WWOOF originally stood for “Working Weekends on Organic Farms” and began in England in 1971. Today, WWOOF stands for World-Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (also known as Willing Workers on Organic Farms) (WWOOF). It is a network of national organizations which facilitate the placement of volunteers on organic farms.
As clearly indicated on the WWOOF Latin America web site, “Farms listed in WWOOF organizations are part of a world-wide effort to promote the concept of organic farming, sustainable agriculture and responsible consumer habits. As part of this effort, host farms offer WWOOF members the opportunity to learn by doing.” I joined the organization because of this, and because of the alternative lifestyle of volunteer rather than paid labor.
Unfortunately, some hosts do not respect this golden rule. This is the case of a property in Uruguay, north of the city of Colonia, on ruta 21, just next to the prison of Piedra de los Indios (host id URU006). I arrived there on April 4th, 2012 and left a month later. I had planned to spend more time at this location, but when I discovered that fertilizer had been used in the initial of the Almond plantation (5 years ago) and that herbicide was been regularly used in the 6 hectares of the Almond Trees plantations and in the veggie gardens, I decided to leave. The chemicals were stored in the barn (galpón) next to the bags of recently harvested almonds.
The owner is using TouchDown by Syngenta – to treat the 6 hectares of Almond trees and the veggie garden. It is an herbicide that is using the exact same components as Roundup from Monsanto – and that is absolutely not certified organic. In fact, these products are well known to be dangerous for humans (on contact) and highly contaminant of water resources. I saw the employee spray the TouchDown in two areas of the plantation. He was only wearing a small mask and no further protection. The mask, when I examined it, was a small filter designed exclusively for organic products, and therefore not appropriate for this type of use. I worked on one of these areas a few days later and the smell of the herbicide was overwhelming. The employee stopped spraying the chemical after I tried to talk to the owner about the issue of using chemicals as a wwoof host. She insisted that the herbicide was not dangerous and simply refused to further discuss the issue. I tried a few times to talk to her about the danger of such products and the organic alternatives but our conversations would quickly end up with her taking her head in her hands and saying repeatedly “I don’t want to talk about it…” Then I heard her telling her employee to stop spraying the herbicide and to continue when I would be gone.
TouchDown kills plants on contact, same as Roundup. It then penetrates the soil and can potentially contaminate all water reservoirs underneath. It is also extremely dangerous for the human on contact. None of the precautions suggested by Syngenta on the product label were respected and the employee was highly exposed to dangerous chemical all day.
Almond Trees – 6 ha. Touchdown has been used all over the area between the trees.
Tordon 101 by Dow Agro Sciences is another product that the owner likes to use, especially around the veggie garden and in the wooden area – where she collects “medicinal herbs” – to kill unwanted small trees. “Cortas uno y está porquería sale de nuevo con cuatro más [you cut one and this rubbish comes back with 4 more],” she told me a few times. This herbicide highly concentrated penetrates the roots of the small trees and kill them, leaving chemicals on the soil and the high risk of contaminating the water reservoirs underneath.
After spending a few days working in the Almond plantation, I was asked to prepare an organic veggie garden, next to another one under the care of the employee. I spent a few days clearing the area and was getting ready to prepare the soil when I heard the owner speak to her employee. She was planning the garden and telling him to spray all the area around the garden and the pathway with Touchdown after my departure. That evening, I notified the owner that I would be leaving her property in a few days. I explained her about my concern about the use of chemical in a veggie garden that she described as being “organic”. I realize that evening how much she was lying to me, and to all the other volunteers. Although I do not support the use of chemical and will never use any in any garden, I am only a guest as a wwoofer, and I only can present organic alternative to those who prefer to use chemicals. But at the end of the day, anyone is free to do what he/she wants with her land. What I condemn, more than anything else, is the lying about it, lying to us, volunteers, when talking about an organic garden, well knowing that herbicide had been used, and lying to the WWOOF organization when registering.
Photos of the first veggie garden behind the employee’s house. Touchdown has been used all around the area.
I realize how hard it might be for the WWOOF Latin America organization to send experts to verify that the registered hosts are indeed growing organically, or using ecologically sound methods on their land. I sincerely hope that they would find a way to assure that this is the case with all the hosts. I also wish that all volunteers would report, as I do here, the use of chemicals by wwoof hosts. I realize that some are maybe young and shy and simply don’t dare or don’t want to get into trouble. But as wwoofers, we have the responsibility to promote organic farming. This is what it is about since the 70’s and we just can’t give it up!
I invite you to participate in the discussion. If you have been a volunteer at this farm, please enter your own comments below.
See also the report (and comments) on WWOOF South America.
Additional Info…. Here is the reply that I received from Wwoof Latin America today (May 17, 2012):
Thank you for contacting us on this matter. We appreciate all feedback you can give us as we rely on your direct experience at the farms to weed out unruly or misleading hosts. We are very sorry to hear that this farm is not following WWOOF guidelines and requirements. We have already sent an email to the host farm asking them to clarify the situation. Depending on their response this farm may either be moved to the Tribu Verde list or taken off our listings. Let us know if you have any questions.