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From Farmworkers to Land Healers

By Brooke Anderson - Yes! Magazine, April 25, 2023

Immigrant and Indigenous farmworkers in California reclaim the power of their labor.

Sandra de Leon adds branches to a burn pile in Santa Rosa, CA on December 18, 2022. Photo by Brooke Anderson

On most days, Sandra de Leon prunes grapevines in Northern California’s wealthiest vineyards. But today she is dressed head to toe in a yellow fire-resistant suit, helmet, safety goggles, and gloves, carrying a machete and drip torch. She calls out over her crackling mobile radio, “Jefe de quema: aquí Bravo, informandoles que …” (“Burn chief: Bravo unit here, informing you that …”) and then rattles off data in Spanish on the number, size, duration, and temperature of a dozen or so burn piles she is monitoring on the sun-speckled forest floor. 

De Leon is one of 25 immigrant and Indigenous farmworkers gathered on a cold December morning in Sonoma County, California, for the first-in-the-country Spanish-language intentional-burn certification program. Like de Leon, each of these firefighters-(and firelighters!)-in-training has been haunted by fire. During a massive inferno in 2017, de Leon was one of many “essential workers” escorted by vineyard managers through mandatory evacuation zones to harvest grapes while breathing in toxic fumes from nearby blazes. 

“When we arrived at work, there were patrol cars because it was an evacuation zone, but they waved us through to harvest. The skies were red and heavy smoke was in the air. They didn’t give us any protective equipment. No masks,” de Leon says. “There was so much ash on the grapes that when you’d cut the grape, it would get on your face. Our faces were black.”

While she didn’t get sick, she says her co-workers struggled with asthma. De Leon recalls harvesting like this for eight hours and getting paid just $20 per hour. 

“They should have paid us more,” de Leon says. “We risked our lives for their profits.”

Today, however, de Leon and her fellow farmworkers are here to learn about “good fire”—a controlled burn land stewards use to reduce underbrush in overgrown forests to prevent the spread of more destructive wildfires. Thanks to North Bay Jobs With Justice, de Leon and her fellow farmworkers are (re-)learning skills many of their ancestors knew well. And they are putting that know-how to work healing a fire-ravaged landscape and people. 

Maria Salinas uses a drip torch to ignite a burn pile. Photo by Brooke Anderson

While wine producers often depict their agricultural operations as small, idyllic, and picturesque, the reality is that most are anything but. The wine industry erodes local ecological balance and accelerates climate destabilization through planting monoculture crops, intensive water use, soil erosion, and application of toxic pesticides and herbicides. 

Calling themselves trabajadores de la tierra (land workers), farmworkers like de Leon say they’re tired of having their labor used by the vineyard bosses to deplete the land. So instead, they’re fighting for the training, resources, and job opportunities to restore ecological health and mitigate the worst impacts of climate chaos already set in motion. 

Tens of millions of public dollars have already come into Sonoma County for wildfire mitigation and vegetation management since 2020, and there are many millions more on the way from both state and federal governments. As climate chaos accelerates and unnatural disasters multiply, more county, state, federal, and private dollars for ecological restoration services will become available. What remains contested is what that work will be, who will get that work, how much it will pay, and how it will be governed.

Too often, cost-cutting measures among vegetation management companies—which clear overgrown brush to minimize the risk of wildfires—result in low wages, lack of training, and excessive clear-cutting. Instead, immigrant and Indigenous farmworkers are positioning themselves as the leaders who have the ancestral knowledge, practical skills, work ethic, and heart to do this work, and asserting they should be fairly compensated for it. 

Their fight began two years ago, when these workers on the front lines of climate-change-fueled wildfires started organizing for safety and respect. Through their 5 for Farmworkers campaign, North Bay Jobs With Justice farmworker leaders have won improved job safety and training in indigenous languages, and a first-of-its-kind $3 million disaster-insurance fund for frontline workers who lose work during disasters. They’ve also secured unprecedented commitments from growers both large and small to provide hazard pay for workers who harvest when the outdoor air quality is unhealthy. 

Farmworkers picket Simi Winery in Healdsburg, CA on November 13, 2021. Photo by Brooke Anderson

Despite these impressive victories, farmworkers say the California wine industry remains ecologically unsustainable. The vineyards’ contribution to local ecological degradation, combined with global climate change, results in heat, droughts, wildfires, and floods that cause increasing insecurity for existing agricultural workers. In short, workers know the wine industry won’t last forever.

Instead of waiting for collapse, workers are getting ahead of the impending transitions, assuring they happen justly. 

