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Alexandra R / Spoon

Female farmworker organization works to protect workers from pesticides

Droplets of chemical pesticides trickled down the back of Elvira Carvajal’s co-worker, as they worked in the blistering heat in Florida, picking lemons and okra. It felt like his body was burning– and it was– both from the heat and toxic chemicals. 

According to Carvajal, this is the reality for American farmworkers, where exposure to toxic pesticides is part of their daily lives. 

Carvajal, a former farmworker, is now the lead community organizer for Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, the first female farmworker organization in the United States, advocating for human rights, including issues such as gender based violence, environmental justice, labor rights and immigration. The group is dedicated to helping women in agriculture, including advocating and lobbying for protective pesticide regulations in the EPA and Congress. 

“This is where America’s food literally comes from, and so many people don’t know what’s happening,” said Cynthia Vanderpool Garcia, the National Policy and Advocacy Coordinator for Alianza. 

Women, who make up 28% of the agricultural workforce, “have more necessities than men,” said Carvajal, referring to reproductive processes such as pregnancy and menstruation. 

One of the rights and necessities that female farmworkers are deprived of, according to Carvajal through a Spanish-language interpreter, is protection from toxic pesticides. Ten thousand to 20,000 pesticide poisonings occur among farmworkers each year. 

Pesticides can cause health effects such as chemical burns, neurological damages, infertility, miscarriages and particularly for pregnant women, their children can face physical birth defects and developmental disabilities once they are born. 

One such pesticide is paraquat. Although the pesticide is banned in 32 countries, in July of 2021, the EPA reapproved its registration for 15 more years despite finding that ​​the chemical has effects on the respiratory system, kidneys, eyes and has links to Parkinson’s disease. 

A California study found that almost a third of agricultural episodes of pesticide poisoning were in compliance with label instructions and all applicable regulations, casting doubt on the effectiveness of governmental regulations such as those from the EPA. 

Male Farmer Farm
Alex Frank / Spoon

In response, Alianza, represented with other organizations by Earthjustice, sued the government agency. A few months later, they sued the EPA once again for reducing the Application Exclusion Zone (AEZ), which is the area in which no people besides a trained pesticide applicator can be present when applying pesticides. 

The new regulations shrink the AEZ from “100 feet to 25 feet for certain ground applications of pesticides sprayed from above 12 inches, including pesticide applications that drift beyond 25 feet.” 

For children, these risks are heightened, and many children who are exposed to pesticides experience asthma. A study found strong links between pesticides and neonatal reflexes, psychomotor and mental development issues and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder in children. 

“I talked to families where the children were born with the arms shortened, with less or more fingers, with asthma,” said Carvajal. 

This is why the organization is a strong advocate and lobbyist for the Protect America’s Children from Toxic Pesticides Act of 2021, explained Garcia and Mily Trevino-Saucedo, the Executive Director for Alianza. 

Vineyard Landscape
Alexandra R / Spoon

The bill, which was introduced by Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) and referred to the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, would ban some of the most harmful pesticides and create a process to petition for the banning of certain pesticides. It would also require employers to report pesticide-caused injuries to the EPA and require pesticide labels to be written in Spanish, so applicators understand how to apply them safely. 

“They don’t know how to read the tags so there is a lot of danger to spraying the pesticides,” explained Carvajal. The Protect America’s Children from Toxic Pesticides Act of 2021 would help to remedy this. 

The act would also increase employer accountability, as current regulations allow for employers to threaten workers since “many of them are undocumented so they prefer not to say anything,” according to Trevino-Saucedo. 

“The employer knows what they have to do, but there’s no pressure, so they don’t do it,” said Carvajal. 

The organization provided testimonies and worked with legislators to advocate for the bill’s introduction, and hopeful passage. 

While the bill waits for a vote, Alianza struggles to gain awareness for the work that it does. “It’s an understatement to say that there’s not enough awareness of the toxicity of pesticides,” said Garcia. 

The lack of funds and awareness for the non-profit meant that between 2011 and 2018 there were not sufficient funds to pay staff, according to Trevino-Sauceda. Now, the organization is building its infrastructure. 

Produce Market Grocery Shopping
Jocelyn Hsu / Spoon

“People don’t want to see immigrants, especially laborers and people working low-wage jobs, because it doesn’t match up with our view of middle class America, so they become invisible,” said Emilie Austin, an American University senior who worked with Alianza for her capstone project. 

Austin and a group of other students worked to raise awareness for Alianza by hosting a webinar at the university, where leaders explained the goals of the organization and farmworkers told their stories. 

“You’re aware of how poorly farmworkers are treated, but you don’t get to know the actual human behind it. You have a face, and a name, and a voice and a connection,” said Austin of her work with Alianza. Austin expressed that she hoped to reduce invisibility and “give them a space and a platform.”

“If we’re visible, people can hear us and support us,” said Trevino-Sauceda. 

Sana Mamtaney (she/her) is a third-year student at American University studying journalism and political science. She loves writing about social justice issues and how they affect our daily lives. In her free time, she enjoys cooking, watching reality TV, and listening to Hozier and One Direction.
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