How US Policies Fueled Mexico's Great Migration
Exporting the Hazards of Corporate Hog Raising
Hog raising is a dirty business—and the environmental damage it creates has provoked rising opposition to Smithfield’s operations within US borders. In Virginia in 1997, federal judge Rebecca Smith imposed the largest federal pollution fine to that date— $12.6 million—on the company for dumping pig excrement into the Pagan River, which runs into Chesapeake Bay. That year the state of North Carolina went further, passing a moratorium on the creation of any new open-air hog waste lagoons and a cap on production at its Tar Heel plant. In 2000 then–State Attorney General Mike Easley forced Smithfield to fund research by North Carolina State University to develop treatment methods for hog waste that are more effective than open lagoons. Despite North Carolina’s well-known hostility to regulating business, in 2007 Easley (by then governor) made the moratorium permanent. In the face of public outcry over stench and flies, even the anti-regulation industry association, the North Carolina Pork Council, supported it.
Fausto Limon looks at his bean plants, knowing they need more fertilizer, but lacking the money to buy it.
In Mexico’s Perote Valley, however—a high, arid, volcano-rimmed basin straddling the states of Veracruz and Puebla—Smithfield could operate unburdened by the environmental restrictions that increasingly hampered its expansion in the United States. Mexico has environmental standards, and NAFTA supposedly has a procedure for requiring their enforcement, but no complaint was ever filed against GCM or Smithfield under NAFTA’s environmental side agreement. Carolina Ramirez, who heads the women’s department of the Veracruz Human Rights Commission, concluded bitterly that “the company can do here what it can’t do at home.”
For local farmers like Fausto Limon, the hog operation was devastating. On some warm nights his children would wake up and vomit from the smell. He’d put his wife, two sons and daughter into his beat-up pickup, and they’d drive away from his farm until they could breathe without getting sick. Then he’d park, and they’d sleep in the truck for the rest of the night.
Limon and his family all had painful 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. Last May they began hauling in bottled water. Once they stopped drinking from the well, the infections stopped.
Less than half a mile from his house is one of the many pig farms built by Smithfield’s Mexican hog-raising subsidiary, GCM. “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 eighty 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,” he says. The Mexican News online business journal explains that “production cost is very low because of the high ratio of pigs to workers…. The preparation of food and feeding of the pigs is completely automated, along with temperature control and the elimination of excrement.”
Workers aren’t employed directly by Granjas Carroll, however, according to Torres. “Since we work for a contractor, we’re not entitled to profit-sharing or company benefits,” he says. “Granjas Carroll made millions of dollars in profits, but never distributed a part of them to the workers,” as required under Mexico’s federal labor law. Torres was paid 1,250 pesos ($90) every fifteen days; he says the company picked him up at 6 every morning and returned him home at 5:30 each evening, often six days a week.
In back of each complex is a large oxidation pond for the hogs’ urine and excrement. A recent drive through the valley revealed that 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.” Ruben Lopez, a land commissioner in Chichicuautla, a valley town surrounded by hog farms, also says there is no membrane beneath the pools.
In response to an article published in August in Imagen de Veracruz, a Veracruz newspaper, GCM public relations director Tito Tablada Cortés declared, “Granjas Carroll does not pollute.” And Smithfield spokeswoman Amy Richards says, “Our environmental treatment systems in Mexico strictly comply with local and federal regulations…. Mexico encourages, and requires, anaerobic digesters and evaporation ponds.”
Yet despite the 1,200 jobs the pig farms created in a valley where employment is scarce, Limon estimates that a third of the young people have left. “They don’t see a future, and every year it’s harder to live here,” he says.
In 2004 a coalition of local farmers called Pueblos Unidos (United Towns) started collecting signatures for a petition to protest the expansion of the swine sheds. According to teacher Veronica Hernandez, students told her that going to school on the bus was like riding in a toilet. “Some of them fainted or got headaches,” she charges.
When expansion plans moved forward nonetheless, on April 26, 2005, hundreds of people blocked the main highway. That November a construction crew about to build another shed and oxidation pond was met by 1,000 angry farmers. Police had to rescue the crew. Finally, in 2007 GCM’s Tablada Cortés signed an agreement with local towns blocking any new expansion. That year, however, the company filed criminal complaints against Hernandez and thirteen other leaders, charging them with “defaming” the company. Although the charges were eventually dropped, the farmers were intimidated and the protest movement diminished.
Then, in early 2009, the first confirmed case of swine flu, the AH1N1 virus, was found in a 5-year-old boy, Édgar Hernández from La Gloria. Pickup trucks from the local health department began spraying pesticide in the streets to kill the omnipresent flies. Nevertheless, the virus spread to Mexico City. By May, forty-five people in Mexico had died. Schools closed, and public events were canceled.
Smithfield denied that the virus came from its Veracruz hogs, and Mexican officials were quick to agree. Tablada’s note to Imagen de Veracruz asserted, “Our company has been totally cleared of any links with the AH1N1 virus,” and “the official position of the Secretary of Health and the World Health Organization leaves no room for doubt.” By one estimate, fear of the virus had led to losses of $8.4 million per day for the US pork industry for the first two weeks of the global scare. So meatpacking companies breathed a sigh of relief at Smithfield’s exoneration. In the valley, though, “no one believed it,” Limon recalls.
This past August, GCM representatives received a permit from the municipal president of Guadalupe Victoria, the county next to Perote, for building new hog farms. Representatives of eighteen town councils have denounced the expansion plans and accuse state authorities of “threatening to use public force (the granaderos) so that the company can continue to expand, against our will.”
“It doesn’t do any good to threaten to kill us,” responds one farmer. “We’re not going to let them build any more sheds. We want GCM to leave the valley.”