“If we’re talking about funds for capacity building, we should train the people already working on the land. These workers are the backbone of the ag sector in Sonoma County. They should get a piece of the pie,” says Hannah Wilton, program associate at Occidental Arts & Ecology Center, a nonprofit center in Sonoma County that develops strategies for biocultural diversity and community resilience at regional scale. “Folks who are working in these industries, how does their labor get reclaimed for restoration, toward something positive for the Earth? They’re helping to bring in the new world. They’re stewarding the transition. We should be following their lead.”

Last winter, the Occidental Arts & Ecology Center hosted 10 Jobs With Justice farmworker leaders for a monthlong workforce-development pilot project with some of the North Bay’s top ecologists. Workers honed their skills in restoring wildlife habitat, identifying plants, mitigating erosion, increasing the land’s drought tolerance, and reducing wildfire risk through techniques, like thinning overgrown understory plants. Workers then used the downed branches, sticks, leaves, and needles to create habitat piles for wood rats, which are prey for owls, and strategically stacked the leftover biomass to help sink and slow water on hillsides to prevent erosion. 

Sandra de Leon gathers armfuls of carrizo to carry to a wood chipper on October 13th, 2022 in Healdsburg, CA. Photo by Brooke Anderson

Those same farmworkers spent last summer and fall on an immigrant- and Indigenous-led worker team doing vegetation management, fire mitigation, and restorative land work in Windsor, Cazadero, Healdsburg, Occidental, and Geyserville, California. The work was funded by the county, through a project with the Russian Riverkeeper, a nonprofit organization working to restore healthy habitats in the area. For their labor, workers earned $35 per hour, a significant increase from what they were paid by the vineyards. 

Workers cleared brush, thereby breaking up “fuel ladders” that can cause wildfires to spread rapidly along recreational sites and other places in which fires often start. This fuels-reduction work is of critical importance to reducing wildfires and reining in climate change. California’s recent massive wildfires are devastating to state climate goals. A recent study found the California wildfire smoke in 2020 alone put double the greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere as the state’s entire emissions reductions between 2003 and 2019.

Whacking through dense, 10-foot-tall carrizo (an invasive bamboo-like plant, also called arundo) with a machete—or even a chainsaw—is hard, dirty, exhausting work. A crew of 10 workers incessantly hacks at the invasive carrizo growing on a slippery bank leading down to the river—sweating, cursing, and joking as they go. While some workers chop, others haul armfuls of the downed weeds up the steep embankment to a waiting wood chipper.

Sandra de Leon, and her coworkers, line up to feed carrizo to a wood chipper. Photo by Brooke Anderson

Despite the physically grueling nature of this undertaking, worker after worker tells me: Whereas in the vineyards their labor is wielded against land, water, and soil, here it is used to heal such harm. Whereas the vineyard bosses treat farmworkers as disposable labor, here workers are well paid, safe, self-governed, and respected for the deep wisdom and relationships with the land they bring to the work. 

“I am an Indigenous woman from Mexico. I speak Chatino. We believe that the land is sacred, that water is life. We deserve respect because of the knowledge we carry,” says farmworker Maria Salinas. “Here, with Jobs With Justice, we encourage each other to drink water and take breaks. They respect our knowledge. At the end of the day, you can go home satisfied, knowing you did something important for the Earth.” 

Crispín López, an immigrant farmworker from an indigenous community in Oaxaca, Mexico, remembers working in Sonoma County fields as the fires in 2019 sent toxic chemicals into his lungs. When López was young, his grandfather led a project in his community of San Miguel Chicahua to repair erosion to the local farmland caused by the introduction of a highway through their community. López thinks his late grandfather would be proud of his work here.

Crispín López (left) pauses briefly while cutting down carrizo while Max Bell Alper (right) hauls carrizo away. Photo by Brooke Anderson

“The wineries that have destroyed the land never say, ‘We’ve earned so much money this year that we’ll put aside some of that money to care for the land.’ But they should be the ones to pay to heal the places that have burned,” says López. “They should be hiring those of us who know how to do it, and paying us well.”

The fuels-reduction work doesn’t just differ from the grape harvest in what farmworkers are doing, but how they’re doing it. Workers elect from among their ranks a responsable (person in charge for a given period of time) to coordinate the work. At the start of the day, workers stretch together. They take time to tell stories, share food and culture, and learn ecology. They strategize about how to grow an immigrant- and Indigenous-governed fire mitigation and ecological resilience workforce.

Workers take a midday break for lunch, fueling up on taquitos that someone has brought to share. Photo by Brooke Anderson

In addition to vegetation management, workers are also learning to do prescribed burns to prevent wildfires. Through a first-of-its-kind, weeklong, Spanish-language prescribed-fire training, workers learned about fire behavior, lighting and suppression, and weather patterns. They also gained relevant skills, like hand-tool maintenance and radio use. 

