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Farm Workers Fight against Environmental
Racism and Neo-liberalism
by Carlos Marentes, Border Agricultural Workers Project
My name is Carlos Marentes. I am the founder and director of the Border Agricultural Workers Project, an effort to organize the agricultural workers of Southern New Mexico and West Texas to change the current agricultural system that only creates exploitation and misery. We are based in El Paso, Texas, one of the most important gathering and recruitment places for migrant agricultural workers along the US-Mexico border.
From 1942 to 1964, almost 5 million Mexicans came to work in the USA under the “Bracero Program” to produce the food needed by America to win World War II, defeat fascism and stabilize the economy at the end of the war.
The poisoning of farm workers in agriculture is an example of environmental racism because 7 out of 10 are Mexican immigrants.
For many years our farm workers, the men, women and children who produce the food that keeps us alive, have immigrated from South of the border. Thanks to them, every day we enjoy rich food, vegetables, fruits—all kinds of farm produce to keep us going, to grow and to make life better. Also from South of the border come the USA’s meat packers, food handlers, cooks, waitresses, etc.
But sadly, the immigrants continue to fall victim to an economic model that is based on cheap food production by lowering costs of production, and many lose their lives attempting to cross the border to be here.
Recently, law enforcement officers found 17 bodies of immigrants inside and outside a trailer near Victoria, Texas. The deceased included 6 women and a 6-year-old boy. Later, another survivor died on route to the hospital. The dead immigrants were part of an estimated group of more than 70 undocumenteds who were being transported, packed inside a trailer truck. When animals are transported, at least there are holes to breathe.
On March 25, 2003, as part of the harvesting, a sugar cane field was set on fire in Raymondville, Texas. A group of six undocumented migrant workers, including a female, had been hiding in the field. Five of them died of suffocation and severe burns. One saved his life by running out of the field as soon as the fire started.
These are testimonies of an economic model under which, as a famous Mexican composer, Jose Alfredo Jimenez, once wrote, “la vida no vale nada” (“life isn’t worth anything”).
Immigration is the result of two factors created by this model. On one hand, migrants are desperate because they are unable to survive in their homeland. On the other hand, they are pulled by North American demand for their labor. But migrant farm workers not only endanger their lives crossing to this country; they also risk their lives in their workplaces.
Because the US economic model demands more, not better, farmers are relying more on the use of dangerous chemicals and technology to exploit the land and the workers of the land.
Let me put the situation of farm workers in a national perspective. We are dealing not with a problem created by a group of bad and greedy employers in one region of the country, but with a systemic problem.
We have an estimated farm labor force of about five million persons, including more than 100,000 minors. Allow me to mention just a few critical issues:
- Migrant farm workers earn less than $7,000 a year, which is not even close to one third of the average income of a very poor American.
- 6 out of 10 don’t have a place to live.
- Migrant farm workers don’t have the right to organize like the rest of the American labor force.
Since 1983, I have been connected to agricultural production in southern New Mexico and western Texas, where thousands of men, women and children work very hard every day but often don’t earn enough to eat three times a day. More often, their children go to bed with empty stomachs.
The chile industry of Southern New Mexico is worth $250 million annually. Yet the workers are the lowest paid in the Southwest. In Luna County, the chile pickers were making 25 dollars for a 12-hour work-day in August of last year.
But economic injustice is not the only issue.
On April 22, 2003, I provided transportation to a large group of farm workers to attend a hearing in the District Court of Las Cruces. They were part of
131 workers who had filed a complaint against Buddy Tharp and Rod Tharp, growers of Dona Aña, and Juan Cigarroa, a labor contractor from El Paso, for multiple violations of their labor rights. The violations ranged from not paying Social Security de-ductions and improper payroll records, to forcing workers to work on their knees all day and weed the fields with their bare hands—even though the norm for this type of work is the use of long-handled hoes provided by the boss.
However, the most sensitive problem is the endless and everyday use of dangerous chemicals in the fields and rural communities.
By getting paid piece-rate—so much for each bucket—in reality the farm laborer earns less and works more.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, every year 300,000 field hands are exposed to pesticides and other dangerous chemicals. In a 1998 study done in collaboration with the Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences Institute (EOHSI, New Jersey) in Southern New Mexico, my group found that the majority of farm workers in the fields were not aware of pesticide usage in the area, although the press was reporting efforts by farmers to combat a crop disease, the pepper weevil, by using more and more chemicals. At the same time, we found that more than almost 40% of farms lacked hand-washing facilities in the fields.
In Luna County, almost every worker who visits our Centro de los Trabajadores Agrícolas Fronterizos (the Farm Worker Center located in El Paso) looking for help suffers from some form of skin disease. All this happens at the same time as agribusi-ness profits increase.
It is clear to us that the growing use of pesticides, herbicides and other highly toxic chemicals is directly related to the increase of production, therefore profits, without consideration for workers’ health.
The poisoning of farm workers in agriculture is an example of environmental racism since 7 out of 10 are Mexican immigrants.
