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Home | Tag Archives: green in the desert

Tag Archives: green in the desert

Green in the Desert: Carlos Marentes Discusses Link Between Migrant Workers, Environmental Degradation and Big Ag

It might seem an odd conversation piece, but Carlos Marentes keeps a bag of dried Chinese chili in a box behind his desk.

Marentes, founder and director of the Border Farm Workers Center, discovered the chili in a place where, he says, it should not belong.

“That chili was being sold right here, in El Paso, Texas,” Marentes said, “and that seems like something insignificant, but it’s not.”
Some of the best chili on the market grows right in El Paso’s own backyard.

“Here, we have the most important chili production in the world,” he said.  Why, then, would local markets stock cheap chili from the other side of the globe?

The question seems simple enough. But the answer, says Marentes, is far more complex. “There’s something that has to be noticed here about how agriculture works,” he noted.

In his view, the answer is a broken value system, one which links consumerism and commercial agriculture into an exploitative relationship with the sources of our food—namely, the land and the people who work it.

“We are talking about food here,” Marentes said. “The food that we’re supposed to give to our bodies, to strengthen our identities, even our beliefs—our religious beliefs, our cultural beliefs, our history—and losing that is the danger of leaving our food system in the hands of corporations that continue to disregard environmental issues and human rights.”

The Frontlines of Ag

Marentes began working with agricultural workers here in 1980 and founded the Border Farm Workers Center with a group of friends in February 1995. For nearly 40 years he’s been on the frontlines, advocating for fair treatment of farm workers in a system which he says is built from the ground up on their oppression.

At a given time, between 5,000-12,000 farm workers labor in the region surrounding El Paso, Marentes said. Additionally, numerous workers stop by the center on their way to other agricultural sectors throughout the U.S.

Many of these laborers, by virtue of being migrants, find themselves in vulnerable positions. They travel long distances with little support and arrive in a country where many are openly hostile toward their presence. Those who remain in the area to be close to family find themselves in a labor-surplus market, which keeps their wages low and situation precarious.

“Mexico is the largest labor reserve for the United States,” Marentes said. “Here, if you don’t work, there are all these people behind you ready to work.”

The center exists to support farm workers in any way possible, Marentes said, whether it’s providing a cup of coffee, a place of rest or education.

“A very important part of the work we do here is to make the workers understand the nature of the industry that they’re involved in,” he said, “so the workers can realize the importance of their contribution, and so they demand to be part of the prosperity created by agriculture.”

‘The disposable people’

Marentes maintains farm workers are exploited because they’re viewed as a specific group within agriculture’s economic system.
Between 3 million-4 million people work in U.S. farms, he said, and eight of 10 are from Mexico, while many more are from Central America.

Since most farm workers are from other countries, “America expects that they work, then return back home,” Marentes said.
For that reason, society tries to justify paying them lower wages than those standard for other workers within the economy, he said.

Meanwhile, the USDA estimated agriculture, food, and related industries contributed $992 billion to U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) in 2015, a 5.5-percent share. The output of America’s farms contributed $136.7 billion of this sum—about 1 percent of GDP.

With so much wealth created, Marentes questions the ease with which society relegates the men and women working the land to marginal living and working conditions.

“These are not unemployed people,” he said. “These are farm workers. They work very hard. But they have to seek shelter to spend the night, to rest, to take a shower or have a cup of coffee. These are the only group of workers doing that.

“The rest of the workers have a place—even if it’s a modest place, a modest roof over their heads—to spend the night, to be with their families.”

In 2014, Marentes was invited to meet Pope Francis, who described society’s view of farm workers in a way that, to him, hit the nail on the head.

“Pope Francis gave farm workers a designation,” Marentes said. “‘They are ‘the disposable people.’”

The environmental cost

The concept of disposability applies not only to those working the land, Marentes said, but also to the land itself.

“The most terrible changes happening in climate and the environment have to do with the model of agriculture, the model of production that doesn’t care for nature, that doesn’t even pay for the destruction of nature,” he said.

Disregard for the environment is no small matter, Marentes noted, as the effects are visible in the mass die-off of species, in the poor health of most Americans, in air pollution and low-quality food and ecosystem degradation.

“Nature plays a major role in every aspect of production—the rivers, air, everything,” he said. “And the corporations use it, and they don’t even have to pay for that. It’s like unpaid labor. They damage a river and then when they no longer are able to make profit, they move someplace else. They leave the damage to the community.

“It’s important to challenge all these elements of production that damage nature,” he added, “because we live here.”

