César Chávez and Environmentalism

By Santiago Casal Special to the Planet
Friday April 14, 2006

César E. Chávez, the courageous defender of those who work the earth, used to claim that farm workers were an early warning system against environmental destruction. 

Much like miners who used to carry canaries with them to warn of poison gas, “farm workers are society’s canaries,” he stated. “Those who live in the area of grape vineyards are constantly exposed to cancer, birth deformity, miscarriages, sterility, respiratory difficulties and death. You find toxic substances in the fields, streets, soils, air, water, playgrounds, parks, and the poison and killing of children continues unabated.” 

Those were his last public words, spoken on April 15, 1993 in a speech at the Chicago Cultural Center. Eight days later, the noted advocate of non-violent social action died quietly in his sleep in Arizona. He was only 66 but worn out by 40 years of sacrificial dedication to farm workers and the American consumer. 

Over these 40 years, Chavez’ successes include the creation of the first union for farm workers, the signing of the first agricultural worker agreements, and passage of the Agricultural Labor Relations Act. He is the first labor leader and first Latino to be honored with a State holiday. 

While Cesar’s social justice efforts are more known, his commitment, however, to earth stewardship is not. Chávez consistently articulated both an environmental and social justice message. That message was that there is probably no greater connection that we have with the earth than through the food that we eat, and that those who work the earth, those who plant and harvest the food that sustains us, are among the most unappreciated and exploited. 

As early as the 1960’s, concerns about cancers and chemicals were a part of the United Farm Worker Union’s effort. César Chávez and Dolores Huerta, in co-founding the first farm worker union, launched the first organization to take on the world center of corporate agriculture—the Central Valley of California. One of their first efforts was to negotiate labor contracts with growers that limited the use of DDT on certain crops.  

By the early 1980’s, the UFW began to aggressively warn the public and elected officials about the ecological dangers of wasteful chemical technology, mechanization, and over-corporatization of farming. That effort defined the broad parameters of Cesar’s environmentalism – small farmers providing healthy food to consumers through fair and healthy labor practices with farm workers.  

In 1984 Chavez initiated a new grape boycott (the most heavily chemicalized crop) in McFarland, CA, also known as “cancer town” for its well documented childhood cancer cluster that was attributed to pesticide spraying and nitrate-containing fertilizers leaching into the water system. The danger is poignantly articulated in a poem “Toxic Shock” by Susan Samuels Drake, a long time Assistant to César Chávez. 

Here is a portion of it: 


Like mammoth steely-grey tarantulas from outer space  

crop-dusters drop low,… 

showering our food with poison… 

Too soon, women and men 

return to work in these fields 

danger seeping through their skin, 

inhaled with each breath 

drunk from water buckets left open in the fields or 

drawn from underground water tables drowning in pesticides. 

What poison rubs off work clothes 

onto a snuggled child? 

Cancer-cluster towns in farmlands tremor 

with wails from mothers of the deformed unborn 

and born… 


In 1988, Cesar tried to refocus the national movement around these concerns by launching a punishing 36-day, water only, “Fast for Life.” After losing 30 pounds and in a dangerously weaken state, he finally yielded to medical warnings and passed the responsibility on to Jesse Jackson and to a series of other committed celebrity activists who pledged to continue the fast for three days each. 

Today, 13 years after Chavez’ death, farm workers are still sounding the canary’s warning. Agriculture remains one of the most hazardous occupations in the U.S. A recent LA Times article revealed that “scientists have amassed evidence that long-term exposure to toxic compounds, especially pesticides, can trigger (Parkinson’s) the neurological disease.”  

The canary metaphor holds for the plight of poor people in general. Bahram Fazeli of Communities for a Better Environment, in acknowledging Chavez as an early environmental justice pioneer, states that “communities of color and lower income neighborhoods are disproportionately affected by cumulative impacts of toxic emissions.”  

Richard Hofrichter in his book Toxic Struggles argues optimistically that the environmental justice movement provides a working model for addressing these issues more inclusively. The environmental justice movement is “led by the people who suffer most from corporate ecological devastation, i.e., people of color, the poor, women, migrant farm workers, and industrial workers who are joining forces with civil rights, peace and local community activists.” Chávez, who wrote one chapter in this book, was certainly a consistent national figure in that effort.  

As we develop our own effort here in Berkeley to honor the legacy of Chávez, it is important that it reflect this balanced approach of social justice and environmental stewardship. The UFW Union, under the leadership of Arturo Rodriguez and Dolores Huerta, has this balance, and their efforts represent a hopeful bridge to an environmental movement that is more representative and inclusive. 

For the last two years the Ecology Center in Berkeley has stepped forward and joined the Chavez Commemoration Planning Committee. As part of the committee’s efforts to plan and support a variety of city, community and school-based service learning opportunities, the Ecology Center offered a workshop on current campaigns to protect workers, their health, and the environment. And at their weekly Farmers’ Markets they developed special informational displays celebrating Chavez’s environmental leadership, the history of the farm workers movement, and current ways to get involved to protect farm workers and the environment. Such supportive efforts are welcome and hopeful. 

Unfortunately, in the environmental movement, as elsewhere, a gulf still seems to pit working class people, who relate much more to the urgency of immediate survival, against more affluent or privileged mainstream folks, who have the time and resources to focus on population growth, global warming, endangered species and the like. These two environmental camps have very different perspectives and priorities that prevent the coming together as a disciplined and unified progressive movement—one that can both protect poor people and the survival of the planet. Hopefully, in the years to come the Berkeley community can reflect this balance by bringing new constituencies together, drawing folks across class, race and environmental priority lines. It is some of the most personally challenging work that has to be done.  

When my own commitment wavers in the face of such challenges, I reach down and grab hold of the memory of César. He was a common man really, who operated on an eighth grade education, yet achieved extraordinary things. He lived a modest material life, never making more than few thousand dollars per year. He was a practicing vegetarian and organic gardener, and fasted for political and spiritual purposes. 

I try to keep in mind that César Chávez was able to maintain his own dedication and sacrifice by drawing on a deep well of virtues. I call on these virtues when I need to replenish my resolve, wishful that a little of what he embodied might take hold in me—the determination to stick with a struggle despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles; the courage to conquer the fear that can immobilize us; the tolerance to deal with our differences with patience, understanding, and nonviolence; and the hope that makes us believe we can transform the present.  

On this Earth Day season, may we all be guided by such virtues. And may Cesar’s inspiration live on in the spirit of ¡Si Se Puede!  


Santiago Casal is the director of the Chávez Memorial Solar Calendar and Education Project, and acting chair of the Chávez “Circle of Service” Commemoration Committee. A list of city-wide Chávez commemorative activities and resources can be found at www.ecologycenter.org/chavez..