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Indigenous Farmworkers Hold The Key To Healing Our Burning Planet

Above Photo: “Escuchen a los trabajadores,” one sign reads at the Nov. 13, 2021, picket at Simi Winery. “Listen to the workers.” Brooke Anderson.

Grape Harvesters Share Traditional Ecological Knowledge To Right Our Relationship With The Land—And Each Other.

Anayeli Guzman was born into a Mixtec-speaking Indigenous community in San Miguel Chicahua in Oaxaca, Mexico. Her family raised chickens on their land, and as a child she would help plant corn, squash and radishes. They ate handmade tortillas with beans, eggs and salsa. Her grandparents taught her to care for the land and to revere the rain. Few people worked for wages. Rather, families owned small plots and grew seasonal, drought-resistant crops, exchanged produce with nearby communities and helped each other with big projects.

After migrating to the United States to be with her husband, Anayeli (along with 11,000 other, mostly Indigenous, immigrant farmworkers) toils for meager wages in the $1.9 billion wine industry of Sonoma County, Calif. In the past several years, record-breaking wildfires have ravaged the area, often during harvest season. Vineyard owners routinely escort workers through evacuation zones to pick grapes in a haze of toxic smoke.

Fed up, Anayeli and her coworkers began to organize in summer 2021. After surveying hundreds of farmworkers, their committee created the 5 for Farmworkers in Fires campaign to demand language justice, disaster insurance, community safety observers, hazard pay and clean bathrooms. Workers hand-delivered those demands to dozens of wineries. When one winery, Simi, did not respond, around 300 workers and allies picketed Simi’s lavish, $145-per-ticket wine tasting. (Disclosure: I first met Anayeli and other farmworkers as a photographer hired to help document their campaign.)

Wineries not only endanger workers’ lives by instructing them to harvest in the midst of raging climate change-fueled blazes; wineries actually accelerate climate destabilization. Industrial agriculture is one of the largest contributors to climate change globally, and wineries are particularly likely to erode local ecological balance through soil depletion, intensive water use and the deployment of toxic fertilizers.

Indigenous farmworkers, however, often have access to traditional ecological knowledge passed down through millennia — about how to live in right relationship with the land, water and one another — but lack the power to steward and heal the land.

Now, farmworkers are organizing to change that.

“The reality is that, in this decade, we’re going to see serious changes,” says Davida Sotelo Escobedo, communications and research coordinator with North Bay Jobs with Justice, which is helping with the campaign. “The rich, the land owners, are going to talk about solutions that are disconnected from the land. But those who work the land have the knowledge and leadership to show us what we need to do. There is power in remembering and uplifting this connection with the land.”

In the spirit of remembering our way forward, I interviewed two Indigenous farmworkers at the heart of this organizing effort — Anayeli Guzman and Margarita Garcia — about their memories of home, working as a farmworker today, and what they’d change if they had the power to tend the land on which they currently labor.

Anayeli Guxman

RESPECT. “The wineries treat us like they treat the earth. There is no respect for us nor for the land. The only thing that interests them is production and money. But if the workers and the land didn’t exist, there wouldn’t be a harvest. There wouldn’t be anything.”

RAIN. “Our elders said that when it is time to plant, the first thing they’d do is offer something — be it liquid or food — to the land, because she is our mother. Before the first rains, they’d go to a cave carrying torches and candles and have a party with food, dancing and singing to ask God for rain. It is different here. Wineries expect the fruit to produce because they put chemicals and fertilizers on it.”

WATER, DROUGHT, FERTILIZERS. “The wineries use fertilizers which damage the land and water. Sometimes it is as if they make a plant produce or mature when it shouldn’t. It is as if they are forcing nature. We are also in a drought. At my home, there is no grass. But at the wineries, everything is green. It’s as if you’re transported to another world, as if they had their own river. It makes me sad because all the animals need water. They have a right to live too.”

CROP ROTATION. “There comes a time when we all must take a break. So too does the earth need a break. The farmers in my community let the land rest for a certain time. They let it breathe, let it regain nutrients for the next harvest. That doesn’t happen here. Here, it’s just constant work. As soon as the last harvest ends, they’re already pruning again.”

MUTUAL AID. “There used to be a lot of mutual aid — ‘you help me, I help you,’ not, ‘OK, you worked this many hours so you get this much cash.’ No. We worked as a team. We called it tequio. It’s a beautiful tradition and what I most miss. It is different here because you arrive and the boss tells you, ‘Here is where we’ll work,’ and that’s it.”

MONEY WON’T HEAL THE EARTH. “They have to understand that there are things money cannot buy and that technology alone will not fix. This is true for the healing of the earth. We can’t just put up solar panels or buy different cars. We have to do it ourselves.”

WORKERS ARE THE REAL STEWARDS. “Like [Emiliano] Zapata said, ‘La tierra es de quien la trabaja’ (‘The land belongs to those who work it’). The workers are the ones who spend time watching how the plants grow, how the grapes mature. We are more the owners than they are.”

Margarita Garcia

WATER. “The wineries have damaged the land, the water and the environment. They use many pesticides to the point that the rivers are no longer clean. We have to be more conscious of caring for our water. Where I’m from, there’s always been drought, so we knew to use only what we needed and no more. Rainwater was recycled. We’d put containers outside and when it would rain we’d have water to water the plants. We had open air toilets and the waste would go to the plants. Same with the water from the wash — everything went to the plants.”

FIRE. “There was a lot of drought in my community, so there would be fires. It is not new for me. However, the fires never grew as large as they do here. The people themselves would self-organize to put out fires because there was no fire department. They’d surround the fire so that it could not jump, throw earth on it and hit it with branches. We’d intentionally burn certain areas in order to later plant corn. The ashes were used as compost to prevent insects without chemicals. Later, each town would take its turn to plant again and the trees would return.”

EXCHANGE. “In my community, el trueque is the exchange of crops. If a family has avocados and we have oranges, we’d exchange. If one town’s harvest was potatoes, plums, peaches and other things we didn’t have in my community, we’d exchange. We’d bring potatoes and they’d give us bread, or we’d bring tortillas and they’d give us chiles.”

KNOWLEDGE. “The bosses don’t respect the wisdom of the farmworkers. I remember this coworker of mine. The boss told her that she was born to work the fields because of the color of her skin. Instead of humiliating us like this, they should value our knowledge of the land. But they are interested neither in caring for the land, nor in the opinion of farmworkers. The only thing the wineries care about is extracting work from us to make money for them. Right now, you have to do what the boss says and sometimes it is against our will. But If the land owners listened to us, we could guide them about how to work with the land, not against it.”

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