Oppression-free Food

To that end, Marentes has begun advocating for more widespread consumer understanding of the role their choices play in the system. Harkening back to the 1960s and 70s, when Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring helped spark a movement for the idea of chemical-free food, Marentes and his colleagues hope to again thrust consumer responsibility into the limelight.

“We have come up with this concept of oppression-free food,” he said. “The idea is to put into the minds of consumers the need to buy, to eat, to choose food that does not cause oppression to human beings or to nature.”

With this in mind, he hopes everyday Americans can help spearhead a shift away from large-scale industrial agriculture to smaller family farms.

“If you’re a small farmer, you will protect your piece of land, because it’s very important,” Marentes said. “It’s what gives you the capacity to live.”

In this respect, buying a bag of Chinese chili versus the same grown ethically and locally makes all the difference in the world, Marentes said.

“There’s a connection—food, workers, land, water. I don’t get tired of telling everybody that food is our direct connection to nature.”

***

Editor’s Note: Green in the Desert is a new column exploring sustainability and conservation efforts in the El Paso/Juarez area.  Previous Columns can be read HERE.

Writer Chilton Tippin works for Wondor and is pursuing an MA in Latin American and Border studies at UTEP. He likes to write, bike, ski, climb and explore. In 2015, he walked across America.

Green in the Desert: Local Farmer Captures Carbon to Grow Food, Feed Community

Shahid Mustafa is the first to admit his farm might not look as orderly as those you see while driving down the highway.

At Taylor Hood Farms, you won’t find manicured rows or flood-irrigated fields. Nor will you notice bed after bed of a single crop like alfalfa, commodity cotton or chile peppers.

To hear Mustafa say it, there’s a little bit of chaos in nature. Some of that chaos reflects in the appearance of his farm, where red amaranth grows tall and sweet carrots fill beds near lemon cucumbers and artichokes. But embracing nature’s way, according to Mustafa, could offer key solutions to some of the region’s most urgent environmental and health difficulties—even if some chaos is part of the package.

“The regenerative way is to work with nature, instead of against it,” he said. “Our philosophy is that the best food comes from the best soil, so most of our focus and attention is on enriching or enhancing the soil that we have.”

In the Paso del Norte region, Mustafa is pioneering an innovative approach to farming called regenerative agriculture. The practice could help restore topsoils degraded by conventional farming techniques, to say nothing of its implications for ensuring residents have consistent access to healthy foods.

The regenerative way

A tractor sits before a container with a mural on it at Taylor Hood Farms.

Mustafa runs two farms in the area—one in La Mesa, near Old Mesilla, and the other in Socorro. His mission is twofold: to make fresh produce available to all families in the region and to demonstrate the power and promise of regenerative farming.

In most respects, Mustafa said, the two are mutually inclusive: it’s hard to care for the community if one deprives the land on which it relies.

Regenerative agriculture refers to farming and grazing techniques that rebuild organic materials in soil, a ground-up approach that pays dividends in terms of clean, nutrient-dense produce, water-retention rate, native-species habitat, ecosystem health, soil fertility, biodiversity and even climate change.

The practice walks hand-in-hand with carbon farming, which harnesses the power of photosynthesizing plants to actually capture carbon dioxide and sink it into the nutrient-rich soil.

Stored safely in the earth, Mustafa said, the carbon becomes a proactive part of the crops’ life-cycle, rather than trapping heat in the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas—the primary driver of global warming.

When Mustafa goes about farming, his mind is on setting the stage for nature to take its course, then gently aiding the production along the way.

“We do that through composting, crop rotation and reduced tillage,” he said. “That means we’re not cultivating every year; every year, we’re not creating new beds. In fact, we like to keep the same beds and keep building on those beds, because that lets the soil generate natural beneficials.”

Those beneficials, as he describes them, are microbiotic life forms that feed on the decomposition of organic material, passing nutrients into the growing food. In this way, even the nutrients in the food itself are reliant on soils.

“In terms of the value of the food,” Mustafa said, “that, to me, is the most logical answer. If the food is not feeding from a source [the soil] that’s rich in nutrients, then where else is it going to get the nutrients?”

Childhood food insecurity

Local farms such as Mustafa’s play a pivotal role in providing nutritious foods to the community, and their importance—given the demographical statistics—can hardly be overstated.

In El Paso County, nearly one in four children is listed as food-insecure, meaning they lack reliable access to nutritious foods.

Shahid Mustafa, Taylor Hood Farms founder, cleans produce at his farm near Old Mesilla.

Surrounding counties—many of which are mostly rural—rank even worse in child-food-insecurity ratings.

