Poisons and people

MLK Day draws a diverse crowd to the Statehouse steps


A simple can of flower and garden bug spray is required to carry the label, "WARNING: AVOID CONTACT WITH EYES, SKIN OR CLOTHING. AVOID BREATHING DUST OR SPRAY MIST." But Idaho farmworkers claim they don't always get even that much information about field-strength pesticides, and workers are getting sick as a result.

About a hundred farmworkers, their family members and supporters gathered on the west steps of the Statehouse on Monday to listen to the stories of two victims of a recent farmworker pesticide exposure incident in Caldwell, as well as to urge support for upcoming legislation to require Idaho farmers to post warning signs at the entrance to fields where dangerous pesticides are being used. Under current Idaho law, signs are required at some locations, but not at field gates and entryways. The Idaho Community Action Network organized the rally and plans to find legislative sponsors for a pesticide protection bill this session. They are putting "the final touches" on draft legislation, according to Leo Morales of ICAN, and will announce its sponsors within two weeks.

Department of Agriculture special assistant Wayne Hoffman said anything that "shines a light" on farmworker rights and working conditions is positive. He said the department is using fines collected from violators of pesticide laws at the Caldwell incident to help fund worker and farmer education, with $40,000 earmarked for print, radio and television ads in Spanish and English. The ads will run "as farm season starts up again," said Hoffman.

Morales said laws already in place can be confusing, and "there are exemptions from pesticide regulations for some crops in some circumstances." He said his organization works to bring justice to people who are already struggling to make a living, and those on minimum wage who lack health insurance can't take the burden of health problems on top of an already difficult life.

On Monday, the steps of the Statehouse held farmworkers, gay activists, church-based human-rights groups, anti-war protestors, the Saint Paul Youth Mass Choir, ordinary folks and a herd of Goths, all gathering to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Flags and signs reading, "Peace begins with me," "Why is there always $ for war but not for education," and "We fear each other because we don't know each other," jostled around for the TV cameras while the choir sang "Make Us One."

Rachel Hall, a 20-something African-American, brought her black Labrador, Fame ("Fortune the cat stayed home," said Hall) said she has found Boise to have minimal racism and had praise for the whole state for being friendly and welcoming. "I encounter people who are curious, and they're eager to get to know me. Sometimes they go about it in a direct way that may seem rude, but to me it's fine. I can handle ignorance any day of the week."

Scott McGavin of Boise First Congregational United Church of Christ held a sign reading, "Will work 4 human rights" in one hand, and the hand of his nine-year-old daughter Tira in the other. "I'm hoping to reach people who sit on the fence, who think they don't need to raise their voices to expose injustice," he said.