Tuesday, July 23, 2019

The Extractive Economy and Rural Communities

by Nezahualcoyotl Xiuhtecutli

The Farmworker Association of Florida is part of the Climate Justice Alliance, a group of organizations dedicated to fighting climate change and advocating for a Just Transition away from the extractive fuel industry. What is Just Transition you ask? I am glad you do. Just Transition is moving away from the extractive industry economic system in which we currently live and into a more sustainable energy model in a way that leaves no one behind, especially workers and communities of color who are doubly impacted by this economic system.

For one, they often bear the brunt of pollution caused by industrial chemical plants, which are usually built next to these communities. Second, they are also employed at these places, suffering the negative effects of exposure to chemicals and residues impacting their health for years and sometimes generations. When the political tempo changes and some of these companies are faced with the decision to shut down and move somewhere else (and they usually move to places with less strict environmental laws and regulations), workers and their families are left to pick up the pieces living in badly polluted communities suddenly also economically depressed. A Just Transition thus works to make sure that we move away from the extractive polluting economy, but also that the communities that were for so long the backbone workforce filling the coffers of corporations, are included in conversations of those systemic changes needed so that they are not once again left behind.

The Effects of an Extractive Community
Working with other organizations as part of the CJA we have become aware that some of the problems that farmworkers in Florida have been facing are not part unique to either Florida nor agriculture. In conversations with organizations in Texas we have learnt that communities in Houston's East End are surrounded by refineries that spew toxins into the air that moms, dads, children, and grandparents breathe every day. People in Richmond, Cal., are likewise exposed to toxins coming out of local refineries and are faced with the same problems as those communities in Houston, repeatedly facing community lock-downs as spills force people to remain where they are and close all air access to prevent seepage of chemicals into their homes, schools, and workplaces. Earlier this year, a chemical spill in Richmond forced a stretch of the Richmond Parkway to be closed for hours.

Richmond, Cal., dump site.
The current extractive economic system also affects farmworkers at a more personal level. Focused on creating the largest possible profits for the least possible investment, the corporate agricultural system seems hellbent on destroying the earth and humanity. To increase productivity and the bottom line, fields are sprayed with fertilizers and pesticides that decrease the biodiversity of the ecological system. While some may argue that the benefits of chemical fertilizers outweigh the risks and that we are feeding the world, there are a couple of facts that need to be laid on the table. One is that most agriculture in the US these days is not even carried out to produce food for humans. Animal feed and ethanol fuel are the main end products in American agriculture, according to One Green Planet and the US Economic Research Service. Secondly, the use of fertilizers is aimed at increasing the size of crops at harvest time. Aided by chemicals in their development, overuse of chemicals also kills of beneficial soil micoorganisms, as reported in the journal Interdisciplinary Toxicology 

The negative effects of chemicals are not isolated to plants, but extend to social and environmental consequences as well. Small growers are left at a disadvantage against the large corporate agricultural businesses, against whom they cannot compete in global markets. Often they end up losing their farms or have to depend on giants like Bayer-Monsanto for access to seeds. This process at once concentrates wealth and control over what foods we have access to in a few corporate hands, dictating the kind of life we are able to pursue. If you have no control over what you eat and if you have to work twice as hard as you used to to be able to eat healthy, how free are you to the pursuit of happiness we hear we are entitled to by the US Constitution?

Farmworkers are even more vulnerable than small growers. They are the invisible workforce. They receive little credit for their work, have few protections, and because it is a mostly immigrant workforce, they have little recourse with which to seek redress for labor and safety violations. Even though the law protects them, even the knowledge of those rights to workplace safety and protection are often kept from them. In an effort to extract the most profit from the soil, they are often exposed to pesticides. In a much publicized case two years ago, 17 farmworkers from Watsonville, California were exposed to pesticide and had to be hospitalized. The event resulted in a total single fine of $5000. In addition to pesticide exposure, they also suffer the consequences of heat exposure. They work in hot and humid conditions at substandard wages that do not afford them health insurance, much less leave a safety net for emergencies. Over time, those conditions may lead to high-blood pressure, urinary tract infections, and even long-term kidney damage and dialysis. Other reported effects of pesticides include reduced fertility rates, neurological damage, birth defects, and cancer.

