Environmental organizations lag behind the private sector on diversity

While corporations have made strides in more diverse recruiting, environmental groups still have a long way to travel to overcome their insider club culture

Email  |  Autumn Spanne  |  theguardian.com  |  Thursday 4 September 2014 09.47 EDT


Corporate diversity is still a problem within green industries – and leadership positions are the worst off. Photograph: Guillermo Arias/Xinhua Press/Corbis

Last month, a report on diversity by University of Michigan professor Dorceta Taylor blasted US environmental organizations for their lack of diversity. Taylor found that ethnic minorities comprised only 12% of employees in these organizations, and that their leadership was overwhelmingly white and male.

But what about the private sector?

“Corporations do understand that demographics matter,” Taylor says, while environmental organizations “really seem to believe they can just continue to focus on white, middle-class workers, culture and ways of thinking about the environment”.

Today, corporations like General Electric, Johnson & Johnson, Walmart and General Motors have found ways to make their sustainability programs more inclusive. Some companies have sheerly pragmatic reasons for pairing sustainability and diversity: it’s good for their bottom line and creates the perception – accurate or not – that their brand is committed to inclusive, environmentally friendly practices.

Others are driven by more ideological concerns, including organizational missions that place a high value on environmental stewardship and social equity.

“Some companies are connecting the dots between their environmental initiatives, community wellbeing and social justice,” says Ed Quevedo, who teaches socially responsible business at Mills College in Oakland and works as an associate at Reos, a consulting firm specializing in human rights and sustainability.

Bottom up and top down

Some leading corporations have created a pipeline for recruiting diverse candidates into sustainability-oriented roles within their companies. On college campuses, for example, corporate recruiters seek out the best students, whereas environmental organizations tend to wait for the stars to come to them.

The latter doesn’t work, Taylor says. In her own academic department, the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment, students can concurrently earn a master’s degree in environmental science and an MBA. When they arrive in the fall, they are swiftly recruited and then mentored by companies that offer them internships. The internships often turn into permanent jobs after graduation.

Students who intern with environmental organizations, on the other hand, are less likely to be hired after an internship, which means they have to start their job search all over again. Taylor believes this is not just a question of resources, but of priorities. Environmental groups have failed to effectively reach and retain candidates that don’t fit a certain mold, she says, while corporations tend be better at “creating a structure” around new employees to support their development.

“With environmental organizations”, Taylor says, “there is so much insider culture you have to break through … it makes it challenging for anyone who is not a member of that club”.

Kellie McElhaney, faculty director of the Center for Responsible Businessat the University of California at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, believes many companies also suffer from this legacy of exclusivity around environmental sustainability.

“There is a perspective that corporate responsibility and sustainability are a luxury of the highly affluent and highly educated,” McElhaney says.

One way to begin changing this is to ensure that diversity is present and visible at the top, too. McElhaney says: “The leadership ranks are where diversity is doing least well, and that leads back to the concept of ‘you can’t be what you can’t see.’”

The same goes for board representation. Quevedo points to the success of Symantec, a Silicon Valley technology company that made a concerted effort to diversify their board and bring women and representatives from the LGBTQ community into a business landscape that tends to be dominated by white and Asian men. These kinds of efforts pay off, he says, because the board sets the tone for the entire company.

Quevedo also noted a new trend in corporate philanthropy: supporting programs that expose low-income, minority and female high school students to opportunities in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or Stem programs. Money that might have gone to traditional “green” activities like creek clean-up days or planting trees is now invested in the next generation of employees.

Beyond tokenism

Marcelo Bonta, executive director of the Center for Diversity and the Environment, thinks companies must also consciously foster an organizational culture that provides professional development and makes people want to stay. That includes strong mentoring programs and thoughtful programs to help employees avoid implicit biases that might further marginalize underrepresented groups.

Bonta started the Center for Diversity and the Environment following his own experience as one of the only minority employees at a leading environmental organization. He says his ideas would be routinely ignored or overlooked – until they were endorsed by a white colleague.

