For most Californians, the west side of the San Joaquin Valley is the flat, sere and desolate country you pass through on your way to someplace else. You’re more apt to remember the rest stops on I-5 than the features of the surrounding landscape. But the “Westside” is special to me.
My grandparents settled here in the 1940s. In the 1970s, they co-founded one of the region’s first farmworker co-ops near the small town of Raisin City. I remember picking and packing cherry tomatoes with my cousins on our land. My husband, too, has deep roots in the soils of the western San Joaquin Valley. When he was old enough to do physical labor, he joined his parents, cousins and friends, laboring in the local fields and dairies. His family still lives and works in the region, and we celebrate our birthdays and anniversaries on their one-acre ranch near the small town of Burrell.
We thus represent one face of the Westside. Another is represented by wealthy agribusiness enterprises; foremost among these is the Westlands Water District. There is a misconception that Westlands represents small family farmers who are struggling to survive, but that picture couldn’t be farther from the truth. Run by a handful of powerful farming interests, Westlands has received well over a billion dollars in federal subsidies. The district exerts an iron hand over the region’s labor, land – and most crucially for all Californians – the water. Under Westlands, the Westside is essentially a feudal society, with powerful corporate farmers directing the politics and the economy and an impoverished working class supplying the labor.
Indeed, Westlands’ influence reaches far beyond the confines of the San Joaquin Valley. It has established its dominance in both Sacramento and Washington, and has succeeded in shaping water policy to benefit its few hundred constituents at the expense of other agricultural regions, our cities, our fisheries and our wildlife.
Several decades ago, my grandparents helped establish National Land for People, a group that was successful in challenging corporate control over the water delivered to Westlands. National Land for People won a federal injunction to stop Westlands’ transparent attempt to circumvent the requirements of the Reclamation Act in a series of land transfers intended to maintain corporate farmers’ access to subsidized water.
Unhappily, this proved a paper victory. In response to the court decision, Westlands’ corporate enterprises simply broke up their vast acreages into subsidiary holdings. Some transfers were fraudulent, and some Westlands growers were prosecuted for their attempts to circumvent the law. My grandparents joked that some of the new “farms” on the Westside were registered under the names of their owners’ favorite cows. Their black humor was not far off the mark. In 1982, the Westlands again flexed their powerful lobbying muscle when the Reclamation Reform Act was passed. Its “reforms” included eliminating the residency requirement and increasing the acreage limitation, eviscerating the original intent of the Act and benefitting large and absentee landholders.
Recently, Westlands corporate farmers have complained that they are not getting enough water due to protections for threatened salmon and other fish. Through a sophisticated — if utterly cynical — disinformation campaign, they have portrayed the issue as a matter of social justice, claiming agricultural workers are losing their livelihoods due to environmental restrictions – that it is a matter of “fish versus jobs.” This claim is preposterous on two counts.
First, the big farms of the western San Joaquin Valley are not withering on the vine. Despite cuts in water deliveries – cuts due to drought and not to protections for fisheries and the Bay-Delta ecosystem – profits for the region’s farms are robust. Rather than collapsing, agricultural employment and profits in Fresno County have grown in the past year.
Second, the deep and abiding concern that Westlands’ growers are expressing for the workers who labor in their fields is altogether unconvincing. The 20th Congressional District, which encompasses Westlands, is the poorest district in the nation. Corporate farmers have done nothing to alleviate the poverty and suffering their practices have caused. The tears they are now shedding must be seen as distinctly crocodilian.
What about the “spontaneous” demonstrations by farmworkers marching under the “Fish vs. Jobs” banner? Go talk to the laborers in the small destitute towns of the region such as Five Points, Firebaugh, Mendota and Dos Palos. I have. If you can gain their confidence, they’ll tell you, as they’ve told me: these demonstrations were orchestrated by farm labor contractors and their employers. Workers were either strongly “encouraged” to join the demonstrations with the implication that their jobs were at stake, or were simply paid to march. This is not meant as a criticism of the marchers; on the Westside, you cannot afford to pass up a day’s wages. The system is designed that way.
A just agricultural economy allows for fair shares of resources and profits among all the players. California is a semi-arid state, with limited water resources. Sadly, Westlands, representing only a fraction of California’s agricultural base, perpetuates gross injustice by grabbing the lion’s share of the water. This must change. Our water must be shared equitably.
What are we asking? Not much. We simply want western San Joaquin growers to play by the same rules that govern the rest of us. Water is a public trust resource that belongs to all the people of California, not the just the few who are wealthy and politically connected.
Ms. Alegria de la Cruz is the Legal Director at the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment.