El Colectivo Chilpancingo Pro Justicia Ambiental

The border between the U.S. and Mexico is an important area for a variety of reasons—contention over immigration and illegal crossings, narcotics smuggling, and the subject of our analysis here: the somewhat recent phenomenon of maquiladoras. In 1965, Mexico’s central government began to institute incentive programs for international corporations to build and center their early phase manufacturing plants in Tijuana, nearly adjacent to the U.S.–Mexico border. These plants have become known as maquiladoras (“assembly plant”), a unique version of the typical maquila (“factory”) that almost exclusively refers to the border’s import-export facilities. [1]

Hilary Abell calls the general regions that house import-export plants “export processing zones” or EPZs. In her analysis of maquiladoras located in Mexico’s EPZs, Abell explains that Mexico has drawn hundreds of corporations due to substantial tax breaks, lax environmental regulation, a virtually unending stream of cheap labor, and active repression of union organizing. [2]

The documentary Maquilapolis tells the story of several women workers (obreras) of the maquiladoras and the different struggles they face. Women workers make up more than 80 percent of the maquiladora workforce. [3] Women are preferred for this factory work because they have the “required dexterity and patience for detailed manual work,” and the factory owners also assume that they have weaker organizing capacity and “will tolerate abusive working conditions.” [2] The 800 maquiladoras in Tijuana range from technology production from companies like Panasonic, Sanyo, and Sony to the other commodity production like batteries, IV tubes, and clothes. These factories supply a relatively constant stream of industrial jobs that usually pay better than the inconstant and cheaper positions in rural Mexican states, which leads to an influx of women from various parts of Mexico to Tijuana and other border cities. [3]

Sex-Based Discrimination and Workplace Conditions

Carmen Durán, one of the obreras featured in Maquilapolis, explains that she arrived to Tijuana when she was 13, encouraged by her parents to move away from her home state of Sinaloa and pursue a factory job. Now, she is in her late twenties, is a single mother to three children, and has worked in nine different maquiladoras. After only two years of working in a Sanyo factory, Durán was shocked at the abysmal health conditions and workplace discrimination that she soon learned to be commonplace in the maquiladoras. First, she was constantly exposed to toxic chemicals and odors—she reported that the adhesive she and other workers used to assemble the “flybacks” for television sets smelled like burnt plastic and made her lungs ache. The incessant mix of chemicals in the factory caused her nose to bleed after leaving her shift daily. Durán also began to develop problems with her kidney functioning because the factory managers did not permit the obreras to drink water or use the bathroom, even during the workers’ menstrual cycles. [3]

Durán’s story is not uncommon. Nearly all women workers face the same or similar workplace conditions, regardless of the owner of the maquiladora. Women have reported sexual discrimination, violence, and human rights violation in the workplace, from “refusal to hire applicants who are pregnant, mistreatment and forced ‘resignation’ of workers who become pregnant” to “requiring women to present used sanitary towels each month [or] punching them in the abdomen to prevent viable pregnancies.” [2]

After speaking with each other and discovering their shared plight that is undoubtedly gendered, the obreras decided to join together and become promotoras, self-defined as a “grassroots activist, [who] challeng[es] the usual illegal tactics of the powerful transnationals that are poisoning their workers and the barrios they inhabit.” [3]

Promotoras fight against not only their own working conditions and health/safety hazards, but the threats to their family and children that arise from workplace-to-home toxic contact and, most importantly, the unregulated and high-volume pollution of waterways that flow into the barrios. Lourdes Luján, another obrera featured in Maquilapolis, details her everyday struggle against environmental contamination in her neighborhood of Chilpancingo. Chilpancingo is home to El Río Alamar, a creek into which over 200 upstream plants deposit their hazardous wastes, which then flow down into the town.

