In search of answers Agricultural workers say pesticide abuses are not reaching government officials


By Fe Aguilar

| Part of the series Our Future, produced in collaboration with the California Youth Media Network.

The Salinas Valley is a green ocean that flows for miles. Rows of lettuce seem to stretch endlessly, meeting the Gabilan and Santa Lucia mountains like a kiss after a long journey. The view during sunsets rivals any paradise, but this dreamlike landscape isn’t harmless. Like several counties in California, Monterey County growers use pesticides to produce billions of dollars worth of food that feeds the nation, and the chemicals in these pesticides are harmful to agricultural workers and consumers alike.

Many have discussed and written about the dangerous use of pesticides in Monterey County. But a new document is making serious claims about the lack of pesticide regulations enforcement against the state of California, the Department of Pesticide Regulation and county agricultural commissioners.

Several community organizations from throughout the state convened a “People’s Tribunal” in September in Lindsey, California, where over 100 agricultural workers spoke about irresponsible pesticide practices in numerous counties.

Their testimonies were compiled and analyzed in an “advisory opinion” that alleges that the Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) and certain county agricultural commissioners in the state are not receiving all reports of pesticide exposure, specifically from the Latino and Indigenous communities. The groups experience language and technological barriers due to a lack of accessible resources. The document alleges that neither the DPR nor the agricultural commissioners are thoroughly investigating all occurrences of public health hazards due to pesticide misuse. The implication is that the Latino and Indigenous populations are experiencing more harmful pesticide exposure than other communities that have access to better reporting.

The document contains testimony from several farmworkers who alleged intimidation and retaliation when attempting to report unlawful pesticide use or exposure. Farmworkers frequently brought up their experiences working in the fields, where potentially harmful pesticides were spread close by. The work did not stop and no one told them what was happening. They only realized pesticides were being sprayed when their eyes started to burn.

Some farmworkers said they were afraid to hug their kids after arriving home from work because they didn’t want to risk spreading carcinogen-laden chemicals to their loved ones.

Gregg Macey, Director of the Center for Land, Environment, and Natural Resources at UC Irvine School of Law said that hundreds of farmworkers’ testimony suggest inadequate conduct on the part of the DPR and several county agricultural commissioners of California. “DPR and CACs are responsible to implement and (enforce) the pesticide program in California. The roles and responsibilities are outlined in a Cooperative Agreement with EPA, the state’s Food and Agricultural code, and the Health and Safety Code. DPR provides oversight, guidance, review and approval to CACs and is responsible for the action and inaction of CACs,” said Macey in an interview with Voices.

The coalition from the People’s Tribunal also alleges that growers in California do not take responsibility for exposing potentially harmful chemicals to farmworkers and nearby neighborhoods, placing maximum profits above the livelihood and health of the public.

At a press conference on Feb. 15, three Watsonville High School youth — Rocío Ortiz, Jessica González and Ana Rivera — made statements that reflected their experience as both field workers and members of the agricultural community. 

“We shouldn’t even be here speaking. The problem that brings us here today could have been solved a long time ago,” Ortiz told the crowd, the sun shining brightly on her face. “¿Cómo es posible que pongan la salud de miles de personas en riesgo todos los días?” How is it possible to put the health of thousands of people at risk every day, she asked. 

The Watsonville High School youth are part of the Future Leaders of Change program from Safe Ag Safe Schools, which has been fighting for several years to achieve environmental justice in Monterey and Santa Cruz counties. 

Macey highlighted that long-term pesticide exposure can lead to various illnesses, and when Latino and Indigenous communities bear the brunt, the implications go far beyond environmental harm and into the realm of potential civil rights abuses.

The coalition of community organizations from the People’s Tribunal is seeking an investigation by the California Department of Justice of several agricultural commissioner offices, including Monterey County’s. The group also wants the state Legislature to formally demand the DPR to abide by civil rights law and ensure that certain communities aren’t experiencing more pesticide exposure than others.

Monterey County Agricultural Commissioner Juan Hidalgo told Voices several times that his office takes complaints related to pesticide exposure very seriously. “Certainly … we take the time to (look) into those issues to be able to find solutions … if there is one.”

Hidalgo said Monterey County is working on implementing reporting procedures that are more accessible to the Latino and Indigenous communities. His office hopes to work with community groups to distribute cards to agricultural workers that explain the process of submitting pesticide exposure reports. He added that the cards would have a number to call, and it would not be necessary to reveal one’s identity, to preserve the anonymity of any worker who may hesitate to call due to fear of workplace retaliation. 

In regards to language barriers, Hidalgo acknowledged, “That’s something we’re continually striving to improve,” and expressed a desire to collaborate with local community groups to make videos or announcements in various Indigenous languages to better inform workers about resources available to them for reporting. He added that he looks forward to implementing more inclusive and informative measures of reporting to all members of the Monterey County community, emphasizing that “people can feel free to call us any time.” 

In response to Hidalgo’s comments, Mark Weller, campaign director of Californians For Pesticide Reform, said, “We wish the ag commissioner would indeed take concerns ‘very seriously,’ but that has not been our experience.” 

Weller said that, when concerns were previously brought up to the commissioner about childhood cancer-causing pesticides used in mainly Latino and Indigenous farmworker communities, Hidalgo’s response was not coupled with action, just a statement that he had received their letters. 

Members of Californians for Pesticide Reform are encouraged that the commissioner is restart the card distribution program but said cards are insufficient if the cancerous pesticides continue to spread. Additionally, Weller said, according to farmworker testimony, workers’ identity is not always protected when making reports to the commissioner — if their calls are even answered.

During the Feb. 15 press conference, Watsonville student Ortiz read a poem called “Ponte En Mi Lugar (Put Yourself In My Place)”: 

Queremos un cambio ahora y no mañana. We want to change today and not tomorrow.” 

This story was produced by Voices of Monterey Bay and is part of a collaborative youth-driven project “Our Future” that includes content from Boyle Heights Beat, Coachella Unincorporated, The Contra Cosa Pulse, The kNOw,  Tower of YouthVoices of Monterey Bay, and YR Media

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About Young Voices

Young Voices Media Project teaches Monterey Bay area teens multimedia skills to report the news from their communities. This project was generously supported by the Clare Giannini Fund.