From Perote to Tar Heel

On some warm nights, Fausto Limon’s children wake up and vomit from the smell. He puts his wife, two sons and daughter into his beat-up pickup, and they drive away from his farm until they can breathe the air without getting sick. Then he parks, and they sleep in the truck for the rest of the night.

Until a few months ago, his mother went with them. Then her kidneys failed and she went to the hospital, where she died. Limon and his family have all had kidney ailments for three years. He says they kept taking medicine until finally a doctor told them to stop drinking water from the farm’s well. Three months ago they began hauling in bottled water. Once they stopped drinking from the well, the infections stopped too.

Less than half a mile from his house is one of the many pig farms built by Granjas Carroll de Mexico (GCM) in the Perote Valley, a high, arid, volcano-rimmed basin straddling the Mexican states of Veracruz and Puebla. “Before the pig farms came, they said they would bring jobs,” Limon remembers. “But then we found out the reality. Yes, there were jobs, but they also brought a lot of contamination.”

David Torres, a Perote native who spent eight years in the operation’s maternity section, estimates that GCM has 80 complexes, each with as many as 20,000 hogs. The sheds look clean and modern. “When I went to work there, I could see the company was completely mechanized,” Torres says.

But in back of each complex is a large oxidation pond for the hogs’ urine and excrement. On a recent drive through the valley, only one of several dozen was covered. “Granjas Carroll doesn’t use concrete or membranes under their ponds,” Torres charges, “so the water table is getting contaminated. People here get their water from wells, which are surrounded by pig farms and oxidation ponds.”

In a response to an article published in August in “Imagen de Veracruz,” GCM public relations director Tito Tablada declared: “Granjas Carroll does not pollute.” And Amy Richards, Director of Reputation Management for Charleston/Orwig, responding to an inquiry on behalf of Smithfield Foods, says, “Our environmental treatment systems in Mexico strictly comply with local and federal regulations that are different than most other countries that encourage use of treated animal waste, at agronomic rates, as a key element of a nutrient management plan. Mexico encourages, and requires, anaerobic digesters and evaporation ponds.

However Ruben Lopez, a land commissioner in Chichicuautla, a valley town surrounded by hog farms, also says there is no membrane beneath the pools.

Granjas Carroll de Mexico is owned in large part by Carroll’s Farms, a division of Virginia-based Smithfield Foods, one of the world’s largest meatpackers. Company spokespeople point to the 1,200 jobs it created in a valley where employment is scarce. But Limon counters that a third of the young people leave: “They don’t see a future, and every year it’s harder to live here.” Carolina Ramirez, who heads the women’s’ department of the Veracruz Human Rights Commission, says no official agency counts them, “but I’m sure many people have left.”

Migrants leaving the valley are joining a huge wave of migration from Veracruz that dates from the beginning of the 1990s — the start of the NAFTA era. The North American Free Trade Agreement took effect on January 1, 1994, the year the pig farms arrived, and two years after Smithfield built the world’s largest hog slaughterhouse in Tar Heel, North Carolina. Both operations have had an enormous impact on the lives of the people of Veracruz.

For over two decades, Smithfield has used NAFTA and the forces it unleashed to become one of the world’s largest growers, packers and exporters of hogs and pork. But the conditions created in Veracruz to help it make high profits, as one of Mexico’s largest pig producers, also plunged thousands of Veracruz residents into poverty.

“In my town, Las Choapas, after I killed a pig, I would cut it up to sell the meat,” recalls Roberto Ortega. “Whatever I could do to make money I did. But I could never make enough for us to survive.” Eventually, he left for the United States, where he again slaughtered pigs for a living. This time, though, he did it as a worker in Smithfield’s Tar Heel plant.

North Carolina became the number-one U.S. destination for Veracruz’ displaced farmers. Many got jobs in the Tar Heel slaughterhouse, helping Smithfield’s bottom line by working for low wages on its U.S. meatpacking lines. Some, like Ortega, helped lead the 16-year fight that finally brought in the union there. They paid a high price. Asserting their rights also made them the targets of harsh immigration enforcement and a growing wave of hostility towards Mexicans in the U.S. south.