Chilpancingo and El Río Alamar

In the 1980s and 1990s, one factory in particular caused most of Río Alamar’s pollution: a battery recycling plant and lead smelter called Metales y Derivados, located one mile away from the United States border. Called “Metales” by the workers and residents of Chilpancingo, the factory was abandoned in 1994 by its American owner, Jose Kahn, when the factory was ordered to be shut down by PROFEPA, Mexico’s equivalent to the EPA. Kahn fled back to the United States, evading Mexico’s arrest warrant and his responsibility to pay the multi-million dollar environmental damage that his abandoned factory was still causing. [4]

Andrea Pedro Aguilar, another resident of Chilpancingo, called the behemoth factory “her monster,” citing the lead dust that she finds daily on her kids’ toys and the toxic chemicals—arsenic, cadmium, and antimony—that seep into her family’s drinking water and the soil where her kids play. [4]

When Metales was still running in 1990, a Mexican university’s survey of the soil in Chilpancingo found lead levels to be over 3,000 times higher than USEPA standards. Even samples taken after almost a decade of the plant’s closure find the lead levels to be almost 100 times higher than USEPA standards. Aguilar’s four-year-old daughter, Lupita, shows clear signs of health risks from toxic exposure. Her hair falls out “by the brush full every day,” and her nose and throat begin to bleed spontaneously. [4] Luján’s son plays in the Río Alamar and has developed spots and sores all over his body. Both women have seen birth and reproductive defects throughout the town, seeing children born without fingernails and with enlarged heads. [3]

Lourdes Luján grew up in Chilpancingo and remembers how clear and clean the water was before the majority of the plants were constructed upstream, and long before Metales y Derivados shut down. Faced with the intolerable levels of toxics that come from Metales and travel down the Río Alamar directly to their homes, Luján, Aguilar and other women in the town decided to form an organization dedicated to grassroots activism, community education, and the ultimate goal of holding the United States and Mexican governments responsible for cleaning up the Metales sites. They named this organization El Colectivo Chilpancingo Pro Justicia Ambiental, or the Chilpancingo Collective for Environmental Justice.

El Colectivo Chilpancingo Pro Justicia Ambiental

One major goal of El Colectivo Chilpancingo is community education. Working with American scholars and scientists from the San Diego Environmental Health Coalition, the women have learned a great deal about the medical terms for the health risks and reproductive defects caused by the Metales pollution. Luján describes learning about putting names to the every day birth defects she saw—anonychia for children born without fingernails, hydrocephalus for children born with enlarged heads, a condition that is actually caused when the infant’s body is unable to drain spinal fluid from the brain cavity. [3] This education gave women like Luján and Aguilar credibility in the face of the government officials to whom they were petitioning—instead of positioning themselves as hypochondriac mothers who were concerned about rare and occasional birth defects, they supported their complaints with hard data on the levels of lead and other toxins in their blood and used medical terminology to categorize the phenomena they were witnessing. As mostly single mothers who are the primary caretakers of the family, they had a right to demand redress and remediation of the site.

Women of the Colectivo Chilpancingo fought for ten years, petitioning cross-border and intergovernmental organizations to listen to their story and commit to cleaning up the site. The women knew they were facing some of the largest and most impenetrable forces—the Mexican government, the United States government, and the interests of multinational corporations—yet continued to push. The women must have also known that, if they were successful, the decision of both governments to take environmental action would set a precedent for ending or curtailing Mexico’s promise of lax environmental regulations for multinational corporations, possibly serving as a deterrent for those corporations to site their factories at the border.

On June 24, 2004, after almost a decade of protests and petitioning, “Mexican federal, state, and municipal government agencies signed a coordination agreement defining their authority and commitment to work together to clean up and eliminate risks associated with the Metales site.” [5] Mexico’s environmental protection agency, PROFEPA, coordinated their actions with the United States government. An EPA report published a little more than a year later detailed a full list of the environmental hazards posed by the Metales plant, as well as a step-by-step plan for remediation and reduction of land contamination that involved cooperation between the EPA, Mexico’s Secretary for the Environment and Natural Resources, and a Mexican waste management company called Tetra Tech. In total, the cost of removal of all toxic waste from the Metales site was estimated to be between $1.5 and $3.3 million. [5]

