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Honoring Achievements of Hispanic Food Producers, But No Engagement With Their Struggles

Gary Paul Nabhan | Huffington Post

Earlier this month, when Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar designated 27 new National Landmarks, five of them were meant to honor America’s historic legacy of Hispanic engagement in agriculture and natural resources. While the César E. Chávez National Monument at Nuestra Señora Reina de la Paz in Keene, California, rightly honored one of the twentieth century’s greatest advocates for the rights of Hispanic food producers and harvesters in the United States, Hispanics may wonder about Salazar’s inclusion of the Drakes Bay Historic and Archeological District on the Point Reyes Peninsula. Secretary Salazar may wish to honor the first wreck of a Spanish ship in California, the San Augustín, but he has been flagrantly ignoring the struggle of today’s Hispanic food producers and shellfish harvesters to hang on to their jobs at Drakes Bay Oyster Company in Point Reyes National Seashore.

There are roughly 30 hard-working skilled professionals of Latin American descent who work for Drakes Bay Oyster Company. They will lose their jobs if Secretary Salazar doesn’t take into consideration their current struggle against the irregular policies and practices of the National Park Service, which Salazar oversees.

At a time when unemployment rates among legally-documented but Mexican-born U.S. citizens are running two points above unemployment rates for the American population at large, it’s a shame that Salazar has not even gone to talk with the men and women who propagate and harvest oysters from Drakes Estero. He has been invited to do so at least twice, for the efforts there perfectly fit with the environmental education objectives of his Great Outdoors initiative. And yet, for more than six years, the jobs of Drakes Bay Oyster Company workers have been in jeopardy, largely because of the questionable science and policies fostered by the bureaucrat who Salazar tapped to be director of the national park service, Jon Jarvis.

Regardless of the skill, intelligence and care they bring to their work, these shellfish farmers and harvesters are having their livelihoods disrupted by inherent conflicts in the National Park Service’s own goals for the seashore: to simultaneously protect scenic and wilderness values in the landscape while showcasing traditional food production that has decades if not centuries of influence on the very landscape and waters the park service is required to collaboratively manage.

Apparently, the park service does not see the contradiction between honoring Cesar Chavez and evicting today’s Hispanic food producers from a national seashore originally established to celebrate Point Reyes’ working landscape for fishers, farmers and ranchers.Park service policies are now verging on an “ethnic cleansing” of this historic cultural landscape, where the earliest documented cross-cultural encounter between California Indians and Spanish speakers such as Sebastián Viscaino initially took place.

That is regrettable. The national park service and the Obama administration as a whole are missing an extraordinary opportunity to show Americans how working-class Hispanics’ livelihoods are compatible with good environmental stewardship. In fact, the park service should acknowledge just how much our current food security is dependent upon our fair treatment of Spanish-speaking farmworkers, orchard harvesters, oyster growers and fishermen.

Roughly 75 percent of the hand-picked produce, tree fruits and seafood harvested in the U.S. today are brought to us by Latino-born workers, including the 40 percent of California’s shellfish that is produced in Drakes Estero. Our government’s mistreatment and harassment of these Western food producers and harvesters has recently become a national disgrace, if not an international civil rights issue on par with the discrimination against blacks in the South a half-century ago.

Because citizens, documented and undocumented workers with Spanish surnames are being regularly and unjustifiably harassed, an estimated 30 percent of California’s fruits, vegetables and shellfish requiring hand-harvesting will stay on the trees, rot on the ground, or sit uneaten in shallow waters this year. The American Farm Bureau Federation estimates that the reluctance of Spanish-speaking farmworkers and seafood harvesters to enter U.S. fields and bays will cost America’s economy somewhere between $5 and $9 billion in 2012 alone. This is not a good way to demonstrate that national parks can help rather than undermine America’s food security.

The Hispanic aquaculture workers residing in Point Reyes have been honorably allegiant to the Lunny family, which manages Drakes Bay Oyster Company, retaining their jobs far longer than the average American worker in food production. Under the Lunnys’ mentorship, many of them have tackled complex skilled jobs such as oyster culture in the laboratory and outplanting under challenging conditions.

These are the kinds of workers that the American food system dreams of attracting: bright, open to new challenges, willing to learn new skills, congenial and dedicated to the community as a whole. If Drakes Bay Oyster Company is closed down by the park service, it will not only affect the 30 skilled workers with years of service to the company, but the entire population of 150 Latinos who live around Point Reyes.

On a daily basis, President Obama is being hammered by Governor Romney for failing to create more jobs or stopping the loss of existing employment in rural communities. One can only wonder why Secretary Salazar hasn’t personally stepped into Point Reyes to talk with las familias Acebes, Gomez, Gonzalez, Guzman, Hernandez, Lopez, Manza, Martinez, Mata, Meza, Olea, Pablo, Robledo, Salgado and Soto, for they will be devastated if he makes the wrong decision. Secretary Salazar may also be on the wrong side of history if he maintains that sustainable food production is inherently antithetical to healthy national parks. He will have made the same mistake that government agencies made 40 years ago by initially ignoring the concerns voiced by Cesar Chavez, concerns we now know have stood the test of time. Let us hope that Salazar chooses to personally come to Drakes Estero to listen and see the situation on the ground. He needs to step up and resolve a conflict that has gone on far too long, for it is one that could potentially hurt his own people while tarnishing Obama’s reputation with Spanish-speaking voters.


Gary Paul Nabhan served on the Congressionally-appointed National Park System Advisory Board under two Presidents. A MacArthur Fellow, he is co-editor of the book People, Plants and Protected Areas and author of Coming Home to Eat. A pioneer in the local food movement, he is also an orchard-keeper in Southern Arizona, cultivating over 35 varieties of heirloom fruits and nut trees introduced by Spanish-speaking farmers during the Mission era.

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