The experience of Veracruz migrants, and farmers impacted by Perote pig farms, show the close connection between U.S. investment and trade deals in Mexico, and the displacement and migration of its people. Protecting Mexico’s environment, and the rights of migrants displaced by environmental and economic causes, requires making the connection between trade reform, environmental protection and immigrant and labor rights.

Smithfield Goes to Mexico

In 1994, Carroll’s Farms, a giant hog-raising corporation, created a partnership (Granjas Carroll de Mexico) with a Mexican agribusiness company, Agroindustrias Unidas de México S.A. de C.V. Together they set up the huge pig farm in Perote. Carroll’s Farms had a joint partnership for many years with Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork producer, including a seat on the Smithfield board of directors. In 1999 Smithfield, which now controls 27% of all U.S. pork production, finally bought out Carroll’s Farms entirely.

In 2004 the expansion of the swine sheds through the previous decade provoked a social movement that swept the Perote Valley. Pueblos Unidos (United Towns — a coalition of local farmers) began in Xaltepec, where local residents started collecting signatures on a petition in protest. Veronica Hernandez was a teacher at the secondary school in La Gloria, the Perote Valley town where she was born. She was already concerned about her students, who told her coming to school on the bus was like riding in a toilet. “Some of them fainted or got headaches,” she charges. “In the morning, when it was time to eat, many couldn’t because they still felt sick.”

Hernandez not only signed the petition, she began to write leaflets urging Valley residents to get involved. “We said they weren’t treating the pig excrement in a sanitary way,” she recalls, “that they would leave dead pigs in the open air, which would attract flies. The flies were a potentially dangerous source of illnesses.”

The lack of response from government officials increased the anger among the farmers. On April 26, 2005, hundreds of them blocked the main highway from Xalapa, Veracruz’ capital, to Puebla. People from sixteen towns confronted the police, and only lifted the blockade when officials said they’d talk with Granjas Carroll management.

That had no effect. In November a construction crew in Chichicuautla, about to build another shed and oxidation pond, was met by a thousand angry ranchers. Police rescued the construction crew, but when they returned to the site, the people had disappeared with all the construction materials. Finally, at a meeting in 2007 between the presidents of many valley towns and company officials, GCM’s Tito Tablada signed an agreement blocking any new expansion.

The protests clearly worried the company, however. That year Granjas Carroll filed criminal charges against Hernandez and 13 other leaders in the state courts of both Veracruz and Puebla. All were charged with “defaming” the company by accusing it of pollution.

In Veracruz, the charges were dismissed quickly, when a judge agreed the activists were exercising freedom of speech. But the 14 had to spend the next two years registering with the court in Cholula, Puebla, every two weeks, to avoid being locked up.

While those charges eventually were also dropped, they scared the farmers and the protest movement diminished. Then, in early 2009, the first confirmed case of swine flu, the AH1N1 virus, was found in an eight-year-old boy, Edgar Hernandez from La Gloria. Two infants, the grandson of Ernesto Apolinar and the son of Maria Hernandez, died of what was diagnosed as pneumonia.

Pickup trucks from the local health department began spraying pesticide in the streets to kill the omnipresent flies. Health workers with backpack sprayers went house to house. Nevertheless the virus spread to Mexico City, and then to California. By May, 2254 non-fatal U.S. cases had been reported, while in Mexico 45 people had died. Mexican schools closed and public events were cancelled.

Smithfield denied the virus came from its Veracruz hogs. Mexican officials were quick to agree. A government statement claimed, “Neither in the farm, nor in the homes, did we see sick pigs or people. Neither did we see signs of respiratory disease.” Tablada’s note to “Imagen de Veracruz” asserted that “Our company has been totally cleared of any links with the AH1N1 virus,” and that “the official position of the Secretary of Health and the World Health Organization leaves no room for doubt.”

Meatpacking companies breathed a sigh of relief at Smithfield’s exoneration. The [U.S.] National Hog Farmer website reported that fear of the virus led to losses of $8.4 million per day for the first two weeks of the global scare.

In the valley, though, “no one believed it,” Limon recalls. “We all knew that such a brutal concentration of animals could result in illnesses. But we had to go on living here.&rdquo

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