Sofía Gática, of Córdoba, Argentina, was one of six people honored with the international Goldman Prize today. The award, which comes with a prize of $150,00, bills itself as the “world’s largest prize honoring grassroots environmentalism.”
Gática’s story will resonate with San Joaquín Valley residents who have fought for years for health-protective laws regarding pesticides.
About 13 years ago, Gática’s baby daughter died of kideny failure. She soon noticed that residents in her working-class neighborhood of Ituzaingo were also suffering from alarming rates of leukemia, lupus and other diseases, according to this San Francisco Chronicle article.
Gática, who had only a high school education and no organizing experience, formed the group Mothers of Ituzaingó. They went door-to-door in their neighborhood, which is surrounded by soy bean fields, and discovered that pesticides were having a disastrous impact on the health of their community.
They found that only two households had not suffered from illness, according to the Chronicle. That spurred them to begin protesting the use of weed killers with a “Stop Spraying” campaign.
Their efforts eventually led to a ban on aerial spraying of agrochemicals within 2,500 meters of homes. (In comparison, some Valley counties have pesticide buffer zones of 400 meters.)
The short movie below captures Gática’s inspiring story.
When I spoke on the phone with Gática on Monday, I asked her if she had advice for Valley residents who were also concerned about the health impacts of pesticides. Valley communities have also experienced pesticide drift, and inexplicable health problems.
“I recommend demanding the rights to health and the environment,” she said.
She also recommended demanding the right to information – about what types of pesticides are being used, how they are being applied, and close to schools and homes they are being used.
Tracey Brieger, co-director of Californians for Pesticide Reform, said Gática’s story and advice is an inspiration to Valley residents fighting for health-protective pesticide laws.
Gática’s story, “would be a reminder that communities across the world are facing the same problems with pesticides, and it is very important to learn from each other,” Brieger said.
“The regulations and the rules are stronger in Argentina than they are here in California. We need to learn what it actually looks like to be health-protective.”
I followed Teresa De Anda, a champion for pesticide reform from the tiny Tulare County community of Earlimart; Irma Medellín, a community organizer from the Tulare County city of Lindsay, and a few others through the Capitol. The group was scheduled to speak with three legislators, including Assemblyman Luis Alejo and Senator Michael Rubio.
First, the group spoke with the staff members of two legislators, and asked that the legislators call on Gov. Jerry Brown to ban the fumigant methyl iodide. They also asked the legislators to appoint a new Department of Pesticide Reform director and deputy director who would promote forward-thinking agriculture.
Then, instead of meeting a staff member in Rubio’s office, the group was led to the Senate floor, where they sat in plush red chairs and spoke with Rubio himself. In Spanish and English, they told him about their personal experiences with pesticide drift, and their concerns about dangerous pesticides.
After Medellín told the senator about a recent pesticide drift incident that sickened members of her family, including her three-month-old grandson, he replied, “I sympathize – as someone who grew up on the west side of Kern County, out on a ranch, I can certainly sympathize with you, growing up on fields where they are spraying and there is agricultural production.”
At the end of their meeting, the group took a picture with Rubio on the Senate floor. The meeting was a great example of how a people can give a voice to their community’s concerns, and be a part of the change.
Read more about Irma Medellín and other fighting for a healthier San Joaquín Valley in next week’s edition of Vida en el Valle.
María Arevalos has a simple message for parents and school officials: “Pesticides and schools are a bad combination,” she said in Spanish. “It’s something that should not happen.”
She knows from experience. She believes pesticides sprayed on school grounds once sickened her 8-year-old son, Eduardo, who has asthma. She recalled one day, when her son went to school feeling fine, and returned with nausea and no appetite.
“There is no other possibility,” said Arevalos, a member of the Fresno-based community group Latinos United for Clean Air, who has participated in pesticide awareness trainings in Sacramento and Salinas.
Arevalos spoke about the use of pesticides in schools during the group’s Clean Air, Healthy Family summit at Yokomi Elementary School May 11.