“As a young person of color just out of graduate school, I had the latest knowledge around biodiversity, conservation and planning,” Bonta says. “[But] whenever I would say something, it would never get implemented until the second-in-command would repeat the same thing, and he’d get credit for it.”

Diversity has to be more than skin deep, Taylor cautions. There must be a genuine commitment to making the company’s environmental goals inclusive and responsive to the needs of employees, consumers and the communities directly affected by its operations.

Plenty of companies have sent black and brown and female representatives into low-income communities of color, for example, in order to gain approval for an environmentally questionable project.

But if a company genuinely commits to creating space for diverse voices to be part of the decision-making process, they are more likely to find a solution that works for everyone. It can work, Taylor says, if a company is open to people inside its own organization pushing for change, even if it conflicts with long-held, entrenched beliefs.

Autumn Spanne is an independent journalist who writes about climate change, sustainability, human rights and environmental health.

get article here.

Crisis in the Valley of Riches

From Community Alliance, Fresno, CA (http://fresnoalliance.com/wordpress/?p=9763)

By Stan Santos

This is one of the farm labor camps in Firebaugh. Photo by Stan Santos

In the Central Valley, the “water crisis” has been the focus of increasing debate and calls for action. It is a historic problem dating back generations, and an unfolding drama full of falsehoods and truths, villains and heroes, land barons and, of course, water wars. One consistent reality for farmworker families is that regardless of the outcome, they continue to be exploited and live in poverty.

According to the San Jose Mercury News, “The Central Valley, home to the world’s largest swath of ultra-fertile Class 1 soil, is the backbone of California’s $36.9 billion a year, high-tech agricultural industry. Its 6.3 million acres of farmland produce more 350 crops, from fruits and vegetables to nuts and cotton, representing 25% of the food on the nation’s table” (“California Drought,” March 29, 2014).

In 1933, the Central Valley Project was designed to move water from where it is abundant to where it is needed. The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta channels water from the Sierra Nevada, the Coastal Ranges and high volcanic plateaus. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the Delta has 40% of the land area of California and 50% of the total stream flow. It irrigates 5 million acres of crops, provides water to two-thirds of California’s population and is a source of hydroelectric power.

Water Turns to Gold

Public investment in massive water projects and modern technology combine to produce profit. But many products for national and international consumption still rely on the calloused hands and bent backs of farmworkers. And there is continuing tension between competing corporate interests and the needs of some of the poorest communities in the United States.

Behind the wealth and natural beauty of the Valley landscape there are thousands of dilapidated houses and trailers surrounding towns like Delano, McFarland, Huron, Mendota and Firebaugh. For farmworker families, the valley of riches is the valley of their poverty. These communities live in the most extreme poverty that can be found in the nation.

According to the 2012 Census, Fresno, Modesto and Bakersfield-Delano represent three of the five regions in the United States with the highest numbers of poor, with Fresno placing first. For Huron and Mendota, two of the hardest-hit communities, Census data placed the per capita income in 2012 at $8,026 and $8,947, respectively. McFarland’s per capita income was $8,992. In drought years, unemployment can surge to 50%. One in four children lives in poverty.

In the third year of the worst drought in its history, data cannot capture the level of suffering and its effects on Valley communities. What is clear is that during good times and economic downturns, Ag has profited while farmworker families have gotten poorer. As the recession was tapering in 2009, unemployment in Merced County was 22% and water was being rationed; agricultural revenues were the third highest in history.

Drought Impacts

On May 19, 2014, the California Department of Food and Agriculture published the Preliminary 2014 Drought Impact Estimates in Central Valley Agriculture, which points to disproportionate effects.

While water deliveries were reduced by 32.5%, or 6.5 million acre-feet, they were offset by 5 million acre-feet of groundwater pumping, leaving a shortage of only 7.5%, or 1.5 million acre feet.

Crop revenue loss in a $25 billion market will amount to only 3%, or $740 million.

Most of the economic effects and job losses are borne by the San Joaquin Valley (Fresno) and Tulare Lake basin, with a multiplier effect on economic activity.