A year following the EPA report, the women of the Colectivo Chilpancingo were still not finished. Still unsatisfied with the slow progress of the cleanup, the Colectivo wanted to keep organizing. They applied for and received a $4500 grant from the Global Greengrants Fund, an organization that has awarded over $10 million to grassroots environmental organizers across the world since 1993. The Global Greengrants Fund’s mission statement perfectly encapsulates the motivations of the Colectivo Chilpancingo: “The people whose health, cultures and livelihoods are most affected by problems of pollution and environmental degradation are the same people who must play a major role in solving the problems.” [6]

Ecofeminist Analysis

The problem of women’s work in maquiladoras is a double-edged sword. Globalization and the growing trend of factories and assembly plants in developing countries promises stronger and better-paying jobs that these women rely on to support themselves and their families. Their struggle for improved working conditions and less exposure to toxics and chemicals in the workplace poses a problem for the managers of the maquiladoras and the owners of the international corporations. To them, the promotoras are a pesky headache, one that can be easily solved by firing these women and replacing them with cheap, new labor—or even relocating their factories to one of the myriad other developing countries that also offers cheap labor, fiscal incentives, and lax environmental regulation.

However, the same “problems” would likely occur no matter the location of these factories, as long as the factories are located in countries that occupy the “Global South.” Echoing the sentiments of Hilary Abell [2], Sara Grineski and Timothy Collins connect the exploitation of women and natural resources by corporations that charter these maquiladoras to the larger pattern of environmental injustice that occurs in the global Southern hemisphere, making industrial pollution an ecofeminist issue. Because countries in Latin America, Africa, and Asia are marginalized within the worldwide economic and political order and typically have lax regulatory schemes, they seem to be perfect targets for the short-term capitalist gains that corporations pursue. Grineski and Collins acknowledge the post-2001 recession exodus of a few corporations to Asian countries such as Indonesia, and hypothesize that women workers will continue to organize and protest abysmal working conditions as long as they negatively affect the workers’ children and families. [8]

The struggles and eventual victory of El Colectivo Chilpancingo shows how grassroots organizing can be successful even in the face of international powers—governments and corporations—that can seem daunting and undefeatable.

As we discuss in our post on pesticide use in Brazil, women, as caretakers and matriarchs of the family, have the right and responsibility to safeguard the health of their children. Environmental issues that differentially affect a woman’s reproductive capacity automatically take on an ecofeminist flavor. The women of the Colectivo Chilpancingo use undoubtedly ecofeminist language when petitioning to international governments and organizations, invoking their authority as mothers concerned with the excessive health risks from pollution.

The maquiladoras are situated in Tijuana for capitalist gains, attracted by the low taxes, cheap labor, and lax environmental regulation. Clearly, women and the natural world that must exist within this industrial complex are unduly burdened and harmed by the capitalist model that places profits—maximized by minimizing costs of properly paying women and dealing with hazardous waste—above all.

The women of El Colectivo Chilpancingo still work daily to defend the land and water that is constantly threatened by international, corporate interests. They worked tirelessly to block a recent proposal to re-channel the Río Alamar to construct a highway through Chilpancingo, a project that would have increased the flow of truck traffic through the town and caused a substantial increase in air pollution. In June 2015, their efforts again proved successful. The government of Baja California announced that it will not cement three kilometers of the river and will instead channel the river with stones to filter the water and maintain the existing aquifers that feed into a wooded area nearby, according to a report from the Vida Latina, a Spanish-language daily newspaper circulated in San Diego and Tijuana. [9]

The women of the San Diego Environmental Health Coalition still work with the women of el Colectivo Chilpancingo to maintain a strong community presence and teach them other vital skills, such as “empowerment, leadership, and resource management training.” Even in 2016, the women are still planning on building urban forests and clean soccer fields for their children to play in and explore, constantly concerned with mitigating the constant conflict between their own and their children’s health and the capitalist interests of multinational corporations. [9]

[1] Cravey, Altha J. Women and Work in Mexico’s Maquiladoras. Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield, 1998.

