By Chela Vázquez
I met Irene Fernandez at a PAN International meeting in Penang, Malaysia at the end of 2007. It was my first meeting with the PAN global network and the reunion was remarkable for the array of social and environmental thinkers and activists gathered during three days and the boiling soup of ideas transforming into plans of action.
The PAN meeting brought together strong community leaders, and among the women leaders was Irene. In 2007, Irene was going through a lawsuit, then, in its 13th-year, that was brought against her for a report exposing human rights abuses and pesticide poisonings of agricultural migrant workers, particularly of women. She had been sentenced to prison in 2003 and was on bail pending the decision of the High Court, which later acquitted her.
Again in 2012 Irene was investigated for sedition against the government for her interview to foreign reporters about the deplorable treatment and conditions of many foreign domestic workers in Malaysia. The headline of a newspaper article read “Irene fans the fire” in reference to her statements, which reflected her unequivocal stance in defense of migrant workers.
I worked with Irene and PAN colleagues in the documentation of PAN International’s Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal on agrochemicals that was held in Bangalore, India in 2011. Our team put together evidence on the impact of highly hazardous pesticides on agricultural workers, farmers and rural communities worldwide. Needless to say, our meetings were lively. Endearing memories of Irene bring back her pointed questions and insistence for a connection to grassroots communities that our work intended to serve.
Irene's words still echo among us. She would say “..it is fundamental that we address the human rights violations of migrant workers and rural communities affected by these toxic chemicals and the abuse with impunity by the corporations who manufacture these products…”
Indeed Irene had the ability and determination to bring grassroots concerns into the public consciousness and to generate action. For over 25 years she worked with plantation workers and had facilitated for women agricultural workers to speak at international fora to provide first-hand accounts of the impact of pesticides on themselves and their families. Under her leadership, Tenaganita, which she served as director, published reports of acute poisonings in the oil palm plantations and waged an unrelenting campaign to convince companies to reduce and phase out toxic pesticides, particularly the herbicide paraquat. To this date, major oil palm plantations have begun to phase out this chemical.
People remember Irene in many ways. PAN AP staff remembers her as a motherly figure and adviser, for some she had a tough exterior with a soft inside, for others she was a dedicated and caring person. Many remember her as a fighter for the rights of the oppressed. For Saro Rengam, PAN AP’s director, Irene was her close friend and mentor. Saro said “Irene was instrumental in the early formation of PAN AP and from then on her influence was felt in the development of all our programmes.”
Irene was involved with PAN AP since 1990 and served as its chair until the end. She chaired PAN AP’s steering council meeting barely three days before she had a massive heart attack and was hospitalized.
I will remember Irene as a fearless human rights advocate faithful to her convictions until the end. At her eulogy, her daughter Katrina remembered Irene’s words: Be clear on what you want, claim your space and use it responsibly. Irene used her space quite well.