Tirso Moreno.

What’s your job title?

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General coordinator for the Farmworker Association of Florida.

What does your organization do?

We work to empower communities of farmworkers and the rural poor, focusing on a wide range of issues, from workplace and community organizing to disaster preparedness and response, from vocational rehabilitation to immigrants’ rights advocacy for farmworkers and students.

The needs are great in farmworker communities. Agriculture is one of the three most dangerous occupations in the United States, and farmworkers have the highest rate of chemical-related illnesses of any occupational group. Farmworkers do not enjoy all the same protections under OSHA laws as do most other workers in the U.S. In spite of improvements made in the past century for workers in this country, laborers in agriculture are still little better off than they were as depicted in Edward R. Murrow’s Harvest of Shame.

In years past, the majority of farmworkers were African-American — a holdout from the time of slavery. Today, the majority of the workforce in agriculture and horticulture is Latino, mainly from Mexico, Guatemala, and El Salvador, with an increasing number of Haitian immigrants. These workers come to the United States often at great risk to themselves and in the hopes of escaping deep poverty in their home countries. They are too often readily exploited because they do not know that they have certain rights in this country regardless of their immigration status. Language can be a barrier too, as is fear of job loss and/or deportation. Some are financially beholden to the “coyote” or recruiter who helped to smuggle them over here. These are modern-day cases of indentured servitude.

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How does your work relate to the environment?

Why should environmentalists care about farmworkers? Well, do you eat? Do you buy plants from a nursery or flowers from a florist? Do you play golf? Or work in a finely landscaped office building? If you do any of these things, chances are that you have been exposed to pesticides. And, the people who made it possible for you to have that food, or those flowers, or who grew the sod on your golf course or the plants in your landscape, were more than likely low-wage farmworkers who, along with their families, were exposed to pesticides in the production processes. The extensive use of pesticides for agricultural production puts Florida farmworkers at high risk for pesticide exposure, acute poisoning, and associated adverse health effects.

Some environmentalists are more inclined to take the human element out of the picture. What’s left is a picture of pesticide-contaminated lands, lakes, streams, and aquifers; of toxic-waste dumps and Superfund sites; of bird deaths and reproductive problems in alligators and other wildlife; and, in the case of methyl bromide, of ozone depletion. Our organization is not an “environmental” organization in the traditional sense. However, our experience has taught us that you cannot work to address farmworker issues without addressing the issue of pesticides.

Agribusiness dominates the agricultural economy in the U.S., and pesticides are an integral part of its operations. Pesticides, however, are indiscriminate. They may kill insects and plant pathogens, but they also can have health impacts on the workers who are exposed to them. Thus, over the years, pesticide health and safety has become a major focus of our organization. We do not call ourselves an “environmental” organization, but we do work extensively on issues of environmental justice, and we have reached out to environmental organizations to begin to make the connections between farmworker issues and the environment. Ultimately, we are all on this planet together, and if we are going to save it so that our children can grow up with clean air, soil, and water, we have to work together.

What are you working on at the moment?

One of our most important projects right now is trainings that teach health professionals how to diagnose, treat, and report pesticide-related illnesses. After all these years of ever-increasing pesticide usage, most doctors still have no knowledge or training about signs, symptoms, and/or treatment of health problems from pesticide exposure. Concerned and trained health professionals could literally mean the difference between life and death for some farmworkers.

After hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma, my staff and I put a lot of time and energy into disaster response and relief for farmworker communities that were devastated by the storms and were refused emergency housing from FEMA. In fact, we are currently a partner in a lawsuit against FEMA for not providing emergency housing to farmworker families because they were undocumented. That is against the law.

Where were you born?

I was born in Mexico and came to the United States in 1971 with my family to do farmwork.

Where do you live now?

I live in Apopka, Fla., in the shadows of the world’s No. 1 tourist destination — the Mouse in Orlando.

What long and winding road led you to your current position?

From 1971 until 1982, my family and I traveled from Florida to Michigan following the seasons, harvesting citrus in Florida and apples in Michigan. I saw the way the workers were treated and the way they lived in terrible conditions, while the growers were making money off of our labor. For five years, I was a member of the United Farmworkers Union and was elected by the workers to be a worker representative. In 1983, I became the lead organizer for the Farmworker Project of the Office for Farmworker Ministry. In 1986, we formed the Farmworker Association of Florida, and in the years since, we have grown into a statewide organization with five offices and farmworker members in 12 counties in the state. Even after all these years and all our hard work, conditions have improved very little for farmworkers. The power and influence of agribusiness is strong. We still have so much work to do.