Of 152,000 jobs directly involved in crop production, there was a loss of 4.2%, or 6,400 jobs.

Including indirect job losses, the total persons affected were 14,500.

Again, in bad times, Ag interests suffer less than the workers and the poor communities that provide their labor.

Some Actors in the Central Valley

According to the San Jose Mercury News, the following represents a few actors in the Ag industry:

  • J.C. Boswell Farms—founded in 1927 by the man once known as the “King of California”; recently drilled five wells to a depth of 2,500 feet, providing a huge advantage over their neighbors in access to water.
  • Paramount Farms—the largest almond grower in the world; recently converted 15,000 acres in Madera County to almond orchards.
  • John Hancock Agricultural Investment Group (HAIG)—in 2010 bought the 12,000-acre Triangle T Ranch in Los Banos, known for prize-winning Hereford beef cattle, cotton and alfalfa. HAIG, with headquarters in Boston, manages investments in several states, Canada and Australia, emphasizing the globalization of the Ag industry; converted the lands of the Triangle T Ranch to almond orchards
  • Trinitas Partners—a Silicon Valley investment corporation that is converting 6,500 acres of pasture land in Stanislaus to almond orchards

Why Almonds?

California produces 60% of the global supply of almonds. Investors in pursuit of profits have accelerated the conversion of crop fields to nuts, with almonds increasing 20,000–30,000 acres each year. According to the Almond Board of California, 71% of almonds are for export to China, India and other countries. A University of California Cooperative Extension adviser estimated profits from one acre of almonds at $3,510 per year—much lower than fruits and vegetables.

In regard to water consumption, it takes more than a gallon to produce each almond and three quarters of a gallon per pistachio compared to grapes, which consume a third of a gallon, and strawberries, which consume less than half of a gallon. That adds up to an average 1.3 million gallons of water per acre of almonds.

A Diversified Economy

What is also underreported is the analysis that Valley poverty is a structural problem due in large part to the lack of a diversified economy. There are not enough jobs outside of the agricultural sector, and work in the fields provides low incomes, with the exception of management. In fact, the vision for the Central Valley Project was for smaller-scale farms and diversified economies rather than total dependence on agriculture, much less huge expanses dominated by mono or singular crops for export.

According to the conservative American Farmland Trust, “Many leaders believe the key to improving the livability of the Valley is to diversify its economy, so that it isn’t as dependent on a single industry: agriculture.” It goes on to acknowledge, “No doubt, that is the direction in which the Central Valley is headed, and probably for the better.” It makes clear that future generations will prosper when they end their codependent relationship with the Ag industry.

A “Grass Roots” Movement

The California Latino Water Coalition was launched in 2007 with well-known personalities, including comedian Paul Rodríguez and Orange Cove Mayor Victor Lopez. A 2009 report by the Sacramento-based Capital Weekly found the Coalition was registered as a nonprofit organization with the Secretary of State by the influential lobbyist George Soares. His extensive list of clients included the California Rice Commission, the California Cotton Ginners and Growers Associations, the Friant Water Authority, the Nisei Farmers League and the Grape and Tree Fruit League. In the first half of 2009, as the Coalition was taking off, Soares was paid $580,000.

The Coalition organized various marches and demonstrations, the largest on July 1, 2009, with an estimated 4,000 farmers and farmworkers. Aside from targeting endangered species, they are demanding taxpayer dollars for more cheap water for Ag, although it will come at a steep price for future generations.

Farmworker movement leader Dolores Huerta said that the California Latino Water Coalition is a front group representing Ag interests. The New York Times published a report that the “activists” were paid by their bosses. In one interview, Arturo Rodriguez, United Farm Workers president, said, “In reality, this is not a farmworker march. This is a farmer march orchestrated and financed by growers.”