For example, Hudspeth County’s child-food-insecurity rate is about 32 percent. Luna County’s is 33.6 percent.  Poverty and unemployment frequently precipitate food insecurity in the U.S., according to Feeding America, a hunger-relief organization.

Additionally, food insecurity is associated with chronic health problems like diabetes, heart disease, obesity and depression. But local farms can help assuage these problems simply by providing healthy, inexpensive produce, said Leah Whigham, executive director of the Institute for Healthy Living, an organization dedicated to fostering healthier communities in the Paso del Norte region.

While some nutrients remain in certain foods for long after they’re picked, other crucial nutrients found in fruits and vegetables tend to reduce as they move through the long industrial-shipping process.

“Really what you want to emphasize is, as often as you can, buy the local produce,” Whigham said, “because some of the kinds of nutrients that you can only get from the fresh fruits and vegetables do dissipate if they’re shipped on a truck.”

Additionally, buying local can help take the guesswork out of whether the food is healthy, organic and ethically sourced.

Most of Mustafa’s food, for example, is available in El Paso True Foods boxes, a community-supported agriculture (CSA) venture. The True Foods program aggregates food from numerous different farmers in the region and packs it into boxes.

Each week, customers who sign up for the program can pick up their boxes at various locations throughout the city.

Farmer Shahid Mustafa delivers El Paso True Foods boxes to city offices in downtown El Paso. The boxes contain food grown from various farmers in the region.

True Foods Co-founder Adriana Clowe said the program supports both local farmers and community health. On the one hand, local farmers get a consistent market from residents who buy the weekly boxes. On the other, customers get healthy food right from the region—food that hasn’t degraded during the course of long-haul shipping.

“As consumers, we vote with our dollars,” Clowe said. “Wherever we decide to put our money—that’s what we’re supporting. With True Foods, we hope that the social interaction with farms and farmers…can open people up to that larger world of making mindful choices.” Giving the people the tools Mustafa has hopes for his efforts as well.

By farming here in the Chihuahuan Desert, he thinks he can help address issues of food insecurity and land deprivation, not only by offering nutritional produce straight from the farm, but by re-connecting people to the inherent value in the land and the food it produces.

“One of the answers to food deserts and food inequality is really to show people how to do it themselves, to become self-reliant,” he said. “If I had my way, I’d set this [farm] up as a perfect demonstration site and always be out showing somebody else how to replicate what we do.”

“Empowerment comes from the community,” he added. “Once they know how and are given the tools, they can do it themselves.”

***

Editor’s Note: Green in the Desert is a new column exploring sustainability and conservation efforts in the El Paso/Juarez area.  Previous Columns can be read HERE.

Writer Chilton Tippin is project manager and communications coordinator for Wondor Eco:Nomics. He likes to write, bike, ski, climb and explore. In 2015, he walked across America.

Green in the Desert: El Paso Startup Wondor Eco:Nomics Invests in Green Economy

Most days, J.W. Rogers plants earbuds in his ears, fires up a podcast and makes the 30-minute walk to his offices in downtown El Paso. He avoids driving as much as possible, partly because he loathes traffic and enjoys a stroll, but also because he’s trying to “walk the walk.”

Car culture, he’s often told me, borders on insanity: “Why do we get into these 4,000-pound machines, waste our time in traffic and pump all these carbons into the atmosphere? I mean, walking is fun. It’s good for you. It gives you time to think.”

Walking is also a useful anecdote to explain the work Rogers has undertaken since coming back to El Paso. On the one hand, it would be nice for Americans to commit to cleaner, healthier transportation. On the other, he’s realistic enough to understand such a widespread change is unlikely to happen overnight.

Instead, he takes action where he can, one step at a time—all the while looking for ways to subtly influence the world and people around him.

A Green Incubator

“Everything’s always tougher in the desert. If you can do it here, you can do it anywhere.” J.W. Rogers, Wondor Eco:Nomics founder

Rogers and I are best friends and business partners. In 2016, we started Wondor Eco:Nomics, an El Paso-based green business incubator.

“We provide a variety of services to local green businesses,” Rogers said, “to help them get networked into the community, refine their business practices, and expand their clientele.”

Rogers moved back to El Paso from New York City in 2015 and brought with him a goal of creating a more resilient local community.

For one, that meant strengthening social bonds in a borderlands area often characterized by polarization.

Beyond that, he hoped to cultivate in El Pasoans a respect for the physical place we call home—an understanding that the land itself sustains us, and that we should, in turn, help sustain it.

“Modern science is giving us a deeper awareness of our intimate connection to this planet,” he said. “In the recent past, we felt ourselves as separate from nature. Now, we’re looping back into realizing we are a part of the ecology—even our bodies themselves are micro-ecosystems—and we have the power to act symbiotically with the rest of the world, and, in that way, we’re an important factor of the diversity on the planet.”