Where do you think environmentalists and social-justice advocates can find common cause?

It is critical to our planet that we begin to work together, and I think farmworkers’ issues are a good place to start. Everybody’s gotta eat! We are all getting exposed to pesticides through our foods, and it might even be affecting our children. Environmental health might be a point where we can come together.

Do you see environmental ills disproportionately afflicting the communities where you live and work?

Absolutely! In Apopka, the “other side of the tracks” is largely low-income, minority people of color. Within a two-mile radius, there are two landfills, two sewage-treatment plants, a medical-waste incinerator, plastics manufacturers, and fiberglass manufacturers. There are two Superfund sites, and the state’s most polluted lake is found in close proximity to communities of color. In south Florida, there are farmworkers who live in trailers within 10 feet of tomato fields where methyl bromide is sprayed. Try to site some of these things in affluent white communities — there would be an uproar.

Who is your environmental hero?

Cesar Chavez.

How do you spend your free time?

What free time?

Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?

I don’t know about me, but I have a stereotype of environmentalists as being rather affluent white people who go around with binoculars to watch birds and don’t see the connections between their lifestyles and the poverty in their communities.

If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?

I would like to see much stiffer penalties and bigger fines for companies and individuals that cause environmental destruction that harms people’s health and, in some cases, even costs them their lives. Too often, polluters and multinational corporations just get what amounts to a slap on the wrist; the fines imposed don’t even begin to affect their “bottom line.” People are sick and dying while they make bigger profits. That is not right.

If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?

Spend one day working out in the fields picking oranges or tomatoes at piece rate and see how much money you make at the end of the day. That is, if you can make it until the end of the day.

Give Him a Farmhand

A note from Moreno:

This interview is especially timely as next week (March 27 – April 2) is national Farmworker Awareness Week. I hope you will all take a few minutes to find out more about the actions, activities, and campaigns going on around the country and see what you can do to help make a difference for farmworkers in the U.S.

Do you support bans on pesticide use? Do you prefer organic farming? — Patrick Aberg, Washington, D.C.

It would be great — for people and for the environment — if we could produce all of our food without the use of synthetic and harmful chemical pesticides and fertilizers. I believe we have not even begun to feel the serious long-term effects, on human health and on ecosystems, of all these chemical additives to our land, air, and water. The truth, however, is that the pesticide and fertilizer companies have a stranglehold on our economy and on agribusiness. It is difficult enough to get even a single pesticide banned — methyl bromide, for example — so a complete ban on pesticides in our lifetime is not plausible. The most we can hope for at the moment, I believe, is the reduction of pesticide use, the research and implementation of sustainable alternatives, and the banning of the most toxic pesticides.

Buying organic produce can be beneficial in one important way: it sends a message to agribusiness that the public demands a safer food supply. With enough people moving to organics, the industry will have to “follow the money.” However, buying organic does not solve the problem of small farms being swallowed up by big agricultural corporations. And banning pesticides in the U.S. would probably mean only that manufacturers would then continue to sell those same harmful chemicals to struggling farming communities in Third World countries with fewer environmental regulations. There is no easy answer. We must continue to question and challenge the way things are done and work toward the best solutions.

One of the main reasons I buy organic produce is to help reduce the amount of pesticides used. Can you tell me what effect it really has? Are the lives of the workers in an organic environment any better? — Christian Bergeron, Vancouver, B.C.

There is currently much debate about the real benefits of organic versus conventionally grown produce. Weak national organic standards have enabled large agricultural corporations to get into the organic business because organic produce is becoming increasingly more popular among middle-class consumers. Farmworkers working in organic fields, obviously, do not have the same health risks of exposure to pesticides as farmworkers in “chemically dependent” agriculture do. However, if they are not earning a living wage, are faced with fear and intimidation by their employers or labor contractors, and do not have adequate housing and access to schools, health care, and other services, then they still face significant difficulties.

I think the organic question is a matter of researching the individual companies growing the organic produce. There is no one general easy answer. It will require research on the part of the consumer to identify which companies are truly applying ethical environmental and labor standards. Perhaps a better question is to ask how we can advocate for stricter national standards for organic farming.

What do you suggest that growers can do to improve conditions for workers? What about processors? Manufacturers? — Shauna Sadowski, San Francisco, Calif.

