In the United States, women farm workers bear the brunt

Jovita Alfau (left) with her daughter Yuriana

Jovita Alfau was poisoned by her boss, and, when she pushed back, sued and won, all she got was a lousy t-shirt … more or less. The story of the willful poisoning of women farm workers across the United States is too often told as if the assault were somehow accidental. It isn’t and has never been accidental.

Jovita Alfau worked for Power Bloom Farms and Growers nursery in Homestead, Florida. In November 2009, her bosses told her to transplant hibiscus to a particular section. She soon began to feel dizziness, weakness, and numbness in her mouth. Then she vomited. What caused this crisis? On one hand, endosulfan, a super toxic pesticide, which had been sprayed on the hibiscus less than 24 hours before. While endosulfan is highly toxic, the killers here are Jovita Alfau’s employers, and with them the entire agricultural economy.

That November day was just another boring day in hell. According to Jovita Alfau, it was common practice to spray the nursery while she and her co-workers were tending the plants. On the day she was poisoned, Jovita Alfau was given neither warning nor protective gear. This is the essence of farming and growing in the United States.

The treatment of Jovita Alfau is typical of the industry. Mily Treviño-Sauceda, Tania Banda-Rodriguez, Yolanda Gomez, Marta Cruz, Elvira Carvajal, and countless other women workers, across the United States, have experienced the same situation. In New Mexico, for example, almost half the workers have suffered at least one pesticide-related health problem after working in a field that had been sprayed with pesticides. In the fields and farmlands of America, poison is the not-so-new black.

Some, like Yolanda Gomez and Elvira Carvajal, have become organizers, formally, but all have become organizers in one form or another. But here’s the thing. Jovita Alfau sued her employers. They balked, but ultimately settled out of court. Jovita Alfau has never been able to return to work, nor will she. That means her daughter, Yuriana, must take care of her mother. And so Yuriana quit college and, predictably, will spend the rest of Jovita Alfau’s life caring for her mother. In the United States, women farm workers bear the brunt, and, when their bodies come home, their daughters take on the debt. From sea to shining sea, the extraction continues.

 

(Photo Credit: New America Media)

In Chile, women shut down Monsanto’s Law

Good news! Women across Chile organized, mobilized and shut down, at least for now, the dreaded Monsanto Law. The law would have given multinational corporations the power to patent seeds they discover, develop or modify. For small and mid-sized farmers, which is to say for the rural 99%, this would have been catastrophic. It would have been disastrous for Chile’s `seed heritage’ as well. Women lead the campaign to stop the law, and last week, the government withdrew the bill.

On Monday, March 17, Secretary General to the Presidency Ximena Rincón announced the withdrawal. Rincón had long been a leading critic of the bill, both in Parliament and in government more generally.

ANAMURI, Asociación Nacional de Mujeres Rurales e Indígenas or the National Association of Rural and Indigenous Women, was a central organizer and mobilizer in the campaign. ANAMURI co-director Alicia Muñoz explained, “All of the resistance that rural organizations, principally indigenous communities, led during these past years was a success. We were able to convey to the parliament how harmful the law would be for the indigenous communities and farmers who feed us all. Big agriculture, or agro-business is just that, a business. It doesn’t feed our country.” In their organizing and mobilizing, ANAMURI explicitly linked the capitalization and commoditization of food and of seeds to capital and to patriarchy. Repeatedly, they stressed that the right to food and the struggle for biodiversity is part of the women’s liberation struggle in Chile and everywhere.

Camila Montecinos, of GRAIN, focuses on biodiversity and food sovereignty. Her organization worked with CLOC, la Coordinadora Latinoamericana de Organizaciones del Campo, to organize rural women, workers, and indigenous communities to educate the members of government and the general population as to what is at stake, and again not only for Chile: “This struggle has not ended. Certainly the agrobusiness sector is going to lobby fiercely. We’re ready for that. Sometimes Chile looks like one of the most submissive countries, but if we can win here, others can win elsewhere where similar laws are in place.” In Argentina, for example, women like Sofía Gatica are leading a similar campaign against Monsanto and Monsanto Laws.