[2] Abell, Hilary. “Endangering Women’s Health for Profit: Health and safety in Mexico’s maquiladoras.” Development in Practice 9, vol. 5 (1999): 595-600.

[3] Maquilapolis. Directed by Vicky Funari and Sergio De La Torre. San Francisco: California Newsreel, 2006. Transcript in: Aguirre, María Lourdes Luján, Olga Rendón, Carmen Durán, Magdalena Cerda, and Jaime Cota. “Maquilapolis: City of Factories.” In Mexican History: A Primary Source Reader. Edited by Nora E. Jaffary, Edward W. Osowski, and Susie S. Porter. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2009.

[4] Sullivan, Kevin. “A Toxic Legacy on the Mexican Border; Abandoned U.S.-Owned Smelter in Tijuana Blamed for Birth Defects, Health Ailments.” The Washington Post, February 16, 2003.

[5] United States. Environmental Protection Agency. Office of Land and Emergency Management. Summary Report for the Removal Action at the Metales Y Derivados Site, Tijuana, Mexico: RCRA Enforcement, Permitting, and Assistance Contract Region 9. By Emily Pimentel and Tetra Tech. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 2004.

[6] Global Greengrants Fund. “Annual Grant Report.” News release, December 05, 2005. Global Greengrants Fund.

[7] Peterman, Amber, Shu Wen Ng, Tia Palermo, and I-Heng Emma Lee. “Managing the Double Burden: Pregnancy and Labor-Intensive Time Use in Rural China, Mexico, and Tanzania.” Studies in Family Planning 44 (2013): 411-430.

[8] Grineski, Sara E. and Timothy W. Collins. “Exploring patterns of environmental injustice in the Global South: Maquiladoras in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico.” Population and Environment 29 (2008): 247-270.

[9] Cortes, Norma. “Organización Binacional Trabaja Por La Justicia Ambiental En Tijuana.” Vida Latina, August 29, 2015.
Image source

Pesticides & Reproductive Defects in Brazil

The conventional ecofeminist framework focuses on the most classic examples of environmental degradation—water and air pollution, deforestation, oil spills, and the like. In reality, women’s issues and environmental issues connect in many diverse ways, and an ecofeminist lens can be used to analyze a wide range of problems and to identify unconventional solutions. Scholars have used the ecofeminist framework to examine several issues that seem irrelevant at first, including women’s household shopping habits, homophobia, and biopiracy. [1]

On first glance, the issue of pesticide use in Brazil seems to be restricted to the environmental sphere for its damage to biodiversity: the “pesticide treadmill” and eutrophication in runoff waters. The struggle against pesticides is really one facet of the worldwide struggle against industrial agriculture or “agribusiness.”

After the global Green Revolution and subsequent boom in industrial agriculture and pesticide use in the 1970s, ecologists began investigating the potential health impacts of agricultural chemicals, including pesticides, insecticides, and fungicides. Rachel Carson’s seminal work Silent Spring unveiled the harm that the pesticide DDT causes through bioaccumulation, or the buildup of small concentrations of fat-soluble toxins in animal tissues. [2]

More recently, scientists have begun to look at the effects of prolonged pesticide exposure on public health, particularly in large production countries that heavily rely on industrial agriculture. Brazil falls into this category as the highest consumer of pesticides in the world, using more than one billion liters of agricultural chemicals per year. [3]

But the question of how pesticide overuse applies to a feminist scholarly outlook still remains. Dianne Rocheleau, Barbara Thomas-Slayter, and Esther Wangari propose a variation of an ecofeminist lens, called feminist political ecology. This new framework brings together three important aspects of any environmental issue to transform it into both a feminist and environmental issue, or, as we argue, an ecofeminist issue. These three themes are gendered knowledge, gendered environmental rights and responsibilities, and gendered environmental politics and grassroots activism.

