages suffered.

This work began in 2015, when Christian Schliemann and Carolijn Terwindt – two Bertha Justice Alumnx based at ECCHR – visited India to meet with local and national NGOs. They conducted field research in Punjab, which included many interviews with farmerngs. The first legal interventions were developed from this work in tandem with Indian lawyers. In that same year, they filed a complaint with the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation against both Syngenta and German agribusiness giant Bayer. Since then, they have continued to strategize with partner lawyers and PAN India to refine their approach and prepare for crisis intervention.

In 2017, a wave of pesticide poisonings occurred in Maharashtra. The network was able to immediately set out to research the cases. Local researchers conducted a survey with more than 200 affected people, and ECCHR conducted qualitative interviews with the farmers and gathered evidence. This aided in strategizing with MAPPP and further partners, and the decision was made to use both the OECD complaint and the civil court case in Switzerland to demand compensation and remedy from Syngenta, as well as a preventive change of business practice.

The OECD complaint is still ongoing at the time of writing, and three mediation meetings have taken place. The civil court case now lies with the judge, and ECCHR is waiting for Syngenta’s initial response. Once it is received, the judge will then have to decide on legal aid.

Christian remarks on the importance of these cases: “We face a very consolidated world market in the agribusiness sector, with just four companies ruling it all... Their business is based on a technology-driven, monocultural, large-scale production based development concept that is very far away from the living reality of those most in need of food, income and an adequate living standard... It is more than urgent to change that practice into something more sustainable and people centered.”


Photo 1: Punjab farmers engaged in pesticide spraying, 2015. Photo: NMAP

Photo 2: Punjab farmers in a group interview, 2015. Photo: NMAP

Authors: The Bertha Justice Team

Editorial Consultant: Karen Frances Eng

This story was originally published in the Bertha Climate book and some of the information in this story may have changed since it was first published.