Lucía Sepúlveda, of Rapal, la Red de Acción en Plaguicidas y sus Alternativas or Alliance for a Better Quality of Life/Pesticide Action Network, has been organizing to stop the destruction of small farms and the resultant production of rural food deserts, in the heart of the farmlands. At the same time, when the bill was pulled, Sepúlveda reminded the women around her that it was originally Michelle Bachelet, in 2009, who originally presented the bill to Parliament.

After years of organizing, cajoling, mobilizing, and meeting, Bachelet’s emissary pulled the bill for reconsideration. At the same time, Bachelet announced this week her intention to establish a Ministry for Women and Gender Equality. Alicia Muñoz noted that ANAMURI has been organizing and lobbying for this Ministry since the advent of democracy in Chile.

In Chile, women are on the move: in the government, the fields and factories, the schools, the households and the streets: “We won because we organized an enormous collective effort and massively broadcast and shared our position.” In the words of an earlier Chilean popular movement, “¡El pueblo unido, jamás será vencido!”

 

(Image Credit: ANAMURI)

Rural Women. Period.

October 15 is the International Day of Rural Women. This year marks the fourth celebration. According to the United Nations, the day “recognizes `the critical role and contribution of rural women, including indigenous women, in enhancing agricultural and rural development, improving food security and eradicating rural poverty.’”

Rural women do a bit more than ”enhance” and “improve”, and the do so in more areas than “the rural”.

Who, and where, exactly, are “rural women”?

On one hand, they are women in rural zones. As such, they are the heart of the current food crisis. They are the women working the sugar farms, or sweatshops, in KwaZulu-Natal and the citrus farms of the Western Cape, both in South Africa, too often overlooked or forgotten by the trade unions, the State, and, to a certain extent, large swathes of the women’s movement. They are also the South African women who comprise Sikhula Sonke and the Surplus Peoples Project, women who struggle, organize, keep on keeping on.

They are the rural and indigenous women in Argentina who speak out about and who organize to stop the environmental and economic devastation of climate change, a process they see and live with every day.

They are the rural and indigenous women across Asia who struggle with the intensification of patriarchal exclusion the emerges from the embrace of local power brokers, national governments and multinational corporations, especially but not exclusively those engaged in agriculture. They are women, like Rajkala Devi, who have broken glass, linen, silk, and concrete ceilings to attain public office in villages, as in hers in Rajasthan, India, and to move more than the village into more than recognition of women’s rights.

They are the fisherwomen like Rehema Bavuma, from Uganda, who struggle, along with their Asian and Latin American sisters, to do more and better than merely stop land grabs, to change the entire system. These women know, without the `benefit’ of longitudinal studies, that girls and women are the key to food security, to well being. They also know that girls and women are the key to food sovereignty, to something more and better than an end to hunger and an end to threat of starvation.

They are women who struggle with patriarchal governments, like Lind Bara-Weaver, a stone’s throw from Washington. Bara-Weaver struggles with the economy, as do all farmers. But she also struggles with the US federal government’s policies concerning loans to women farmers.

They are Dina Apomayta, in the highlands of Peru, the seed keepers, the guardians of diversity, the last station against what some call “Holocene extinction”, the end of diversity. And they are everywhere.

Rural women are not just in rural areas. They are in cities, too. They are women like Somali farmer Khadija Musame and Liberian farmer Sarah Salie, both now living and providing food for residents of San Diego … in the United States. They are women like Jenga Mwendo, founder of the Backyard Gardeners Network in New Orleans, and women like Regina Fhiceka, a garden and community organizer in Philippi, just outside of Cape Town.

Rural women are everywhere. They are in rural areas and they are in cities. They are the world. That’s the message we should carry on the International Day of Rural Women, today, and into tomorrow, World Food Day … and beyond. Rural women. Period.