In 2014, the crowds mobilized by the California Latino Water Coalition had shrunk. On March 26, the Fresno Beereported about 1,000 people turned out for a water rally held in Tulare. Nonetheless, in November, the efforts of the Ag industry and their collaborators to change the water map of California are poised to win a big victory. Voters will decide on the investment of $11 billion in infrastructure, which includes canals, tunnels, pumps and the restoration of areas that have suffered environmental damage. Many believe those areas can never be restored.

It is unknown whether this story will end for the good or ill of future generations. What is certain is that there is no legislative remedy that can make the precious liquid fall from the sky and you cannot store and distribute what you do not have. And the conditions of marginalized communities and farmworker families who have lived in constant poverty while they produced riches with their hands will likely remain as they have always been. Hopefully, one day they will enjoy a life with justice and dignity or their children will escape the valley of their poverty.


Stan Santos is an activist in the labor and immigrant community. Contact him at ssantos@cwa9408.org.

Let Valley’s green revolution begin


Fresno May 7, 2014 Updated 15 hours ago

We are familiar with many of poverty’s trappings in the San Joaquin Valley’s rural towns: inadequate health care, disappointing schools, pollution and a lack of good job opportunities.

Transportation poverty doesn’t come up nearly as often, but it’s real, and it’s suppressing the progress of many families.

My own hometown of Huron, a nearly 100% Latino farmworker community, is the poorest city in the state. Unemployment is always in the double digits, and represents a larger percentage than any industry’s employment numbers in the area. Officially, 30% of residents are out of work — that’s more than double the Fresno County average, itself among the highest rates in the nation. The true number of workers seeking a living-wage career, at least, is higher still.

Behind unemployment, Huron’s second-place industry is migrant farm work. In harvest season, our population grows from 6,700 to more than 15,000, at least when things are good. Today, it is evident that only by diversifying our local economy can we make it more sustainable.

Air pollution feels like an intractable problem here, too, and plays a leading role in our high rates of respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses. Pollution from vehicles is the main source of the problem.

When people in Huron do find work, it can be a three-hour drive to get there. People pile into someone’s old, carbon monoxide-spewing car or take one of the slow diesel buses. When you add in all the farm equipment nearby and ancient diesel trucks that belch out clouds of black fumes in Huron, it’s not surprising that our poor air quality results in so many health problems for people.

Meanwhile, in what feels like a million miles away, we hear that a clean vehicle revolution is underway in other parts of California. “Other” is, unfortunately, a familiar term in our community, where we are always the “other” that puts in the sacrifice but never cashes in on the rewards.

California already accounts for more than one-third of electric vehicles sold nationwide. Electric-drive buses are taking hold in many places. Even electric trucks are coming to market and are replacing dirty diesel models.

Yet, evidence of an electric revolution is almost undetectable in Fresno County — and practically unthinkable to the campesinos in my town.

While the coastal cities of the Bay Area and Los Angeles are enjoying the benefits of clean, zero-emission vehicles, it’s a very different story for us. A gallon of gas is more expensive in Huron than in Fresno, and we also pay the highest price when it comes to our health.

Don’t we deserve clean air and clean vehicles, too?

If there’s any good news, it’s that there are ambitious changes underway to improve these scenarios.

Gov. Jerry Brown has set his sights on electric vehicles, and lawmakers have introduced a plan to ensure that low-income communities and people of color who suffer the greatest consequences of vehicle pollution are full participants in California’s electric future.

The governor’s 2014-15 budget directs $200 million raised from polluting industries through the state’s successful cap-and-trade program to fund electric transportation initiatives, and prioritizes funding in low-income and disadvantaged communities.

And the Valley is likely to see millions more to support clean projects in the years ahead, when polluting oil refineries are added to the program, starting next year. The Hurons of our region will benefit immensely, as will areas such as the west and southwest of the city of Fresno.

The Charge Ahead California Initiative (SB 1275), proposed by Sen. Kevin De León, commits the state to a goal of 1 million electric cars, trucks, and buses on the state’s roads by 2023. The bill builds on existing state rebates to offset the cost of an electric car and re-targets the program to serve low-income and moderate-income Californians.