For one thing, growers, processors, and manufacturers can pay workers a fair and living wage. Many workers are making the same amount that they did 10 and 15 years ago. Workers need adequate pay, health care, and other benefits. Companies can stop union busting, permit union organizing, and then engage in honest, collective bargaining with workers. They can provide a safe working environment, which involves many things from proper pesticide health and safety trainings for workers, to compliance with the field sanitation laws and worker protections standards, to safe bus transportation to and from the fields.

Another big problem is the contract-labor system. Agricultural companies attempt to distance themselves from their responsibilities to workers by hiring them through labor contractors, who sometimes cheat the workers out of their full pay, charge them excessive amounts for housing and transportation, smuggle them into the country, and keep them intimidated and uninformed of their rights. This is advantageous to the companies, helping them to look like their hands are clean, and keeping the lawyers out of their deep pockets by forcing them to pursue the labor contractors.

Many environmentalists are critical of monoculture, planting a single crop in a field. Other techniques involve planting more than one type of plant in close proximity, and could reduce or even eliminate the need for pesticides. Would such techniques make the life of farmworkers more difficult? — Mark Stephen Caponigro, New York, N.Y.

I think companion planting, or the non-monoculture technique of planting, which is common in Mexico and other countries, makes better environmental sense. If farmworkers are paid by piece rate, as many are now, then yes, it is possible that it could make life more difficult for workers because they would have to walk farther to get to the next row. That would be time lost in trying to pick a sufficient quantity to warrant a good day’s pay. However, if the change in farming techniques were accompanied by a change in the way workers were compensated, then it could be potentially beneficial all the way around.

I often hear the argument that immigrant workers, including undocumented ones, are “doing jobs Americans won’t do” and should therefore be welcomed, “illegal” or not. Do you agree that they are really doing jobs that no one should have to do — at least at the low wages paid and without adequate health and safety considerations? — Charles Rettiger, Gainesville, Ga.

It is important that we change the way we look at farmwork. Because it is low-paid, backbreaking labor that is often performed by those who do not own the land they are working on, and who work for poverty wages and live in substandard conditions, it has become stigmatized as a job that “no one wants to do.” One of the goals of the Farmworker Association is to bring a level of dignity and respect not just to the workers, but to the work itself. Farmwork and farmworkers feed the country, and the work they do should be honored and valued. Right now, as our increasingly urbanized society gets further and further away from connection with the land, farmworkers are the invisible workforce without which we would all go hungry.

What is your favorite fruit? Can anything compete with the orange? — Patrick Aberg, Washington, D.C.

I like grapes a lot. (And I like oranges and lots of other fruits and vegetables too.)

It seems like the main problem that immigrant farmworkers face is the lack of jobs in Mexico and other Central American economies. Do you agree? Is the lack of jobs getting better or worse? What can be done about it? — Michael McGrath, Fort Collins, Texas

The answer to this question encompasses many things, and I am glad you asked it. We live in a global economy, like it or not. The immigration issue, the farmworker issue, can no longer be discussed in simplistic terms that look only at our own country. The passage of NAFTA served to displace many local subsistence farmers and farming communities in Mexico and Central America. Poverty has increased in many of our neighboring countries to the south, and our foreign-trade policy and multinational corporations are partly to blame. Poverty and desperation are what induce people to leave their homes and families at great risk to themselves to seek a way to make a living in a strange and unfamiliar place. I think, in many cases, the poverty has gotten worse as local communities lose their land-based economies. Part of the solution lies in reining in the corporations that move across the border seeking ever cheaper labor. Our foreign policy needs to change. This is becoming a global problem, and we need to look at the whole picture to devise workable solutions.

Environmentalists and farmworker advocates fought in court for tougher methyl bromide regulations in California, setting work conditions and limitations on spraying near homes and schools. Did Florida institute similar regulations? Is this something that should be pursued, or do you think efforts should focus on banning this neurotoxin from the farm landscape? — Sam Fromartz, Washington, D.C.

Methyl bromide is a hot topic right now. It was supposed to be phased out in 2005, but farmers keep asking for and getting exemptions so they can continue to use it. Right now, the EPA is reviewing methyl bromide, and, instead of a sustainable alternative, is considering replacing it with an equally toxic fumigant called methyl iodide, which has serious consequences for human health. We are currently working with Pesticide Action Network of North America on a fumigants campaign to try to let EPA know that neither methyl bromide nor methyl iodide are acceptable.