Out of this ethos, Wondor Eco:Nomics was born. For the first half of 2016, Rogers and I hit the pavement. We visited farmers markets, school gardening projects and volunteered at La Semilla Food Center, clipping spinach and turning compost.

Monica Riehl, VP of business development at Wondor Eco:Nomics, picks lemon cucumbers during her Wednesday visit at Taylor Hood Farms.

Sundays found us planting trees at Tierra es Vida, a neighborhood farm run by La Mujer Obrera, a social organization dedicated to building communities defined by women.

At home, we began composting, gardening and building a rainwater-harvesting system (a technique for which we’re bringing a certification course to El Paso this February.)

Along the way, we met scientists and hippies, cowboys and farm workers, environmentalists and Native Americans alike—all of whom share a common concern for the land itself, for the places and the landscapes we call home.

In those six months, I spent more time digging holes and rolling around in dirt than in all the previous months of my life combined. Rogers described this period as “chaotic.”

“There was no real good blueprint,” he said. “It was pretty whimsical. We just kind of jumped into the mud with these guys and gave it a shot.”

But by keeping open minds, and by taking the time to survey the landscape, we discovered people and practices we never would have known.

“We learned there was an eclectic, intelligent community of people who were already pushing forward with all of these green concepts and techniques,” Rogers said. “I wouldn’t have to be at the forefront of these ideas; I was jumping into a system that was already in place.”

The ‘three pillars’ of Ecology

Often, when we were hoeing rows for corn, or washing and weighing bags of lettuce, Rogers would talk to me about what he called “the three pillars” of society and ecology. He was trying to work out a concept that took into account the relationship between people and the biota—in other words, the land and its associated organisms.

The three pillars refer to food, water, and waste, he explained. In each area, our community faces considerable challenges. Very little of our food, for example, is grown locally, and many residents lack healthy food options.

Wondor Eco:Nomics team members Carolina Franco (foreground) and Hillary Dudley (background) participate in a meeting Tuesday at the Wondor Eco:Nomics offices in downtown El Paso.

Likewise, El Paso is behind other communities of similar size with respect to how we handle organic waste. Rather than reusing such products as food scraps to rebuild healthy soils, we dispose of them in landfills, where they emit harmful methane into the atmosphere.

As for water, our growing population and water-intensive agricultural industries are over-tapping the desert’s natural sources. For this reason, the El Paso Water utility expects to spend roughly $600 million on land purchases and pipeline infrastructure to import water from ranches around Dell City—nearly 100 miles away.

But in each of these challenges, Rogers sees opportunity. “With food, water and rethinking what waste is, I think we can dramatically affect the place where we live, and the society we involve ourselves in,” he said.

Introducing the ‘Green in the Desert’ Series

To that end, Wondor Eco:Nomics initially partnered with three local businesses. In each instance, these entrepreneurs devised novel solutions to pressing environmental problems at hand. And that’s what this Green in the Desert series is all about.

In the next articles, we’ll meet Shahid Mustafa, a local organic farmer whose mission is to sink carbon back into the ground while feeding residents local food and educating them as to its value.

We’ll meet Carlos Huerta, a composting professional who turns organic waste into a resource for the benefit of the valley’s soils and croplands. And we’ll visit Mike “Cactusman” Gaglio, who salvages native plants from destruction while converting the desert’s scant rain into an abundant resource, a practice with the power to reduce the city’s water consumption and alleviate damage from flooding.

Rogers has realistic hopes for these projects. He knows that one man walking each day is not going to overturn immense problems like climate change and global warming. But it does have a practical effect, however infinitesimal, and the wider impact inheres in such an action’s symbolic power, in the fact that one man walking might inspire another to do the same.

In that vein, Rogers believes local people, acting individually and together, are the key to unlocking the desert’s regeneration.

“El Paso is in a very unique position,” he said, “being a border community, being right on the Rio Grande, being the biggest city [along with Juarez] on the Rio Bravo Watershed. There’s a lot of potential here to show the world at large that a desert community with 9-inches of rain a year can redirect the course of where it thinks it belongs as a city—as a place.”

“Everything’s always tougher in the desert. If you can do it here, you can do it anywhere.”

***

Editor’s Note: Green in the Desert is a new column exploring sustainability and conservation efforts in the El Paso/Juarez area.

Writer Chilton Tippin is project manager and communications coordinator for Wondor Eco:Nomics. He likes to write, bike, ski, climb and explore. In 2015, he walked across America.

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