To invest further in electric vehicles, SB 1275 provides funding for ridesharing programs in low-income communities, an important means of transportation for farmworkers and their families. And it provides additional incentives, making it easier for owners of heavily polluting cars to retire them or replace them with clean ones.

Transitioning roads in Fresno County to make electric vehicles more common will not solve all the challenges of living in a small, poor, rural town, but it will definitely clean the air and improve our health.

The next step is getting the green economy and renewable technologies industry into the Valley, to provide green jobs. This is the other piece of the puzzle to enable low-income communities of color to be participants in an exciting and growing sector of California’s green economy.

Let it begin, for environmental, economic and transportation justice!

Rey León was born and raised in Fresno County. He is the founder and executive director of ValleyLEAP, an environmental and social justice organization serving communities throughout the San Joaquin Valley.
Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2014/05/07/3915173/let-valleys-green-revolution-beginthe.html?sp=/99/274/#storylink=cpy

The Central Valley Was Ride-Sharing Long Before Uber

On the Bus, My Hometown Is Hours Away From Schools, Hospitals, and Good Jobs. Carpooling Is a Way of Life Here.


Public transportation is a huge challenge in Huron, the city of about 7,000 people in California’s Central Valley where I grew up. If you need to make the 110-mile round trip bus trip to Fresno to go to the doctor’s office, courthouse, pharmacy, or grocery store, prepare for a long and time-consuming journey. The rural bus system is slow, infrequent, and all but useless.

My cousin, a farmworker, was in a car accident when I was a kid. To visit him on his deathbed at the nearest hospital, my mother and I got on the bus in Huron. Three hours—and 13 or 14 stops later—we arrived in Fresno. In that time, we could have driven to Los Angeles, 192 miles away, with a pit stop at a burger place. Decades later, that bus ride still takes more than five hours round trip. There is only one bus to Fresno per day; it leaves Huron at 8:30 a.m. and arrives at 11 a.m., and then leaves Fresno at 3 p.m. to arrive back in Huron at 5:30 p.m. People who make that trip spend more time on the bus than they do running errands and attending appointments.

That bus ride is one of the reasons why, in 2008, I founded the San Joaquin Valley Latino Environmental Advancement Project (Valley LEAP), an environmental justice nonprofit that seeks to improve life in my hometown and others like it. The length of the bus ride is a powerful physical and psychological barrier for this farmworker city, which has one of the highest poverty rates (46 percent) in the state. There might as well be a wall between Huron and the world’s opportunities. It’s a struggle for Huron students just to get to the regional high school, which is 20 miles away and takes two hours round trip by bus. Students from Huron begin the school day an hour earlier and end it an hour later, which takes a toll on student achievement. To further one’s education in far-off Fresno or UC Merced is almost unthinkable.

Owning a car is tremendously expensive: the typical cost of gas and maintenance is usually between $400 and $600. For some farmworkers, who often make $1,200 a month, that’s as much as half their income. And we’re not the only town in the Valley where owning a car is a necessity. A forthcoming multi-community study by UC Davis researchers Jonathan London and Alex Karner found that a 45-minute commute by car gave Valley workers access to nearly 90 times more blue-collar, health, retail, and service jobs than a 45-minute commute by bus. Ninety times!

How do people get by? They collaborate. Last year, Eddy Reyes, one our fellows at LEAP, worked with scholars at UC Merced and UC Davis to survey 28 farmworkers in Huron, Hanford, and Fresno to learn how much money they spend on their cars. He discovered that half of them carpool to work—or to put it another way, they leverage their social capital for economic mobility. In this survey, Reyes uncovered an entire informal transportation system that is virtually invisible to outsiders and policymakers in Sacramento. One feature of this system is theraiteros—retired farmworkers who have the trust and respect of people in Huron and provide informal transportation to get people to hospitals, courts, and other critical appointments in Fresno for a cheap rate.