The training earned participants their Firefighter Type 2 certification, a federal qualification standard. But for many workers, the skills were already very familiar. “We use this same strategy in Mexico—burning the ground—but to plant corn. My father taught me how. If there are pests, the pests will die off,” says Santos Jimenez. “Here, we’re using it as a strategy so that if there is a drought, there will be less fuel and everything won’t catch on fire so easily.” 

José Luis Duce Aragüés, a prescribed-fire specialist with the Watershed Research and Training Center, co-led the course. “Many times, people have knowledge of doing this in their own villages. They bring traditional and cultural knowledge of fire,” Duce Aragüés says. “It was really beautiful to learn from them—what they used fire for, in what season, at what time of day, which species they’d burn and which they wouldn’t.” 

Having traditional ecological knowledge doesn’t always translate into job opportunities for Indigenous workers.

“We’re excited to be building these skill sets in folks locally, and getting certification to people who already have this traditional ecological knowledge from their home[s],” says Sasha Berleman, the director of Fire Forward at Audubon Canyon Ranch, which also partnered with Jobs With Justice on the training. 

“The farmworkers come from a difficult job—not just physically hard, but one in which they have used the land,” Duce Aragüés says. “This is the opposite. Today is about restoring equilibrium in order to heal Pachamama.” 

“We learned today that fire is very important for the forest. Some plants need this type of burn in order to grow better,” says de Leon. “This work we’re doing today is very different from what we do in the fields. The vineyard owners don’t teach us this. They just tell us to tend the grapes, because at the end of the year that’s profits for the owners. Here we don’t worka for profit. We work for the benefit of the land, the animals, for us humans too.”

José Luis Duce Aragüés (left) and Santos Jimenez (right) take stock of a burn pile. Photo by Brooke Anderson

Twenty-five more workers are now deepening their skills through a wildfire-adapted landscaping course at Santa Rosa Junior College. The question, however, is how to do this work at scale: how to transition not just small groups of workers but entire industries and economies out of extractive, exploitative work and into cooperative, regenerative labor that tends to the land and to human needs?

Or, as one of the campaign’s strategists, North Bay Jobs With Justice Executive Director Max Alper, put it: “How do you go from 20 workers to 50 to 100 to 1,000 workers, all having steady, well-paid, dignified ecological restoration work?” 

First, Alper says, workers must organize themselves. Current worker leaders organize house meetings, bring their friends and coworkers to their homes to hear about the campaign, and then invite those contacts to join them at community meetings, pickets, and actions. 

Second, you have to physically labor together in the new work. North Bay Jobs With Justice invites its staff, board, and funders to come cut carrizo with the workers. “People come to work alongside the workers, even if [only] for a few hours, and it immediately changes things. Once you see arundo, you can’t unsee arundo,” says Alper. “They say, ‘OMG this is really hard work. If we don’t do this work, my community will be in danger. Workers should absolutely get paid $35 per hour to do this.’” 

Third, Alper says, “The only way we’re going to reclaim our labor is through a fight. The bosses have shown time and time again that they would be more than happy to take massive amounts of public dollars and use them to double down on their current extractive practices, just with a greenwashed image. The corporations that have exploited workers and the land now need to give workers the resources and access to land to do this regenerative work.”

Sonoma County farmworkers are not alone in advocating for resources to fund worker-led ecological restoration projects. At the national level, Resilience Force is developing business models by and for local workers of color to lead disaster-recovery and climate-resilience workforces.

Trabajadores de la tierra (land workers) pose for a group photo on August 18th, 2022. Photo by Brooke Anderson

Farmworkers, like de Leon, Salinas, Jimenez, and López, are the grassroots ecologists with the wisdom and respect to tend the land; they are the voices we need to heed and the workers we need to resource and respect. They are at once on the front lines of both ecological devastation and climate justice. They’ve worked for industries whose exploitation of both land and labor has fueled the fires. 

Now they are not only restoring the land and mitigating future fire risk, they are also building the model for an immigrant- and Indigenous-worker-led climate resilience. 

Quotes from de Leon, Salinas, Jimenez, López, and Duce Aragüés have been translated from their original Spanish. 

This story was produced as part of a Just Transition reporting fellowship with Movement Generation Justice & Ecology Project.

Brooke Anderson is a freelance photographer and photojournalist based on unceded Ohlone land in Oakland, CA. Her most recent work can be found in YES! Magazine, Teen Vogue, and In These Times. She covers social movements for climate justice and worker power. She is a proud member of the Pacific Media Workers Guild, CWA 39521, AFL-CIO.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author.

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