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All around the globe we see our environment suffering the onslaught of mankind's development and expansion;  deforestation, destruction of eco systems, toxic and industrial waste, vehicular emissions etc. and the indiscriminate use of chemicals for agriculture - fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. Many of these have harmful effects, not just on our precious environment, but also directly to human health.

The following poem was inspired by the sad circumstances believed to have been brought about by frequent inhalation of, or contact with, paraquat (a toxic herbicide sold under various brand names, including Gramoxone), used casually and routinely throughout the Caribbean. When I sought further information on paraquat, an English doctor advised that it is now known to contain a primary carcinogen - which literally means it causes cancer. Further data on paraquat, obtained from the website of The Physical and Theoretical Chemistry Laboratory, Oxford University, may be viewed at the foot of this page.

A Poem by Colin A Lees
May 2002

                        Au-revoir dear Coco

Should any of you reading this be farmers in the field,
    using chemicals on pest and weeds or to help improve your yield...
The tale I am about to tell, is of one of you dear friends,
    a young man loved by all, who met a premature end.

In 1997 we met, on the nature isle,
    from damp and cold UK we'd come, for a change in our lifestyle.
We'd left behind the rat race, pollution, urban sprawl,
    congestion, too much traffic, yes the worry of it all.
We came to find the sunshine, open space, pure air to breathe,
    to enjoy the fruits of nature that this island could bequeath.
From our new Caribbean home, on a cliff above the sea,
    we'd look across the open fields, to the heights of Salisbury.

Often as the day closed in, in the field next door we'd see
    a young man growing produce, working tirelessly.
Always he would greet us, with a friendly wave,
    sometimes we'd call him over, his work done for the day.
We'd sit and chat and sink a beer, upon our balcony
    as the daylight faded and the sun set o'er the sea.
He said his name was Robertson, he lived in Salisbury,
    it wasn't hard to like him, soon good friends we would be.

He told us of his travels, of his time in Guadeloupe,
    to Canada, Saint Maarten, he had been to take a look.
Of local trends he was aware, he kept up with the news,
    of world affairs he knew a lot, had well considered views.
Friends all called him Coco, we noticed as they passed,
    any problem he was there to help, we never had to ask.
When his crops had ripened, he'd bring something for us,
    before he took the rest to town by pick-up or by bus.

At home we were accosted, by bandits in the night,
    Our many friends were troubled, some stayed away in fright.
But soon we had to travel, visit family overseas,
    we had to keep our home secure, our dog someone to feed.
So Coco we did ask to help, he did not hesitate,
    each night alone our home he'd stay, whilst we were out of state.
He'd care our plants and feed the dog, on him we could rely,
    that poor boy surely couldn't know that soon he was to die.

All through the day he'd toil and sweat, on some construction site,
    and then he'd come to tend his crops, whilst there was still daylight.
Whilst here it's hot, the ground is dry, the soil poor quality,
    he never got discouraged, he would always persevere.
Through rain or drought he'd work so hard, planting melon seeds,
    making frames for his tomatoes, battling the weeds.
Cucumbers and cabbages in beds prepared so well,
    soon to take to Roseau, in the marketplace to sell.

Often in between his crops the grass would grow so tall,
    then we'd see him spraying, to make it brown and fall.
"What is that you're using?", I asked of him one day
    "a herbicide called Gramoxone, to clear it " he did say.
Later I discovered this chemical to be
    toxic... carcinogenic... so dangerous to breathe
Banned from sale and use elsewhere, it has been for many years,
    for bringing death and illness, causing cancer were the fears.

We warned him of the dangers, but of this he did not heed,
    and continued spraying Gramoxone upon the grass and weeds.
Even though he wore a face mask, this wasn't good enough,
    he thought it would prevent him from breathing in the stuff.
Or maybe whilst preparing, it got upon his skin,
    to penetrate and take its toll, upon the flesh within.
For one day Coco showed us, on his tummy had appeared,
    a lump, a cyst protruding, at once the worst we feared!

We said "go see a doctor, get it checked immediately,
    for if its what we fear, it needs removing urgently!"
The doctor's diagnosis, we never did find out,
    his death was swift and sudden, of the cause I've little doubt.
For a week or two we'd missed him, absent from his crops,
    then Charlie the mechanic told me his life was lost.
He'd got so small, his Mum said, had pains around his waist,
    he sat down in a chair to rest then simply passed away.

To the church came many, at that fateful bell,
    in tribute to a special friend, to bid a fond farewell.
In the cemetery behind the beach, he was laid to rest,
    restrain a tear I could not, even though I tried my best.
So beautifully his sisters sang, as earth did fill the hole.
    A better life I hope he's found, he deserves it, bless his soul.
"See you in heaven" said a friend, placing stones upon the mound
     said another "Decent soil, at last that boy has found"

Honesty, integrity, these days are hard to find,
    these qualities were Coco's, so generous and kind.
Throughout our small community, his presence will be missed,
    for everyone who knew him well, their lives have been enriched.
Taken from our very midst, at such a tender age,
    did he really have to die, or could he have been saved?
It's sometimes hard to see the doc., if you live out of town,
    at hospital the queues are long, you have to wait around.