Ride-sharing works in Huron because in this diverse society of migrants, there is a long tradition of social ties that intertwine generations. For example, when my father, a bracero, brought my mother to Huron from Michoacán, she was immediately adopted by an older person in the neighborhood and mentored on adapting to her new American reality. Today elders will often provide rides to recently settled migrant farmworker families who are new to Huron and unfamiliar with the public transportation system. They also provide a tremendous service for people who don’t know how to drive or who lack a car or driver’s license.

We in Huron should be proud of this system, but there’s more we can do to improve transportation and open up access and opportunities to the people here. A Caltrans-funded planning process that resulted in a report by Valley LEAP, the City of Huron, and the local government commission recommended strategies to improve safety for pedestrians and cyclists—like widening sidewalks and creating bike lanes—and to improve the local public transportation system by adding benches, maps, and schedules at Huron bus stops.

There are other ideas as well. At Valley LEAP, we want to see the city’s raiteros go “green” by making the city of Huron’s two rarely used hybrid cars available to them. With careful scheduling, raiteros could earn an income and spend less on gas by, for example, taking a family to a child’s asthma appointment at the Central California Children’s Hospital in Madera County. This plan could also save money for Fresno County, which pays for expensive taxi rides for the elderly with Fresno County’s Measure C funds. Making ride-sharing green would lower transportation costs and lessen pollution impacts for both families and the city government.

We’d also like to figure out how to use community-based vans instead of cars so raiteros can shuttle more people to jobs and appointments, and so there will be fewer vehicles on the roads. Vanpooling cuts greenhouse gas emissions for travel by 77 percent—even more than riding some buses and trains.

California Vanpool Authority—or Cal Vans—already does some of this work, getting students to school, workers to farms, and correctional officers to prisons in the Central Valley. Unfortunately, Cal Vans is only available to seasonal users who ride five to seven days a week. We’d like to see the Cal Vans program make some exceptions to this rule so that a portion of their vans can be used based on need rather than on a set schedule.

California is always ahead of the game when it comes to technology and innovation. It’s time to embrace the Valley’s social innovation and stimulate a fluid system to connect our orchards, crops, neighborhoods, downtowns, and more than 20 educational institutions. In ads and labels, organic is sexy, sustainability is hot, and green is slapped on everything (green or not). What we really need is for the workers behind those labels—the people who grow and pick the nation’s produce—to have greener rides, greener pockets, and a harvest of opportunities, too.

Rey León is a UC Berkeley alum, Valley native, and founder and executive director of Valley LEAP, a Latino, Valley-based environmental and climate justice organization. @LATINOENVIRO
This essay is supported by a grant from the Sierra Health Foundation.


Driving Out of the Red with Greener Cars

Policies for Cheaper, Cleaner Auto Transportation in California’s Central Valley
By Lisa Margonelli

March 24, 2014 | New America Foundation

Income inequality in California is already high, and it continues to increase. This income inequality is exacerbated by unequal access to jobs, credit, and efficient vehicles. Wages in California’s Central Valley are lower than in the rest of the state, and workers there must commute long distances, with little access to alternative transportation, in older, inefficient cars. As a result, some working families in the Central Valley spend as much as a third to half of their income on fueling and maintaining their vehicle. Some lower-income neighborhoods also suffer from very high levels of tailpipe exhaust from cars that have become unregistered. This new white paper contains on-the-ground reporting, a new survey of farmworkers, and empirical analysis of the burden of transportation costs on Valley families. Amidst the bad news, the report also discovered that the Central Valley is a hotspot for transit innovation: Valley workers have used their social networks to carpool and vanpool at a higher rate than the rest of the state.

This white paper builds a case for “double green” vehicle policies that work to reduce smog and carbon emissions while saving households money. The passage of Senate Bill 459 started a statewide conversation about how to use millions in state vehicle scrap-and-replace funds to better reach middle and lower income households. Building on that premise, the second half of this report looks at policy options that would reduce families’ costs, reduce pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, and give workers more choices. A range of national and state programs have successfully made auto loans to lower income households, and this report suggest how the state of California might leverage state tools such as loan loss replacement funds, state low-cost insurance, and scrap and replacement funds to create a sustainable auto loan program. Done well, such a loan program could be expanded to middle class households and advanced vehicles in the future. In addition, the state should work to maintain and expand the use of carpools and van pools in the Valley so that rural families have convenient low-cost and low carbon transportation choices.