In 1998, the Farmworker Association of Florida worked in collaboration with Friends of the Earth, Farmworker Self-Help, Florida Consumer Action Network, and the Legal Environmental Assistance Foundation to produce a report entitled, “Reaping Havoc: The True Cost of Using Methyl Bromide on Florida’s Tomatoes.” The report helped to launch the “Sustainable Tomatoes” campaign, which involved, among other things, conducting air-monitoring tests in communities bordering tomato fields in Homestead, Fla. What we found was that methyl bromide, a toxic gas that is used to fumigate the soil, drifted into neighboring homes, schools, and churches. Members of a congregation at a nearby church even became sick from the methyl bromide “drift” into their parish. The results of the air-monitoring tests were clear and dramatic and even received significant attention from the local news media at the time. FWAF and FoE used this data to try to pressure the state of Florida to increase the width of the buffer zones around fields where methyl bromide was applied. Florida is not as progressive as California when it comes to laws regulating farming operations. The result of the campaign, even with allied groups around the state putting pressure on the state agriculture department, was that no changes were made to existing regulations.

Right now, however, the Farmworker Association is embarking on a “revival” of the methyl bromide campaign, with hopes that we can advocate for new regulations. A combination of factors makes this timely: 1) The EPA hearings on fumigants this year are a key opportunity for citizen input. 2) The tragic unfolding of three cases of infants born with severe birth defects to young women who all worked on the same farm — AgMart in Immokalee — has captured national attention. AgMart discontinued the use of five pesticides, but, unfortunately, methyl bromide was not one of them. And 3) FWAF is beginning a project to once again do air-monitoring tests on fields where methyl bromide is used. We are hoping this combination of factors will bring more traction to efforts to get better regulations in Florida.

I really appreciated the following thoughtful and insightful questions from Suzie Hodges’ third-grade class in El Cerrito, Calif. It gives me hope that there are young people who are thinking on these issues and caring about the injustices in our world. You are the ones to whom we must leave a legacy of justice and environmental integrity, and you are the ones who will help shape the future.

What is “piece rate”? How does that work?

Piece rate means that workers get paid according to how much they harvest in a day. For example, a worker in a citrus grove will be paid so much for every pound of oranges he or she picks, rather than being paid by the hour. There is a law now in Florida that says that farmworkers cannot earn less than the hourly minimum wage. However, there is a problem with labor contractors sometimes “shorting” the workers by not recording the correct amounts and taking the extra money for themselves.

Have you ever been treated unfairly?

Yes, in many instances. I saw how my family and my fellow workers were treated when we traveled with the crops. Whenever one of my brothers or sisters is treated unfairly, it is an act against myself. That is why I made the decision to devote my life to making changes, to fight the injustices.

How many hours a day do you work?

Sometimes I work 14, 16, 18 hours a day. I do what I have to do to get my work done. But it is never done; I get up the next day and do it again.

Do you like being a farmworker?

Yes, I very much like farmwork and have taken my children to the groves and fields so they can learn the work. I believe we make a wonderful contribution to the nation. Without farmworkers, you would not have food to eat.

What does working on a farm do to your body?

Farmwork can be very hard on a person’s body. On-the-job injuries are all too common; farmwork is one of the three most dangerous occupations in the country. Skin rashes are one of the most common problems experienced by farmworkers. Often this is the result of coming in contact with pesticides and fertilizers or from allergies to the plants themselves. Other common problems are respiratory in nature. Exposure to pesticides, dust, and other airborne particles can take a toll on workers. Arthritis, rheumatism, joint pain from the bending and stretching, and the overall strain on the body are also problematic for workers. In the long term, there can be diseases like cancer, diabetes, and heart trouble. In extreme cases, exposure to pesticides can result in birth defects.

Why is Cesar Chavez your environmental hero?

He was a humble man who never swerved in his dedication to the struggle for farmworkers. He was honest and believed in working for justice for farmworkers. He also tried, in union contracts, to negotiate to protect workers on the job.

Who are your other heroes?

I have many heroes. My father and mother are two of them. Also, Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi.

If the new law about immigration passes, what do you think will happen to our food supply?

That is a very good question. The immigration reform bills being debated in the U.S. Congress are of major concern to us right now. A large percentage of this country’s farmworkers are undocumented, and if they are all deported, there will be a desperate shortage of labor to work the farms and nurseries. Workers in this country without papers would be forced into ever more desperate situations, and hardships would increase drastically. Most employers are not supporting the ugly legislation that has been introduced by some members of Congress.

We are asking everyone who cares about people, about farmworkers, and about human rights and justice to call their senators and urge comprehensive immigration reform. This issue is most urgent. You can get more information from the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.