 

(Image Credit: American Dairy Association of Indiana)

Alabama’s shame is the United States’ shame

Last week, five women from Bessemer and Birmingham met outside the Hugo L. Black U.S. District Courthouse in downtown Birmingham. They look like a pretty diverse handful of women. They stood there, alone, with their children and their placards, and explained that they are all U.S. citizens, that their children are U.S. citizens, and that their partners are undocumented residents. They appealed to the better conscience and the better consciousness, not to mention the common sense, of the State and of the Court to overturn HB56. They explained that without their partners’ income, they would face desperate times: “If you don’t want to pay for our kids, repeal HB56.”

Quite a few women in Alabama are expressing similar concerns. Lana and Jamie Boatwright run a tomato farm on Chandler Mountain, in Alabama. The tomatoes are ready for picking, but the workers have fled, mostly to Florida where the fieldwork is better and, thus far, the laws are less hostile.

And it’s not just farmers who are suffering, already, from the culture of the law. Contractors, already squeezed by a deep and long recession, now can’t find workers. Teachers, school nurses and school systems report that the children are beginning to disappear. Foley Elementary School, with a 20% Latina/o population, already reports absences, withdrawals, and, even more, a climate of fear, sorrow, pain and suffering, trauma. Those are children. Not that it should matter but it needs to be said, those are children who are mostly U.S. citizens. What is the name for that curriculum, the one these children experience and study?

And the mothers are gathering and organizing, as they do. Mothers who are undocumented residents, like Trini, Erica Suarez, and so many others, are organizing power of attorney for their kids, should “the worst” occur. Mothers with proper papers or with citizenship, women like Rosa Toussaint Ortiz, are agreeing to take care of the children, should “the worst” occur. And activists, women like Monica Hernandez and Helen Rivas, promise to continue to take care of the women, men, children, not to forget, to continue the struggle.

The situation is shameful.

Alabama’s shame is the United States’ shame, and it has a familiar ring to it. What is the name of the shameful system that is emerging in Alabama? First, terrorize a racially or ethnically identified minority population. The terror did not begin with the passage of the law. The terror began with the first mention of its possibility. Then criminalize that population. Then put the “newly minted” criminals in prisons, and if those prisons could be private, as they will be in Alabama, all the better. Then, and here’s the kicker, when businesses, and in particular when farmers and contractors “discover” that the labor well has gone dry, provide them with prisoners, at rock bottom prices, of course. That’s what John McMillan, commissioner of the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries, suggested. The State is looking into short- and long-term solutions to the labor problem and is feeling “optimistic.”

Optimistic?

What is the name of that system of shame that Alabama is dutifully re-enacting? Some call it slavery, and perhaps they’re right. What would you call that shame, that shameful system, which haunts the United States?

 

(Photo Credit: al.com)

 

It wasn’t Uncle Sam, it was Aunt Sammie (and all her women friends and kin)

The National Archives, in Washington, DC, has an exhibit called “What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam? The Government’s Effect on the American Diet.” It’s a terrific exhibition, open through January 3. If you care about food, the State, agriculture, the table, and what’s in your body and what’s in our bodies and body politic, it’s well worth the visit.

At the same time walking through this bit of history is, at best, a bittersweet experience, given where the United States is today. Lettuce recalled due to listeria contamination. A peanut company that sickened hundreds is fighting tooth and nail to keep its records closed. With thirteen deaths, and rising, the cantaloupe listeria contamination is now the deadliest food poisoning “event” the country has suffered in twelve years, since 1998, when listeria killed 21 people.

Not surprisingly, recent polls show that “Americans” don’t trust their food “system”, and I would say they don’t trust their government either.

That’s why the exhibition is bittersweet. It documents a period in which people hoped, and with reason, that the United States federal government would address food production and distribution, would address hunger, would address everything having to do with “the American Diet.” In 1974, the US government actually paid Dick Van Dyke to explain, in clear and direct language, the meaning of food labels: “Read the label, set a better table.”

But that was 1974. Today? The United States has a First Lady, Michelle Obama, who cares, genuinely, about food, health, the obesity crisis, diet, and well being, and who has absolutely no power whatsoever. Otherwise, the battle continues.

