DAVAO CITY, Philippines – Dr. Romeo Quijano, one of the country’s noted toxicologists and president of the advocacy group Pesticide Action Network Philippines, has fought a number of battles in his life.
But nothing perhaps prepared him for the trouble he’s been going through as he fights the Davao-based Lapanday Foods Corp. (formerly Lapanday Development Corp.), one of the country’s biggest agricultural companies engaged in fruit production and processing.
Lapanday slapped Quijano and his daughter, the journalist Ilang-ilang Quijano, with a 5.5 million peso damage suit as a result of the publication, in the defunct Manila-based newspaper The Philippine Post, of a story about how people inside Lapanday’s banana plantations were allegedly getting ill because of pesticide use.
Several journalists from that paper, among them davaotoday.com editor-in-chief Carlos Conde, the national editor of the Post at the time of the publication, were also charged for libel. The courts had dismissed the libel complaint against the journalists but pursued the civil suit against Quijano and his daughter.
“I was surprised,” Quijano told davaotoday.com after a court hearing of his case in Davao City last month, referring to Lapanday’s damage claim.
Quijano said he felt violated by the company for putting him and his family through this ordeal, which had taken, he said, a lot of his time and resources, not to mention subjected him and his family to anxiety.
“I’m actually frustrated about the justice system,” he said. “Why does it have to come to this, wasting all the resources and time because of the whims of big companies who are powerful to suppress the truth?” Quijano lamented.
He maintained that the case against him is a form of “harassment” and that Lapanday meant “to suppress the truth” about the use of pesticides in its banana plantations.
Last month, Quijano traveled to this city and faced the court and Lapanday’s lawyers. During the hearing, he professed not only his innocence but his commitment to his advocacy against pesticide use.
He told the court that he visited Kamukhaan, a village in Hagonoy town, Davao del Sur, upon the invitation of a farmers’ group, which was concerned about the illnesses residents allegedly were afflicted with.
There, Quijano said he saw many people with thyroid diseases, a number of children with defects, such as cleft palates, stunted growth and mental development, as well as cases of skin diseases that were similar to what he had seen in places where pesticides were being widely used.
He said he treated some of patients and sent several to the Davao Medial Center for treatment.
Disturbed by what he discovered, Quijano documented the experience of Kamukhaan and later asked his daughter, who had shown interest in journalism, to write a story about it. Ilang-ilang’s story, titled “Poisoned Lives,” was published by the Philippine Post in 2000. It caught the attention of other media, who went on to report about the alleged effects of pesticide on Kamukhaan residents
Quijano said he considered it part of his professional duty to inform the public on the hazards that certain pesticides cause. “When health professionals find out about pesticide poisoning and try to educate the public about it, why should they be prevented from doing it?” Quijano said.
When asked by davaotoday.com if he had injured Lapanday, as the company claimed, Quijano replied that the injury was on Kamukhaan, not on Lapanday. “They are still doing well in their business, I suppose,” Quijano said of the giant corporation.
Quijano, who is also a pharmacologist, said he would not think twice about doing the same thing all over again, to find and validate cases of pesticide poisoning in villages, especially since the Southern Mindanao region has seen an expansion lately of banana plantations. This has raised some concern about the possible impact of all that pesticide use.
“It’s my duty as a health professional. When I find that people are being poisoned with pesticides, then I have to do something about it and one of it will be bringing to the attention of the public and to the international community, to the government, to anybody who cares to listen so that the situation of the people in these communities can be improved, hopefully,” Quijano said. (davaotoday.com)