Making policies more equitable is key to making them more effective. In California, as elsewhere, policies have awarded rebates and tax breaks to early adopters of hybrid and electric vehicles, even though they tend to have incomes well above $100,000 a year. Another sector of policies raises prices to change behavior. Lower income families, who cannot access credit on fair terms, are left paying higher costs without being able to get electric vehicles or rebates. Yet, they are already changing their behavior–many save on education, medicine, and food to afford their commute. Not only are these policies unfair, they also undercut the effectiveness of millions the state is spending on rebates for electric vehicles. A single 1984 vehicle emits more than 70 times as much tailpipe pollution as a 2012 conventional vehicle, effectively negating rebates for that number of electric cars. To reach its high environmental goals, the state must find ways to partner with working families to reduce their costs while making California greener.

Click here to read the full paper

Witness to Courageous Indignation

Arcela Nunez-Alvarez
Founder and Executive Director at Transnational Communities Corporation (TCC)
Witness to Courageous Indignation
March 9, 2014
By Arcela Nuñez-Alvarez

Over 8,577 farmworkers live in the community of Mecca, California. They include men who work from sunrise to sunset under scorching sun to satisfy America’s hunger for fresh fruits and vegetables; women work alongside the men in the fields while caring for their family’s every need at all times; children who go to school, laugh and play with contagious energy like all children do. What’s different about this farmworker community; however, is that every breath of fresh air they inhale, every drop of fresh clean water that quenches their thirst, every bite they take into a crunchy juicy apple, and every step they take as they walk along ancient dirt roads lined with palms is only a mirage.

The community faces serious socio-economic and environmental issues including air pollution, arsenic in local water, unemployment, low educational attainment, few afterschool programs and activities for youth, limited access to professional development and training opportunities for adults, limited access to technology, and limited access to healthy food.

Unity has real meaning here because people know each other. Their lives are familiar and intertwined. Good news travel quickly and bad news even faster. The majority of adults traveled from distant and faraway lands in search of work and a better future at some point in the last century. Ninety-nine percent (99%) of the population migrated from Latin America, Mexico specifically. Over time, they planted themselves in this land where the success of agriculture in the desert became an admirable scientific miracle for the crops that abound as well as for the strength and resilience of the people who work the land and are now deeply rooted in this community. Today, ninety-two percent (92%) of the population speaks Spanish. Over seventy percent (70%) of the population has less than a high school education and forty-nine (49%) of the population lives below the poverty level with a median household income of $26,592.

Nonetheless, they wake up every morning with the vision of a life, like the rest of us, in which sacrifice gives way to fulfilled dreams and plentiful opportunities. They eat, love, play, pray and die like the rest of America. They believe in democracy and understand it through their children’s pledge of allegiance. They are faithful believers of the American Dream. “Our children are citizens,” a community member pointed out, “and they deserve to be treated like Americans.”

They go to local and state representatives seeking support to help them improve access to basic infrastructure and services such as electricity, safe drinking water, drainage and pavement. However, their pleas for help go unheard time and time again. Everyone around them seems to be deaf and blind to what is happening to them and their children. Some of the community leaders are facing eviction and other forms of intimidation yet they remain strong and unafraid. When they should be bitter and outraged, they speak passionately and poetically about human rights and the wrongs perpetrated against the community. When they should be aggressive and skeptical, they talk about respect and dignity. When they should be greedy and protective of what they have, they willingly share their bottled water and food with others. When they should be exhausted from working so hard, they volunteer more. Action by action, they demonstrate what it means to be a caring person and collectively embody courageous indignation.