The legacy that Coco leaves is clear for all to see,
    the use of deadly chemicals is false economy.
So all you farmers out there, spraying grass and weed,
    stop a while to reason, of this warning please take heed!
And for your neighbours spare a thought, the drift may carry far
    upon the breeze to settle, in someone else's yard
And distributors I beg you, please act responsibly,
    our health is more important than this brief economy.

It's time to change our whole approach and say enough's enough!
    not only is our health at risk from all this deadly stuff.
The weeds become resistant, the soil poor quality,
    it then pollutes our rivers, fish and coral in the sea.
The one thing we should value, living on our nature isle,
    is the purity around us, unique to our lifestyle.
To preserve it is important, to lose it would be sad,
    so don't forget this tragic tale and the lesson to be had.

If we can make some changes in the ways we farm our land,
    adopt a new philosophy, remove the weeds by hand.
To kill the pests, to speed up growth, do we really need,
    to spread these potent cocktails, is the motivation greed?
Routinely now it's common, to spread this stuff around,
    killing off the wildlife, poisoning the ground.
Should we take heed then maybe, Coco's death was not in vain,
    for on our very conscience, it has left a fearful stain.

Au-revoir dear Coco, now we must look ahead,
    beyond the empty field you've left, the warning lights flash red!
Let us not continue with our heads stuck in the sand,
    or our heritage will vanish, we'll be left with barren land.
Progress comes so swiftly that we often lose our way,
    forgetting our direction, life is changing day by day.
We find ourselves being swept along, by the wheels of chance,
    we must apply the brakes and care for our inheritance.

This island we inhabit is a very special place,
    the beauty that surrounds us, little spoilt by human race... far, that is, but we could stop the damage now being done,
    this recklessness we do not need, we're blessed with rain and sun.
All about our tattered globe, destruction we can see,
    demolition of the forests, fossil fuel for energy.
To break the trend there is a need, for standards set anew,
    Why not right here, on nature's isle, for all the world to view?

Robertson Tousaint  John, affectionately known as Coco,
passed away on Thursday, May 9th 2002


Author's note: The use of agro-chemicals has in recent years become widespread and routine, particularly in poorer nations who's dependence on agriculture is often far greater than that of developed nations. Yet these chemicals tend to be deployed very casually, with little regard to the damage they cause to our environment and to our health (this may occur by inhalation, contact or consumption, as they find their way into the food chain). Even when some of these chemicals are withdrawn from use in other countries once the dangers become aparent, they continue to be peddled to less discerning nations. These include not just Dominica, but most of the Caribbean island chain and much of Central and South America.

Can we be shaken out of our complacency?  Dominica has long been regarded as the 'Nature Island of the Caribbean' and has the unique opportunity and potential to pioneer a new approach to farming, with a policy geared to maximising protection of our natural heritage. If a timetable were set for agro-chemicals to be phased out all together, this would effectively make our small island the first totally 'organic' farming nation. Providing leadership in setting environmental standards would generate much prestige for, and interest in Dominica.

In conclusion, any person, publication or organization sharing similar concerns or aspirations, is invited by the author to reproduce this work.

The Physical and Theoretical Chemistry Laboratory,
Oxford University
Safety data for paraquat

     Synonyms: paraquat dichloride; N,N'-dimethyl-gamma,gamma'-bipyridylium dichloride; methyl viologen dichloride; 1,1'-dimethyl-4,4'-Bipyridinium dichloride; Crisquat; Dexuron; Esgram; Gramuron; Ortho Paraquat CL; Para-col; Pillarxone; Tota-col; Toxer Total; Paraquat Cl; paraquat dichloride trihydrate; PP148; Cyclone; Dichloride salt of paraquat; Dimethyl-4,4'-bipyridinium dichloride; Dimethyl-4,4'-bipyridylium dichloride; Gramixel; Gramoxone; Gramoxone dichloride; Gramoxone S; Gramoxone W; Pathclear; N,N'-Dimethyl-4,4'-bipyridinium dichloride; Methyl Viologen hydrate; methyl viologen dichloride hydrate, AH 501.
     Molecular formula: C12H14Cl2N2
     CAS No: 1910-42-5
     EINECS No: 217-615-7

Physical data
     Appearance: off-white powder
     Boiling point: 175 - 180 C (decomposes)
     Density (g cm-3): 1.25
    Water solubility: high

     Stable. Incompatible with strong oxidising agents.

     Very toxic by inhalation, ingestion and if absorbed through skin. Possible mutagen. Possible carcinogen. May be fatal if swallowed, inhaled or absorbed through the skin. Very destructive of mucous membranes. Causes burns.

Personal protection
     Safety glasses, gloves, good ventilation. Avoid prolonged or repeated exposure.

For further information:
The Physical and Theoretical Chemistry Laboratory, Oxford University

U.S. National Toxicology Program acute toxicity studies for Paraquat dichloride rate it:
Moderately to Highly Toxic

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