Migrant Farm Workers & Climate Change

(Updated March 2014 by D. Cortez)

Climate Disruption is
Impacting Migrant Farm Workers

By Osvaldo Lopez – Edinburg, Texas


Sierra Club Lower Rio Grande Valley Regional Group

Political Science student at UT-Pan American

The rhythm of the crunching dry soil slowed and eventually came to a halt with a big crash.

The girl’s uncle heard and crossed through three rows of corn stalks to find her motionless body lying there, face-up. It was a calm, still day, but panic surged through air and into the workers as the girl’s uncle cried for help.

At the sound of his desperate voice, several workers began rushing and swatting through the plants only to find the uncle holding the girl up on his knees. Every worker took a limb, and they carried her body out of the cornfield.

Finally away from the stalks, workers swayed their sombreros across her face hoping she would regain consciousness. Her closed eyes and her head hanging with no support instilled fear in her uncle and everyone around her.

That morning she went to the field calm, sleepy, and ready to work. She left unconscious as dozens of fellow workers listened to the fading sounds of wailing sirens.

Data collected from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates that heat-related deaths and fainting among migrant farm workers may be increasing.

I have been a migrant farm worker for eight years. I first started when I was 11 years old. I remember working the fields and being able to finish what the company planned for the day. We began at six in the morning while the crops wore fog as a blanket, and we usually finished tired, sore, and hungry at around 4 or 5 p.m.

Now, the story is different. Hotter temperatures force my co-workers to quit by noon, many of them by 10 a.m., and it is my firm belief that this is a result of global climate disruption caused by increased greenhouse gas pollution.

osvaldo workersSome of my fellow workers stop performing their field work by choosing to avoid heat-related injury, while others who want to keep working to increase their take home pay fall victim to fainting, heat stroke, heat cramps, or heat exhaustion.

By noon everyone murmured “Esta muy caliente,” meaning it was too hot.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, field labor is ranked among the top three most dangerous occupations. The factors that make field labor dangerous are pesticides, pollen, cancer, and now intolerable heat.

The impacts of climate disruption on migrant farm workers and the farming economy couldn’t be clearer. It is what awaits us in the future that worries me. Who will be willing to risk their lives to tend the fields and make it possible for stores to fill their shelves? Who will make it easier for you to have produce on your plate at dinnertime? How can workers who depend on these operations expect to continue making a living?

We have bigger issues though. Rising temperatures also diminish the amount of produce farmers are able to harvest. With droughts, the dry soil isn’t fertile enough to sustain sufficient crops. According to the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development, prices for agricultural produce doubled from 2005 to 2007 due to drought.

Those most impacted by climate disruption – the poor – are only going to struggle more if we do not develop a plan to deal with our changing climate. With continuing droughts that affect production, the number of migrant workers in Hidalgo County living in poverty will only grow, making it difficult for Hidalgo County to prosper.

I have personally seen many workers faint. I have developed a fever with throbbing headaches while working in the fields in the summers of 2009 and 2010. I have felt the panic when trying to help a co-worker whose body no longer withstood the heat. The fields sometimes seemed like a battlefield where at times two people fainted at the same time.

Not everyone feels the effect of climate disruption as migrant field workers do. It’s hard to feel temperatures rising when the AC in your room or office is running all day. It’s hard to see a decrease in production when all your produce is acquired through your local grocery store.

The impact of climate disruption on the working poor is a clear-cut example of environmental racism and injustice. Just like those most impacted by the flooding up in Austin in 2013, migrant farm workers know firsthand the effects of our changing climate.

We need to change the path that we are on as a society. We need to stop living in the moment and switch to the mitigation lane and prepare for the future. In our current capitalist system, people tend to follow the same patterns they always have—to seek profit for their benefit only. This is unsustainable.

We are traveling down a dead end road, and there are not many exits left that we can take. From now on, let’s make brighter choices, and bold moves that will benefit us all.

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