Trans-Pacific Partnership | A Trojan horse for corporate control of agriculture

Devon G. Peña | Seattle, WA | January 29, 2014

A lot of damage can be done with just a few words. In no other context is this as true as the case of so-called free trade agreements. I believe these should be renamed “Free [to exploit] trade treaties”.  The case against free trade treaties can be made through a quick critical analysis of the patenting regime outlined in the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) treaty, which I view as a Trojan horse of neoliberal designs for corporate capitalist control of food and agriculture.

The November 2013 documents related to the secretive TPP dumped by Wikileaks have been by now thoroughly analyzed.[i] One of the principal concerns to emerge has to do with the extension of the enclosure of our biological and cultural commons through a patenting regime that, following the dictates of US law, turns everything into a patentable commodity including plant and animal biological materials and processes.

This is a cause for great concern and as a farmer, seed saver, and plant breeder I find a lot to object to in the rules outlined in Section E: Patents/Undisclosed Test or Other Data/Traditional Knowledge (pp. 28ff). United States negotiators and their corporate overseers are trying to extend the U.S. patenting and intellectual property rights regime through this “investor-state” treaty. There are several troubling items in §E involving language proposed by the USA. For example, under “Article QQ.E.1 {Patents\Patentable Subject matter}”, the USA proposes, in paragraph 1 that:

…each Party shall make patents available for any invention, whether a product or process, in all fields of technology, provided that the invention is new, involves an inventive step, and is capable of industrial application. The Parties confirm that: (a) patents shall be available for any new uses or methods of using a known product…

Under paragraph 3, the USA – opposed by several other countries including New Zealand, Malaysia, Australia, and Mexico – further proposes that:

…each Party shall make patents available for inventions for the following (a) plants and animals; b) diagnostic, therapeutic, and surgical methods for the treatment of humans or animals…and (c) essentially biological processes for the production of plants or animals, other than non-biological and microbiological processes for such production. (p. 28)

A note at the bottom of this page notes that “For purposes of this [Section] Article, a Party may deem the terms “inventive step” and “capable of industrial application” to be synonymous with the terms “non-obvious” and “useful””. This establishes language taken right out of U.S. patent law and creates the slippery slope toward the patenting of life.

One group of countries has expressed opposition to the generalization of the standards imposed by US patent and intellectual property law. Specifically, New Zealand, Canada, Singapore, Chile, and Malaysia propose an alternative that states:

Each Party may also exclude from patentability

(a) diagnostic, therapeutic and surgical methods for the treatment of humans or animals; and plants and animals other than microorganisms, and essentially biological processes for the production of plants or animals other than non-biological and microbiological processes. However, Parties shall provide for the protection of plant varieties either by patents or by an effective sui generis system or by any combination thereof. (p. 29)

At the heart of the widening social movements against the TPP is the idea that large corporations should not control something as basic as our food. In the 1970s, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once said: “Control oil and you control nations.” Today, the same maxim can be modified to read: “Control food and you control the people.” The struggle for food sovereignty and indigenous autonomy lies at the heart of the widening opposition to the TPP.

An easily overlooked aspect of the TPP has to do with the burden of proof for dispute resolution procedures.  One recent legal analysis concludes that the TPP provisions on TRIPs (trade-related intellectual property laws) would shift the burden for bringing enforcement actions from private right holders to the public (Flynn et al 2012:196). This further seals the idea that the TPP, continuing the tradition initiated under NAFTA, is establishing yet another domain for the exercise of the sovereignty of corporations as parties of regulation unto themselves.

Sources cited

Flynn, S. M. B. Baker, M. Kaminski, and J. Koo. 2012. The U.S. proposal for an intellectual property chapter in the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement.  American University International Law Review 28:1:105-202.

Devon G. Peña, Ph.D. is Founder and President of The Acequia Institute and a newly elected member of the Board of Directors of the Institute for Food and Development Policy/Food First. He is a professor of anthropology, ethnic studies, and environmental studies at the University of Washington.

[i] Some recent critical analysis of the TPP include the work done by Public Citizen at its website, https://www.citizen.org/TPP.

Join the Inter-Continental Day of Action Against TPP
January 31st 2014, 4:30 PM
SF Federal Building
90 Seventh Street San Francisco