Lake Apopka, just north of Orlando, Florida, U.S.A., is the state’s most contaminated large lake. For over 50 years, the former marshlands on the north shore of the lake, that were drained and diked to expose the rich muck soil, were used for the agricultural production of vegetables, herbs, fruits and ornamental plants. Chemical pesticides and fertilizers were regularly used on the fields using intensive conventional agricultural production practices and in a cycle of periodic draining and flooding of the farm fields that resulted in nutrients and pesticides flowing from the land to the lake and back. A spill of DDT in 1979 at a pesticide mixing and distribution company on the south shore of the lake led to the contaminated site being designated an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Superfund site. DDT and other pesticides from the site eventually filtered into lake waters.
University of Florida researcher Dr. Louis Guillette conducted alligator studies on Lake Apopka from the mid-1980s, at which time he discovered reproductive anomalies in the alligators that he eventually attributed to organochlorine pesticide contamination related to the agricultural pesticides from the north shore farms.
The decline of the lake’s quality due to eutrophication from phosphorus run-off from the farms led to the state of Florida buying out the farms and shutting them down on May 31 1998. That winter, for the first time in over 50 years, the farms were flooded during fall/winter bird migration. This attracted tens of thousands of water birds, which also led to one of the worst bird mortality incidents in the history of the U.S. After two years of study, the cause of the bird deaths was linked to exposure to organochlorine pesticide residue in the fish consumed by the birds on the flooded north shore farm land. Millions of tax-payer dollars were spent to buy out the farms, to study the alligators and to investigate the bird deaths.
To this day, virtually no money has been allocated to study the effects of chronic exposure to these same pesticides on the health of the African American, Haitian and Hispanic farmworkers that worked on the farmlands for decades and even for generations – including children and pregnant women in the fields, and including those who worked in the fields before any worker protection standards existed.
The political, economic and cultural context for this is that farmworkers in the U.S. are living the legacy of slavery. Agriculture is an industry dependent on a cheap, exploitable labour force, in which a politically powerless, racial minority, exploitable and abused workforce is the backbone of the means of production that enriches others while keeping a segment of society oppressed.
Working with allies and led by Pesticide Action Network, the Farmworker Association of Florida (FWAF) – one of six U.S.-based La Vía Campesina (LVC) member organizations – and the former Lake Apopka farmworkers were included in a case that was brought before the international Permanent Peoples Tribunal that looked at human rights violations related to involuntary exposure and tragic impacts of toxic pesticides. Some 13-15 farms of varying size were where the farmworkers on Lake Apopka worked, but the case that was brought before the Permanent Peoples Tribunal was against the Big Six pesticide companies that manufactured the pesticides that were used on the farms.
There was virtually no media coverage – except for blogs within the organizations participating – in the U.S., but there was international coverage of the PPT, especially in India, where the Tribunal was held.
The former Lake Apopka farmworkers continue to speak out – although, since the time of the PPT, many have died, including two members of the key leadership group in Apopka. They created two Lake Apopka Farmworker Memorial Quilts that have been on exhibit in various locations in Central Florida over the last 6-7 years. And, their voices have been captured by author Dale Slongwhite in the book Fed Up: The High Cost of Cheap Food, which is based on oral history interviews the author did with the former farmworkers. In addition, the former Lake Apopka farmworkers often speak to student, church, civic and other groups on panels and in hosting Lake Apopka Toxic Tours as part of FWAF.
FARMWORKERS ARE MOST AFFECTED
The Lake Apopka farmworkers’ – the men, women and children who worked and played in the fields on Lake Apopka – human right to health, to a safe environment, to livelihood and to life itself were violated by the use of persistent organic pollutants in the form of agricultural organochlorine and other pesticides that bioaccumulate up the food chain, that are persistent in the soil and in fatty tissue in the body.
The former farmworkers have been struggling for close to 20 years for validation of their lives and work and the impacts exposure to the pesticides has had on their health. They have been struggling for health care, especially access to specialists to address the many complicated and chronic health issues they are facing. They are struggling for health care for their children, who are experiencing health and developmental problems that many believe are related to the pesticide exposure of their parents. They were struggling for compensation, however, so many of the community members have died since they first organized, with FWAF, to have their voices heard, that now health care is their main concern. An estimated 3000 farmworkers were working on Lake Apopka farms when the farms closed in 1998. However, thousands more had worked on the lake farmlands over the 50 + years of the history of the Lake Apopka farms. Including these farmworkers and impacted family members, the numbers could be 100,000 people or more who were affected.
While the Lake Apopka case is specific in that the farmworkers worked almost year-round and year after year on the fields, and in that the alligator studies and bird deaths concluded the effects that pesticides had on wildlife and on the environment, farmworkers all over the country were and continue to be exposed to highly toxic chemicals, including pesticide mixtures and multiple pesticides that can have cumulative, synergistic and compounded effects on the health of the workers.
Many of the former Lake Apopka farmworkers have been involved in the work and have worked with FWAF since the beginning of the organization and more specifically since the closing of the farms on Lake Apopka.
PERPETRATORS – THE BIG SIX PESTICIDE COMPANIES
The case before the Permanent Peoples Tribunal was against the Big Six pesticide companies – BASF, Bayer, Dupont, Dow, Monsanto and Syngenta.
Communities from different communities in different continents around the globe brought their cases against these companies before the PPT. The struggle is/was directed by people in impacted communities around the globe who have been victims of the political and financial power of these transnational pesticide companies and who have had their health, livelihoods, and environments contaminated by the use of toxic chemicals that put company profits ahead of the rights of people and the environment. The power of the corporations has meant that seeking justice in the courts and state or national governments of their respective countries was unsuccessful, hence, the need to take their case before the PPT. In the United States, the Lake Apopka farmworker community’s health care concerns were ignored by local and state government until the mid-2000s. Two years in a row, a state senator, Senator Gary Siplin, included $500,000 in the state budget to go towards health care for the former Lake Apopka farmworkers. Even though the state legislature passed the measure, two years in a row, Florida’s Governor Rick Scott vetoed the line item in the budget and the following year, the senator lost his seat in the state legislature.
This article has been sourced from a report of La Via Campesina that was recently published, which featured a compilation of cases of violations of peasants’ rights. Click here for the full report