Tarmo Hannula/The Pajaronian Gregg Macey (center, at podium) addresses pesticide use and civil rights in California Thursday during a call to action rally in Watsonville Plaza.

Tarmo Hannula contributed to this story.

Over the decades, California lawmakers, district attorneys, county agricultural commissioners and others tasked with protecting residents have neglected to do so for farmworkers and their families, who are disproportionately affected by dangerous agricultural chemicals.

This amounts to years of civil rights violations under U.S. law.

That was the message Thursday by the People’s Tribunal of Pesticide Use and Civil Rights in California, a three-member panel that in September 2023 interviewed more than 100 farmworkers, healthcare professionals and legal scholars for a report that was released publicly after a noon press conference in Watsonville Plaza.

While the Tribunal has no regulatory power, the group hopes that the report will foment change at the state and federal level, and that prosecutors and lawmakers will take notice of the ongoing harm to a population that is often invisible, said Yanely Martinez, an organizer from Californians for Pesticide Reform

“We need to end that invisibility today,” she said. “And end the racist environmental policies that allow communities that are disproportionately Latino and indigenous to be harmed. Thousands of lives are at stake, and I mean thousands. We demand to be heard. We demand to be healed.”

Californians for Pesticide Reform  co-director Jane Sellen said that recent work has yielded some victories, including the recent requirement that communities adjacent to agricultural fields be notified before dangerous chemicals are applied.

Still, studies over the past three decades have compiled a “damning record” of state policy that puts industry profits ahead of the health of people, workers, children and the environment, Sellin said.

“It’s a record of weak, inconsistent, neglectful and often openly hostile enforcement by  county agricultural commissioners,” she said. 

According to Sellen, 97% of farmworkers are Latino or indigenous and 91% are immigrants. Latino children are twice as likely as their white peers to attend a school with the most agricultural chemical uses nearby.

“If a set of state policies that so obviously targets one group of Californias with disproportionate harm isn’t a civil rights violation, we don’t know what is.”

Anna Rivera, Watsonville High School student and member of Safe Ag/Safe Schools and who was joined by fellow students Jessica Gonzalez and Rocio Ortiz, told the crowd that she started working in the fields when she was 12.

She said her eyes were burning after she saw a tractor spreading white powder near her.

“I didn’t know what was happening,” she said. “At home, I asked my mother and she asked me if I knew what pesticides were being used. I didn’t know and I began to wonder if there are safer alternatives. Say no to pesticides.”

Caroline Farrell of the Golden State University Environmental Law and Justice Clinic said that there are numerous examples of the California Department of Pesticide Regulation DPR and county agricultural commissioners failing to abide by their legal obligations.

“And the people that are hurt by that the most are Latino and Indigenous communities in agricultural areas throughout the state,” she said. “These are not isolated stories; this is a systemic problem. There is a game of hot potato happening between the Department of Pesticide Regulation and the County Ag Commissioner.”

Other speakers at the plaza included Dr. Ann Lopez, executive director of Center for Farmworker Families, and Gregg Macey, University of CA, Irvine School of Law.


To see the report, visit bit.ly/48l3UtF

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  1. No doubt, there are some pesticides we want to avoid direct exposure to.
    The idea that the use of those is intentionally used to target certain races or groups of people
    is just plain dumb.
    Nemotodes, pests, fungis, etc., are the target…. Hardly an intentional racist policy.

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    • The article doesn’t say that latino and indigenous communities are being intentionally targeted. It says they are the communities most affected.

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      • Rather, the use of the word, “target” refers to the lack of response to the fact that these communities are being impacted. They are not being deliberately sprayed, but they are being deliberately ignored.

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  2. Not notifying the nearby schools and homes probably can be considered racist. From an white guy that lives near ag fields

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  3. I love the poster in the pic – “Fight Against Environmental Racism” – hilarious!

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