O Christmas Tree, How Toxic Are Your Branches?
As you read this, many of you might be taking in the scent of sweet pine or fir needles coming from the Christmas tree that you brought into your home this year as you have so many years before. As one who has spent a good number of years as an labor activist and organizer for PCUN, The Oregon Farmworker Union, I have some thoughts on Christmas trees, the beautiful ornaments that hang from their branches and the carefully wrapped presents that sit beneath.
Do you ever wonder where your tree came from or about the environment in which it grew? Ever wonder about the use of pesticides on tree farms, or who planted and harvested that tree? How about the labor and working conditions of the farmworkers whose task it was to get your tree to you?
Environmental and Health Issues
Depending on the type and amount of pesticides applied on tree farms, the management of Christmas tree crops can result in poor habitat as neighboring landscapes absorbs toxic runoff. Neighboring water supplies can also risk contamination. Because trees are farmed as agricultural products, they often require repeated applications of pesticides over their typical eight-year life cycles. If you have gone organic this year, that is if you have purchased your tree from a farm that has maintained its' crop with alternatives to pesticide poisons, that is a great first step. I would be amiss if I did suggest going further.
Unions and Christmas Tree Farms
The work done in the agricultural factories in the fields is labor intensive, backbreaking work. Christmas tree farms are no different. Anywhere from 35 - 40 million Christmas trees are sold in the US annually. Trees are produced in all 50 states. Yule time is big biz and farm owners are raking in big bucks. And, wouldn't you know, it is the influx of Latino immigrant workers that has allowed this industry to grow as large as it has. As one grower recently said about his farm in North Carolina, "This industry would dry up if it weren't for the Mexicans!" During peak season, workers toil around 80 hours a week.
Throughout my experience in farmworker union organizing, I have seen worker exploitation as well grower violations of many, many health and safety guidelines in the fields. Herbicides, fungicides and growth regulators are used on most trees. Many times workers are not supplied with regulation pesticide barriers (pesticide resistant clothing, gloves, goggles, etc.) required for pesticide application. Growers will simply not want to part with the money that the purchase of these items cost. Farm labor camps are most often located adjacent to the crop that farmworkers maintain. With this, they are the one's most vulnerable to pesticide poisoning. I have seen time and time again that growers do not consider taking the time to familiarize their workers with warnings or education about the dangers of pesticides as a priority. Worker well-being is not a priority as much as getting the crop to market on time is.
I have also seen time and time again that smaller, organic growers can be just as exploitive (and racist!!!) as corporate agribusiness is. I have seen wage violation and great suppression of workers who take a stand against exploitation. I have seen workers get black listed because of their union organizing activism. I have seen workers arrested and deported because they demanded the same rights that every other worker has. This exists in both organic and non-organic industries. With this, you can bet that all is not hunky-dory simply because of the fact that workers are employed by an organic grower. If you brought home an organically grown tree this year, that in part is a good step. If you know that your tree came from a farm that allows worker rights with union representation that is even better. Buying from an organic farm where the workers are unionized is best.
Everyday In Sweatshops is Christmas (Except for Those Who Work There)
Consider for a moment that most of what we wear and most of what we use in our home and everyday life is manufactured in China. Manufactured in Chinese sweatshops and manufactured there because third world labor is so much cheaper and provides greater wealth for the U.S. corporations who have outsourced their industry to third world countries. With outsourcing, corporations are not bound by wage, environmental or labor regulations. It's a veritable capitalist free for all.
Stop reading this and go to your Christmas tree and remove a couple of ornaments. Where were they manufactured? Guatemala? Mexico? China? And what about those Christmas tree lights?
What conditions were they manufactured in? Do you know? Everyday is Christmas in the sweatshop, but only for the corporation who's product is manufactured there.
And, those wonderful presents under your tree: Where did they come from? How did they get here? Do you know? Do those toys contain any lead paint?
I know that this is supposed to be a joyous time of year (ain't I just a ray of sunshine?) and my intent is not to lead anyone on a guilt trip. I am an activist. And activism is usually born in questioning why such disparity exists on a global level. I actually don't acknowledge Christmas and haven't for over a decade for many more reasons than offered here. I don't begrudge the practices of any radical theologians who have a Christmas tree in their home right now. Christmas has many different meanings for many different people. I do have a close circle who share my sentiment and we do have our community, our ceremony, handmade gift exchange and Indigenous gathering. I speak for myself when I say that I refuse to traditionally acknowledge a manufactured calendar date of which every aspect contains for me much more toxicity than the pesticides contained in the branches of a Christmas tree. So...however you choose to celebrate these next few days, Have a Happy Happy. And don't be afraid to question.