The theme that is most central to women’s ecofeminist concerns around industrialization is the first: gendered knowledge. Rocheleau et al define gendered knowledge as “an emerging ‘science of survival’ that encompasses the creation, maintenance, and protection of healthy environments at home, at work, and in regional ecosystems.” [4]

Women, as the primary caretakers and nurturers of the family, must face the burden of survival, not only for themselves in their workplace environment, but for their children and family as well. As mothers, women must concern themselves with undue health hazards that are out of their control—these hazards most often arise from industrialization. As Rocheleau et al argue, “This responsibility [of motherhood] puts women in a position to oppose threats to health, life, and vital subsistence resources, regardless of economic incentives, and to view environmental issues from the perspective of the home, as well as that of personal and family health.” [4]

Although there may not seem to be any reason for women to involve themselves with the use of chemical pesticides in industrial agriculture, one must not look any further than the health risks that pesticides pose to understand why this is an ecofeminist issue.

Movements Against Pesticide Use

In 2011, a coalition of Brazilian women from Via Campesina, Agricultura Familiar e Agroecologia, and the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST), calling themselves the Women Against the Violence of Agribusiness and Agrotoxins for Land Reform and Food Sovereignty, marched to protest the health risks of pesticides across Brazil. [5] As its name suggests, this cross-organizational movement works in tandem with the decades-long struggle for food sovereignty and agrarian reform in Brazil, coordinating its strategy with well-established activist groups. [6]

Over 100 social movement organizations (SMOs), including the coalition of Brazilian women against pesticides, signed onto a symposium publication about biotechnology. In this mission statement, the SMOs state their firm opposition to all facets of industrial agriculture, particularly the “Big Six seed/pesticide corporations that already control 75% of global private sector research and development in agriculture, [the same corporations that] oblige us to buy their patented GMOs every year as well as their toxic pesticides, indispensable to grow those GMOs.” [7]

Public officials often cite the lack of hard scientific data to justify inaction on pesticide overuse. As Rocheleau et al argue, however, women who are disproportionately affected by environmental risks push for “a more holistic approach to environmental and health issues…based on skills acquired in their socialization as women,” especially given the “inequity of participation and power in science-as usual.” [4]

For most Brazilian women, hard data is not necessary to explain the very real health effects of pesticides on their families—particularly the birth defects that ensue from pesticide overuse. Despite the women’s reluctance to overstate the importance of scientific methodology in justifying the risks of pesticides, the movement believed it necessary to arm themselves with reliable data in order to gain legitimacy and recognition from the government, regulatory agencies, and the agribusiness corporations against which they were fighting. Therefore, several public health collectives have quantitatively examined the biological persistence and health disorders that result from prolonged exposure to pesticides, both in real time and in utero.

In 1989, the environmental agency of the state of Rio de Janeiro deposited tonnes of HCH and DDT, two extremely toxic pesticides, in a poorly managed waste facility in the small town of Cidade dos Meninos, coincidentally where much of the state’s vegetables, milk, and meat are produced. Nearly two decades later, researchers sampled the four most common toxic exposure pathways—surface soil, access roads, food chains, and ambient air—to examine how much HCH and DDT remains in the soil, water, air, vegetables, and grasses in Cidade dos Meninos and the surrounding areas. The researchers discovered extremely high levels of DDT and HCH that have persisted, and found a very high risk of public health problems from the long-term, high-concentration exposure. [8]

In a following analysis of the current level of organochlorine pesticides that remains from the same dumping in Cidade dos Meninos, and compares those figures to the recommended limits of daily exposure. The pesticides HCH and DDT, which are fat-soluble and bioaccumulate in the tissues of all animals, including cows (milk), chickens (eggs), and humans (breast milk), were found to exceed the minimum risk levels by almost one hundred times, especially for women and children who are chronically exposed. [9]

Via Campesina

These analyses are helpful for building a historical argument that cites the disproportionate impact of pesticides on women, particularly the findings on bioaccumulation of chemical pesticides through body fat and breast milk. Another study commonly cited by the women’s movement specifically examines the birth defects caused by pesticides, analyzing 3.5 million births from 26 states in Brazil. The results found that, across the country, pesticide use was highly correlated to mortality and infant death by congenital abnormality, and moderately correlated to low birth weight. [10]

Armed with these weapons that conferred legitimacy upon them, the women marched, closing down highways and striking from their agricultural work, and protesting the elevated risks of reproductive tract abnormalities, breast cancer, and thyroid disease that they face. [5]

Despite the existence of “hard” scientific data on the subject, one must examine the accessibility of such information to the women protesting. As Rocheleau et al argue, women who are affected or whose children are affected do not see the pressing need to examine the larger trends of reproductive defects and cancer from pesticide exposure. Even if no statistically significant relationship exists, that does not negate the daily struggles and lifelong health hazards that disproportionately affect women.