They are the same Mexican immigrants who have to cross the border to escape misery and economic injustice in their own land. But it is not only human beings that cross the US-Mexican border. Thanks to the free trade agreements, highly toxic and dangerous chemicals cross the border freely. Mexican farm workers are not only exposed to pesticides in American fields; agribusiness and the chemical corporations have brought the poisons to our own rural communities in México.
What can be done?
Takeovers by large agribusiness and free trade agreements continue to push people off the land in Third World countries. Unable to grow the necessary food to live, these people are forced to emigrate. Farm workers in México earn less than farm workers in this country, although both groups may be working for the same company.
To us the issue is clear. GMOs are being used by corporations to accomplish total control of agriculture and the food system.
The serious situation of farm workers in the US is tied to the situation of farm workers south of the border. Let me emphasize this point because this is the essence of what is wrong. If a jornalero can pick chile in Delicias, Chihuahua, México for a daily salary equivalent to five dollars, then the employer in New Mexico, USA (who may even be the same), will attempt to reduce the cost of labor to be competitive. The employer will be unable to pay five dollars a day because that would be a violation of the Federal Minimum Wage of $5.15 per hour. But he can make the New Mexico chile picker work more than usual. By getting paid piece-rate—so much for each bucket—in reality the farm laborer earns less and works more.
The same applies to the use of chemicals and dangerous technology.
We now see the same skin diseases suffered by the chile pickers of New Mexico in the chile pickers of Delicias, Chihuahua. In a system in which industry wants to produce more and cheaper to be competitive, industry uses any tool available, regardless of the impact on human lives and our environment.
Since this gathering is about bioengineering or biodevastation, let me say this. To us the issue is clear. GMOs are being used by corporations to accomplish total control of agriculture and the food system.
We still don’t really know the impacts of GMOs in our lives, but we should be very concerned as producers (mainly as family farmers), farm workers, consumers and, why not, as Christians, and as members of civil society.
In fact we should learn from the past.
When synthetic chemicals were introduced in a massive and intensive way, we were told that by controlling pests and crop diseases, things will be better. Farmers will increase production and the world will have enough food. But the result has been a total disaster:
- Farmers are now landless
- Thousands of human beings, particularly farm workers, have died or become ill or severely dis-abled
- The damage to our environment, especially in poor rural communities and in communities of color, done by agricultural chemicals is so severe that it would take a lifetime to alleviate the situation. However, there is damage done to our environment that will never be cured.
And who is responsible for this tragedy? We know: The same corporations, such as Monsanto, who are trying to impose GMOs and other modern technologies.
The farm workers of this country, the immigrants and the Mexican campesinos, have not remained submissive. For many years, farm workers have waged important battles to resist and change the system. This struggle continues today.
One day immigrants got tired of waiting for somebody to help them and decided to do it themselves. In México, we have now the most powerful social movement of the past two decades, the Movimiento el campo no aguanta más (“the countryside can take it no more”).
The Mexican peasants are asking for the renegotiation of NAFTA and the fulfillment of the San Andres Agreements to give rights and autonomy to the indigenous communities.
I was in Mexico City on January 31, 2003, during the big march. It was incredible. More than 100 thousand peasants arrived in buses, tractors, combines, even old carretas pulled by horses, to shout to the world, “Let’s save farming to save Mexico.” The “countryside can take it no more” movement is not unexpected. The rural communities, especially the indigenous communities, have been struggling since January 1994, with the Zapatista uprising in the highlands of Chiapas, against neoliberalism and against NAFTA.
Although some of the peasant organizations and the Mexican Federal Government have signed a national agreement to solve the precarious situation in the countryside, there is also a repressive campaign against the leadership of the movement. In the State of Chihuahua, there are arrest warrants against 30 leaders. Armando Villarreal Martha, president of an organization from Casas Grandes, Chihuahua, that is fighting against the high prices of energy in rural communities, has been in jail in Ciudad Juárez since June 8, 2002. His crime is organizing a revolt.
If you are against environmental racism and dream of a sustainable and healthy agriculture, I call on you to support the farm workers, small farmers and campesinos…
Today the farm workers, the small farmers and the campesinos are in the forefront of these battles:
- The wages of farm workers need to be improved immediately. But this can only happen if farm workers organize themselves and fight.
- Current immigration policies need to be transformed into fair and more humane immigration laws. The “undocumented” workers and their families who are already working and living in this country need to be integrated into the full life of our society through an effective and unconditional legalization program.
- The rebuilding of rural communities and farming economies will allow people to survive and develop in their own land by enacting fair agricultural policies to benefit farm workers and small farmers here and abroad.
- We must fully support the Mexican “countryside can take it no more” movement by making ours their just demands.
The battle to accomplish these four goals, but especially the battle against American free trade policies, represents at this very moment, the most direct strike against neo-liberalism.
If you are against environmental racism and dream of a sustainable and healthy agriculture, I call upon you to support the farm workers, small farmers, and campesinos in their fight against poverty, exclusion and exploitation.
This article is an edited version of the author’s presentation at Biodevastation 7, held May 16–18, 2003 in St. Louis, Missouri.
[14 dec 03]