During her presentation, she encouraged parents school officials to place a greater emphasis on integrated pest management – a more healthy form of pest control that uses common sense and simple science to address pest problems, like mulching, controlling weeds, and sealing cracks.
When integrated pest management doesn’t solve the problem, she said, pesticides should be sprayed only when children are not on campus – either after the school, or on the weekend.
Arevalos’ concerns are more than the worries of an informed parent.
According to the recent report “Green Schools Within Reach,” 40 percent of reporting school districts in California continue to use the most dangerous, high-exposure methods for treating weeds and ant problems, despite the passage of the Healthy Schools Act of 2000.
César Chávez, founder of the United Farm Workers, was a community health champion more than 20 years ago.
In July and August of 1988, Chávez embarked on a 36-day unconditional, water-only fast to bring attention to the unsafe use of pesticides in the fields, and their dangerous health impacts on farmworkers, as well as consumers.
After the fast, in a March 1989 speech at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Wash., Chávez highlighted the risks of pesticides by telling the moving story of the Rodríguez family of McFarland: The wife, Elia, worked in the table grape vineyards around Delano until she was eight-months pregnant. Her son, Johnnie, had cancer and died when he was five years old.
Farmworkers and their families are exposed to pesticides from the crops they work. The soil the crops are grown in. Drift from sprays applied to adjoining fields, and often the very field where they are working.
Pregnant women labor in the fields to help support their families. Toxic exposure begins at a very young age – often in the womb.
The fields that surround their homes are heavily and repeatedly sprayed. Pesticides pollute irrigation water and groundwater.
Children are still a big part of the labor force. Or they are taken to the fields by their parents because there is no childcare.
In the speech, he challenged whether there can be an “acceptable” level of exposure to pesticides.
There is no acceptable level of exposure to any chemical that causes cancer. There can be no toleration of any toxic that causes miscarriages, still births and deformed babies.
Then why do we allow workers to carry the burden of pesticides on their shoulders?
Risk is associated with any level of exposure. And any level of exposure is too much.
Isn’t that the protection you would ask for your family and your children? Isn’t that the standard of protection you would demand for yourself?
Then why do we allow farmworkers to carry the burden of pesticides on their shoulders?
Learn more about César Chávez in this week’s edition of Vida. Read more about disease clusters in an upcoming edition of Vida.
For more information about pesticides in the San Joaquín Valley, check out this video by non-profit environmental law firm Earthjustice:
Herminia Arenas, a farmworker originally from Oaxaca, México, cannot read or write. So when Arenas, a member of the organization Líderes Campesinas (Female Farmworker Leaders) decorated a brown sack with a message about the dangers of pesticides, her message came from her heart.
Arenas’ sack was one of the many colorful sacks that was displayed in Madera Courthouse Park during a Líderes Campesinas press conference and rally Tuesday morning.
Through Líderes Campesinas’ sack – or moralito – project, farmworker women write, draw or embroider on a sack (similar to the ones used while picking produce in the fields) about the dangers of pesticide poisioning.
The project is a visual (and beautiful!) way to spread the message about the dangers of pesticides. It also educates community members about how to protect themselves against pesticide exposure, said Suguet López, director or programs for Líderes Campesinas.
*Click on the photos for a better view of the women’s beautiful bags!
To learn more about Líderes Campesinas, and their recent success in establishing pesticide buffer zones around schools, day cares, homes and labor camps, read next week’s edition of Vida en el Valle.
If you have ever wanted to see how various polluting industries could have cumulative health impacts, you only need to travel to Wasco, a Kern County city of 24,724 people that was the first stop on the Women’s Foundation of California’s Sowing Change tour.
In Wasco, we met a group of women who are part of el Comité de las Rosas (Rose Committee,) named, in part, to recognize Wasco’s designation as the rose capital of the country.
The women live in a 250-unit labor camp, which is located across the street from a coal plant. It’s located a few blocks away from a facility that produces bio-pesticides, and the women said a “fishy” smell is always wafting from the factory.