The ecofeminist strategy that the women’s anti-pesticide SMO took on fits into the larger movement against agribusiness in Brazil, uniting several marginalized groups. The common discourse, as shown in the Via Campesina poster above, advocates for family farms, in contrast to the faceless, capitalist corporate model of agriculture that currently dominates the Brazilian economy. This flows well with yet another tenet of ecofeminism—the capitalist model of agriculture prioritizes profit over everything, particularly biodiversity and women’s interests. The GMOs and chemical pesticides mandated by agribusiness simultaneously destroy soil integrity, eliminate seed biodiversity, and pose irreversible and serious health risks for women and the family, all in the name of maximizing production and consumption. Together, the workers, depicted as a brown, working-class Brazilian family, can rise up against the “false solutions of green capitalism,” and defeat the behemoth corporations that threaten the earth and the lives of women and children.

[1]  Dobscha, Susan. “Women and the Environment: Applying Ecofeminism to Environmentally-Related Consumption.” Advances in Consumer Research 20 (1993): 36-40. Davion, Victoria. “Coming Down to Earth on Cloning: An Ecofeminist Analysis of Homophobia in the Current Debate.” Hypatia 21 (2006): 58-76. Isla, Ana. “An Ecofeminist Perspective on Biopiracy in Latin America.” Signs 32 (2007): 323-332. 

[2] Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring. New York: Houghton-Mifflin, 1962.

[3] Friends of the MST. “More Than a Thousand Women March Against Pesticides in Ceará.” Friends of the MST. March 2, 2011.

[4]  Rocheleau, Dianne, Barbara Thomas-Slayter, and Esther Wangari. “Gender and the Environment: A Feminist Political Ecology Perspective.” In Environment in Anthropology, edited by Nora Haenn and Richard Wilk, 27-33. New York: New York University Press, 2005.

[5] Rodale, Maria. “Thousands of Women Farmers in Brazil Protest the Use of Pesticides.” Beyond Pesticides. March 07, 2011.

[6] United States Food Sovereignty Alliance. “USFSA Statement on International Day of Peasants and Farmers Struggles.” La Via Campesina. April 17, 2016.

[7] UN Food and Agriculture Organization. “FAO Symposium on Biotechnology.” La Via Campesina. February 15, 2016.

[8] Brilhante, Ogenis M. and Robson Franco. “Exposure pathways to HCH and DDT in Cidade dos Meninos and its surrounding districts of Amapa, Figueiras, and Pilar, metropolitan regions of Rio De Janeiro, Brazil.” International Journal of Environmental Health Research 16, vol. 3 (2006): 205-217.

[9] Asmus, Carmen Ildes R. Fróes, Herling Gregorio Aguilar Alonzo, Marisa Palácios, Alexandre Pessoa da Silva, Maria Isabel de Freitas Filhote, Daniela Buosi, Volney de Magalhães Câmara. “Assessment of human health risk from organochlorine pesticide residues in Cidade dos Meninos, Duque de Caxias, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.” Cadernos de Saúde Pública 24, vol. 4 (2008): 755-766.

[10] De Siquiera, Marília, Cynthia Braga, José Eulálio Cabral-Filho, Lia Giraldo da Silva Augusto, José Natal Figueiroa, Ariana Impieri Souza. “Correlation Between Pesticide Use in Agriculture and Adverse Birth Outcomes in Brazil: An Ecological Study.” Bulletin of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology 84 (2010): 647-651.


Header Image source