It is the battle, in fact, as shown in the exhibit that may be of most interest. Although the exhibit seems to focus on “Uncle Sam”, it’s actually all the aunts, sisters, mothers, daughters, female partners who forced the State to pay attention to the food system, from field to fork, and to do something, rather than just blather on.

The exhibit shows that the food industry was never too concerned about consumers’ health or well being, and the food industry, from early in the country’s history to present, has never been short of cash or of “friends in high places.” So what’s a woman to do? Organize. Demonstrate. Protest. Turn aprons into lab coats, turn lab coats and aprons into placards, turn lab coats and aprons and placards into movements, legislation, and sustained structures.

And that’s what women did. Women who self identified as farm women, as mothers, as housewives, as home economists, as nutritionists, as teachers, as provisioners. In the twentieth century, women forced the State to engage in school lunch programs. In the nineteenth century, women, like “Mrs. Duragnac”, forced the State to address the contamination of food products, such as exploding ketchup containers and lethal candies, to mention just two items. From the beginning of the United States to today, women have been engaged in one long, continuous food uprising. It’s all in the Archives.

So, Uncle Sam, thanks for your interest. You would never have done a thing, however, if it weren’t for the army of Sammie’s and Sammy’s – aunts and all their friends and kin – pushing, pulling, prodding, and lighting the fire. Aunt Sammie haunts the history of the American diet.

 

(Photo Credit: U.S. National Archives)

 

The low spark of high-heeled African women farmers

Esnai Ngwira in mucuna field

The planet of slums is fed, clothed and sheltered by continents, and oceans, of farms, many of them small farms. Many small hold farmers are women. This is the case in China. By focusing on women farmers, China, with 10% of the world’s arable land, now feeds 20% of the world’s population.

And now, according to reports, China is turning to Africa, not in a land grab but rather in skills sharing and capacity building. China “seeks to show its trading partners in Africa that feeding their populations is only possible when women are empowered.” China is pushing for land rights for women farmers and for investing in women farmers. A key problem, however, is “the low skill base of Africa’s farmers, who are mainly women”.

What?

The clause concerning “low skills” is slipped in at the end of an article, but it’s actually a bombshell. The reason “Africa” is hungry is that its women are “low skilled”?

This would come as a surprise to those, such as Andrew Mushita and Carol B. Campbell, who have argued, “Most often, women are the keepers of the seeds, tucked away among the beams in the thatched roof, protected from pests by smoke from cooking fire. Others are stored in tins in another location. Villagers volunteer labour to build storage buildings for seed banks, protecting the treasure within the public trust.”

For centuries, and more, women farmers have tended to the seeds, nurtured biodiversity, sustained communities, developed new, and successful, medical treatments, and more.

Esnai Ngwira, a 57-year-old farmer in Ekwendeni, northern Malawi, would be surprised to hear she has a low skills base. Ngwira has been working with a program that builds social ecology in sustainable ways. Rather than using fertilizer, for example, Ngwira uses crop residue. She gets a better maize harvest, helps the soil, helps the earth. Esnai Ngwira is considered “a star innovator.”

Marie Johansson and Victoria Mulunga, of the Creative Entrepreneur Solutions (CES) in northern Namibia, would also be surprised. They, and the other women in their group, are fusing farming practices, gender-responsive environmentalism, and women’s market practices into a sustainable agricultural political economy. They haven’t done that by relying on a “low skill base.”

Likewise, in Kenya, Joyce Odari, an elderly subsistence farmer, was once arrested by forest guards for having cut down trees in a public preserve. She turned her imprisonment into a women’s sustainable agro-forestry operation, that now involves over 200 women in her region.

There are other stories, other women, other names. In the Gambia, women farmers are using simple store-powered dehydrators and dryers to preserve mangoes, which, as dried fruit, they sell to local schools. The mango is a key source of Vitamin A, and its season is short. By drying and distributing them the women farmers are combating blindness, providing extra nutrition in their own homes, and securing extra income.

The stories are everywhere because the women farmers, everywhere across the African continent, are doing what they do. Storing. Sharing. Experiment. Farming. Sustaining. Experimenting some more. Sharing some more.