They live steps from the railroad tracks; children cross the tracks to go to school, and mothers push baby carriages across the tracks to do their shopping.
But what’s neat about Wasco – and so many of the other Valley communities we visited on the tour – is that the residents are joining together to create change. One woman from the committee is now a leader on the city’s housing board, and another told us about the possibility of establishing an organic farming cooperative in Wasco.
En route to Pixley:
On the way to Pixley, Earlimart resident Teresa De Anda described how her small community was poisoned during a pesticide drift incident in 1999. Since then, De Anda has become an unstoppable and indefatigable champion for pesticide reform.
She pointed out the sign above, which was situated near a group of workers picking and bagging grapes.
Stop 2: Pixley
As I’ve reported before, Pixley – an unincorporated Tualre County community of 2,586 people, 68.2 percent of who are Latino - is an amazing example of how a community can band together to create healthier environments.
Pixley has long been considered a food desert, because residents have very limited access to fresh and affordable fruits and vegetables. In response to that situation, a group of families helped establish a community garden at the local school.
One Pixley resident told us about the advantages of planting and harvesting her own fruits and vegetables in the community garden: She saves money on produce; she doesn’t have to buy expensive, poor-quality fruits and veggies; and she and her family get physical exercise while working together in the garden.
After hearing about the community garden, as well as the local youth folkloric dance group, Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers, declared Pixley to be “an oasis” among San Joaquín Valley communities.
“I think this is just remarkable,” she said of the residents’ collaborative efforts to make their community a healthier place for their families.
Hi, and welcome to Vida en el Valle’s new community health blog, Harvesting Health/Cosechando Salud.
This blog is part of a new reporting project, funded by the California Endowment, that will allow Vida en el Valle to spend a year zeroing in on critical health issues that are impacting Latino communities across the San Joaquín Valley.
In stories in our paper, readers will meet the Valley residents affected by community health issues — like exposure to pesticides, access to clean drinking water and healthy air, and the need for safe communities and healthy food. Readers will also meet the community groups advocating for change at the grassroots- and policy-level.
The in-depth stories will also include a public policy perspective: What policies have created these unhealthy situations? What can local or state decison-makers do to fix these problems?
This blog will add even more depth to the stories. Bookmark this page, and check back often to view videos of Valley residents and community activists, and to learn about health issues as we’re investigating them.
Why is Vida en el Valle dedicating so much time and newsprint toward community health issues?
Because Valley residents are hit on all sides by health and environmental factors, and the poor and people of color are often hit hardest. And because without media attention, conditions like these could persist:
The Bakersfield, Visalia-Porterville, Fresno-Madera, Sacramento, and Hanford-Corcoran metropolitan regions rank in the top ten in the American Lung Association’s State of the Air 2010 rankings for most polluted cities by ozone, year-round particulate pollution, and short-term particulate pollution.
According to the association, minorities and lower-income groups are disproportionately affected by illnesses caused by air pollution.
In 2006, more than 326,700 Valley residents were served water with levels of contamination over a legal limit, primarily due to bacteria, nitrates, arsenic, and disinfectant byproducts, according to the Visalia-based Community Water Center.
Latino communities are more likely to have contaminated water than non-Latino communities, the center says.
The San Joaquín Valley is home to more than 220 diasdvantaged, unincorporated communities. In these communities, where residents rely on the county government for services, people tend to lack the basic features of a safe and healthy environment, like clean water, sewage lines, storm drains, streetlights, and sidewalks, according to the national research and action institute PolicyLink.
And, because as EPA regional director Jared Blumenfeld put it when asked why he has prioritized environmental justice issues in the San Joaquín Valley, “(The Valley) is a part of the world that deserves attention, and hasn’t gotten the attention it requires.”
These community health stories, blogs, and videos won’t be effective without your input. What health issues are you experiencing in your communities? What types of health improvements do you envision for your neighborhood?