Toxic tour of Lake Apopka by FWAF staff.
Not only are individuals affected. Their very communities are often going through exposure to the same powerful chemicals and pollutants someone thought nothing of when dumping into those communities. When pesticides with toxic chemicals are applied and allowed to contaminate the water on which a community depends, that community may be affected for generations. these are not hypothetical cases. The Ojibwa of western Ontario saw the lake around which their livelihood formed poisoned and the community destroyed. African-American farmworkers in Apopka have suffered the effects of pesticide exposure for generations during which toxic pesticides were dumped on Lake Apopka. Their community is still trying to heal from those atrocities.

Building a Just Transition
These cases sound grim, and they are. Ending the extractive economy will be easy feat, nor will it take place overnight. On a recent interview on NPR's On the Media, author Benjamin Kunkel proposed the current geological age be named the Capitalocene instead of the more trendy Anthropocene. His argument was that the changes humans are effecting on the environment are intrinsic to humanity, but rather to the current economic system of the last 500 years. After that time span, it will be difficult to erase the grievances resulting from the sustained violence perpetuated on other humans and the earth from which we all get our food for the sake of profit. However, rather than fall into grievances, we should focus on finding solutions, and these solutions must come from the frontline communities most affected by the extractive economic system, and not from tycoons looking to turn solutions into another buck-making scheme.

FWAF's Encuentro Campesino a Campesino 2018.
Some communities are already looking at ways to reduce soil depletion and agricultural practices that reduce carbon emissions and maintain a health and diverse ecosystem as an integral part of the natural defenses against pests and processes for soil replenishment through agroecological practices as seen in the work of WhyHunger as well as in Florida through our own work. Although we use the word agroecology, this agricultural method is based in agricultural practices dating back millenia, having survived only by being passed down through generations of small farmers to our days. The city of Richmond, CA mentioned above, is itself seeing a community building a Just Transition through the establishment of a community farm on a plot of land that until recently was considered barren. Beginning in 2012, Urban Tilth began working with the government officials to create the North Richmond Farm.

North Richmond Farm, Richmond, Cal.
The extractive economy does not only affect rural communities. Urban dwellers also deal with the environmental consequences of the disposable treatment of the earth and its occupants. In a country and globe increasingly more urbanized, the plight of rural communities often goes unheard. None of us are immune to the effects and consequences of the toll the economic system has taken on our planet. Building a Just Transition to this extractive community is only part of the solution, but these solutions must be grassroots solutions coming from the ground up, from communities who have most at stake in a Just Transition: their own survival.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

UCF BSN Nursing Students Bring Hurricane Preparedness to FWAF

The University of Central Florida's school of Nursing has for several years worked with FWAF to bring healthcare to communities with little access to those services. This year the school also brought hurricane preparedness information and supplies to FWAF and the community of which it is a part. Those students later wrote the letter below to FWAF:


When we were tasked by our instructor, Dr. Heather Peralta, to provide hurricane education and supplies to the Apopka community at the Farmworkers Association Clinic our first priority was to make sure that we provided something for everyone. This looked to be a daunting task since the anticipated turnout was 100+ community members! We decided that gathering supplies for 100+ individual community members would be impossible in the time-frame we had, so we decided it would be more efficient to create family-sized hurricane kits to provide to each family. We aimed to create 50 of these kits. We decided what would go in these kits by researching recommended hurricane supplies and making sure we didn’t include things that people would already have readily available.

Next, we needed to fill those kits! We each individually donated what we could and approached local businesses to inquire if they would be able to donate to our cause. Some businesses that generously provided supplies and monetary donations included Tractor Supply, Ace Hardware, Sam’s Club and Southeastern Grocers. We amassed batteries, water, candles, lighter, matches, non-perishable canned goods, flashlights, and first aid kits. We included equal amounts of each in each kit.

Finally, we included hurricane preparedness information with each kit. This included brochures and informational leaflets that detailed the hazards of hurricanes and how to prepare one’s self and home for hurricane conditions. We made sure to have this information available in English and Spanish for greater accessibility. 

We thank the Apopka Farmworker’s Association for having us for this event and are grateful for the opportunity to help the Apopka community prepare for the hurricane season!

UCF BSN Nursing Students

Florida Farmworkers and Immigration

By Nezahualcoyotl Xiuhtecutli The Farmworker Association of Florida is rooted in an immigrant community, although we are not all immigrants....