Get me out of Disney World – Toxic Tour of Central Florida

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On Saturday 8th August I had the option to ‘get out of Disney World’ to go on a visit with the  Farmworkers Association of Florida http://www.floridafarmworkers.org The flyer for this session said:

The Farmworkers Association of Florida has a decades- long history of advocacy around damage caused by corporate farming including environmental poisoning, worker and community health and labor rights. Accompanied by staff and farm-worker members of the Association we went on a “Toxic Tour” to include some or all of the following: former farm lands, a Superfund site, a labor camp, Lake Apopka (one of the most toxic in the country), the community of South Apopka, (site of a landfill, medical waste incinerator and sewage treatment plant), and the Apopka family health clinic which provides services to the community.

So onto an air-conditioned bus in the Central Florida heat/humidity we got (about 50 Management scholars!) meeting activist campaigner Jeannie Economos (awesome lady http://www.psr.org/environment-and-health/environmental-health-policy-institute/jeannie-economos.html). She schooled us in a range of shocking facts that I think we all need to become aware of:

1. In America their are two classes of workers who are not protected under federal labor laws – Farm workers and Domestic workers

2. Farm workers, sometimes known as ‘guest’ workers not only have no labor protections, they inhabit a role in the economy that has been likened to ‘rent’ slavery http://www.splcenter.org/sites/default/files/legacy/pdf/static/SPLCguestworker.pdf

3. Farmworkers are paid by piece rate not by the hour – needing to pack at least 100 boxes of oranges a day to make rent and expenses. Workers climb a 22 foot ladder with a bag on their back and fill it up with oranges (weighing 80 pounds) – each bag they get paid 75/85c

4. Working conditions include the relentless Florida heat and humidity, storms, thunder, lightning, snakes, wasps, insects and no/limited toilet facilities. Eye and hand injuries are common but with no access to medial assistance these injuries are pushed aside as the workers continue to make their daily target.

We were accompanied on our visit by ex-farm workers, including Linda Lee, and met a family from Latin America who are current Farm workers as well. The personal stories of the physical impact not only of the hard work, the impact of the pesticides on workers and their health and the health of their children is a incredibly sad. We heard stories of workers whom had been sprayed directly with pesticides whilst pregnant resulting in deformities in their new baby once born, cancers, asthma, mental illness, hip replacements just to name a few first person reports we were so honoured to witness and hear.

The number of funerals in the Farm workers communities are disproportionate to the general population. Families are burying family members on a monthly, sometimes weekly basis. This reminds me so much of Indigenous communities in Australia whom also have to deal with a high morbidity rate in their communities and families. Incredibly sad.

We were shown a few quite shocking places:

1. Strawberry fields where pesticides are inserted underneath rows of plastic to cleanse the soil. One particulary sad story was of a young woman who was not educated about the pesticides and sat on the plastic to have a break, not knowing it had just been sprayed with pesticides. She developed major blisters from her buttocks down her legs and was in such pain she was taken to hospital and remained their for two weeks. The Farm owner had promised to pay the medical bills and that her job was still there for her upon her discharge. Upon discharge she was sacked and burdened with a $50k plus medical bill.

2. I had never heard of ‘Super Fund’ sites – last Saturday I saw one. It looked like any other industrial space, lots of barrels and sheds etc… A super fund site is a site declared under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA), a United States federal law designed to clean up sites contaminated with hazardous substances. The law authorized the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to identify parties responsible for contamination of sites and compel the parties to clean up the sites. Where responsible parties cannot be found, the Agency is authorized to clean up sites itself, using a special trust fund.

So these are the most toxic sites in America. The two most toxic sites in America are in Florida – made up of pesticides, mainly DDT, in barrels. There are reports that the pesticides are leaking into the artesian water table. Check out this clip from ‘Out of the Muck’ http://youtu.be/Y8Xb3I9O9NQ

3. Where do you think this Super Fund site is a kilometre or so from? Lake Apopka – we visited the waters edge of Lake Apopka (you do not want to put any part of your body in there) even though the local Chamber of Commerce generated ‘Friends of Lake Apopka’ encourage swimming, fishing, boating etc… The waters of Lake Apopka, the muddy bottom of the lake and the surrounding vegetation is highly influenced by the toxic pollution over the many generations of use of pesticides. Here’s an excerpt from the Farmworkers Association of Florida’s website on this area:

At the end of May, 1998, over 50 years of farming on Lake Apopka came to a halt forever. In the wake of the closing of the farms, close to 3000 farmworkers found themselves with no jobs to go back to, and those that had lived in the labor camps found themselves with no seasonal homes. In the winter of 1998-99, the former farmland was unseasonably flooded, attracting thousands of migrating water birds to the area and resulting in the largest Audubon Christmas Bird Count ever on the lake. However, the excitement was short-lived, when the birds began dying at alarming numbers. Eventually, the bird deaths, which totalled close to 1000, were linked to a very toxic pesticide, toxaphene, that had been banned decades previously. Hence, the farmworkers’ concerns shifted from jobs and housing to health and safety.

Farmworkers had been exposed for decades, even generations, to the same chemicals that killed the birds and that years before had been implicated in alligator reproductive problems and anomalies in Lake Apopka. The class of chemicals, known as organochlorine pesticides, are now known to be endocrine disrupters and persistent organic pollutants. Scientific studies are discovering the chronic human health impacts of these types of chemicals.

On returning to Disney’s Coronado Springs resort in shock, schooled about the human, environmental and economic realities of Central Florida. I felt completely upturned. Jeannie. Linda and the Farmworkers who shared their lives with us on the visit really educated me even more than anything i have learnt at the Academy of Management conference – they taught me about environmental justice – that the most environmentally toxic sites are inhabited by the poorest people on the planet. (And thanks to Sarah Stookey for organising the trip).ImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImage

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2 thoughts on “Get me out of Disney World – Toxic Tour of Central Florida

  1. Wow. This post makes me feel sick. What the hell is wrong with the world. What a great idea for a conference event. Oftentimes the organised day trips are something lovely, maybe a “natural wonder” of the city you’re visiting. Awesome use of the day – local activists sharing their stories, potentially getting their cause out to a global audience. Thank you for sharing this post.

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