The first problem for women farmers, on the African continent as elsewhere, is access. Access to land, access to market. Access to resources, access to decent and equal pay. Access to education and then more education. The second problem is security. Land tenure security, market access security. The third problem is autonomy. Global systems of exchange have no respect for the local “customs”, much less the biodiversity that women farmers have created over centuries through open and principled sharing.

“The low skill base of Africa’s farmers, who are mainly women” pretends to focus on women as it obscures the actual lives that women, in this instance women farmers, lead. Not women farmers’ low skill but women farmers’ access to real power haunts a world teetering on the brink of famine. That’s our world.

 

(Photo Credit: Flickr.com / soilsandfood)

 

Let them eat pesticide

There are hunger strikes and there are hunger strikes.

For the past 37 days, six pro-democracy Iranian asylum seekers have been on a hunger strike outside the central headquarters of the United Kingdom Border Agency, in Croydon, in the south of London. Some had sewn their lips shut. Sewing one’s lips is minor compared to the torture all six had suffered in Iranian prisons. They had the medical evidence to prove the torture, and yet were initially denied asylum. Finally, today, after 37 days on hunger strike, the six refugees – Ahmad  Sadeghi Pour, Morteza Bayat, Keyvan Bahari, Kiarash Bahari, Mahyrar Meyari and Mehran Meyari – were assured their cases would be reopened and they would at least be able to apply once again. They ended the hunger strikes, and proclaimed the struggle continues.

Sometimes, hunger strikes save lives and secure at least the glimmering hope of something like justice.

Then there are the hunger strikes that are fatal and ferocious drone strikes, assaults on the body, community, and land. Globally, over 900 million people go hungry every day. That’s down from one billion the year before, but the prospects for the next year are gloomy. Food prices are on the rise everywhere. In fact, food prices are at a twenty-year high. In Asia and among Pacific island nations, food prices are skyrocketing and food `shortages’ loom large. For example, in the Philippines, thanks in large part to marketization and speculation, rice is suddenly both scarce and overly expensive.  Egypt is running out of food, as is the entire Middle East and North Africa.

But it’s not all bad news. Glencore, for example, is “a leading commodities producer and marketer.” Glencore is doing fine. Along with tons of mineral, literally, Glencore controls 10 percent of the world’s wheat, and 25% of the world’s barley, sunflower, and rape seed. Glencore takes, the world slakes. And then dies … again, literally.

Across the United States, two million men, women and children work on farms, picking by hand fresh fruits and vegetables. The US government estimates that every year 10,000 to 20,000 of those workers suffer acute pesticide poisoning.

In India, over the last sixteen years, 250,000 farmers have committed suicide. That’s one farmer every 30 minutes. And this number only includes the farmers who are acknowledged as such by the national government. Those who can’t hold title, they’re not included. Women farmers, Dalit farmers, Adivasi farmers: they don’t count in life, they don’t count in death. What killed these farmers? Indebtedness. Market liberalization. The invisible hand of the market, that hand which polished shining India, provided farmers with loans they could never pay but had to assume, with dwindling access to water, with impossible competitive demands. And so the farmers die.

And they leave behind notes, addressed to the Prime Minister, to the President, to all the lofty people who are nestled in the invisible hand that killed them.

And they leave loved ones behind. Widows. Children. Women like Nanda Bhandare, a farmer, a widow since 2008. When her husband killed himself, she had to pull her two young children out of school to work the farm. The money, if there was any, has gone to pay off the predators. The land, a small parcel, no longer provides sufficient harvest in the current economies to feed even a family of three. Who will be next to drink the pesticide in that household?

There are hunger strikes and there are hunger strikes. For every hunger strike that saves a life, even temporarily, such as that of the six Iranians in England, there are literally 900 million deadly hunger strikes. The planet is aflame with hunger strikes. Farmers are poisoned and are dying, women and children in particular are starving, and the response of the global market, and of the nation-States it supports and controls, is as it has always been. Let them eat pesticide.

 

(Photo Credit: http://indiatoday.intoday.in)