April 06, 2010
Professors Denise Cummings and Lisa Tillmann assigned Phaedra Pezzullo’s book Toxic Tourism: Rhetorics of Pollution, Travel, and Environmental Justice to their Senior Research Practicum students. The book exposes readers to the human and environmental costs of chemical toxins; to the economic and political power of chemical industries; to the effects of toxins on communities already disadvantaged by race and class; and to grassroots efforts called “toxic tours,” in which residents of communities particularly affected by toxins offer consciousness-raising tours.
On Friday, March 26, Cummings and Tillmann accompanied 24 students in their final year of studies in Critical Media and Cultural Studies (CMC) on a tour of sites significant to the history of environmental degradation and to the environmental justice community in and around Apopka, FL. Hosting the tour were Jeannie Economos of the Farmworker Association of Florida and Linda Lee, a community leader and former farmworker herself.
Apopka is located less than a half hour from the Rollins campus. According to Economos and Lee, Apopka, was once home to some of the best bass fishing and richest farmland in the country. Unfortunately, to increase crop yields and to control pests and diseases, area farmers would spray the land with toxins, including DDT—even when workers were present in the fields. Decades of fertilizer and pesticide run-off led to the eventual death of Lake Apopka. In the 1980s, scientists began observing reproductive anomalies and birth defects in alligators and turtles. In the late 1990s, the federal government bought the farmland, but a massive bird die-off linked to continued pesticide contamination stalled environmental restoration efforts.
Though farm owners received more than $100 million for their polluted land, thousands of farmworkers lost their livelihoods without notice or compensation. Many of those workers have since died prematurely, in part due to chemical exposure. Many more, including Lee, live with chronic health problems. Lee and other survivors are documenting their experiences through a memorial quilt. After handling quilt patches depicting images of Lee’s family and friends who have died, CMC major Jessica Fornasier said: “the damages that these people sustained from working in such horrible conditions became real.”
The Rollins group got to see (and smell) firsthand that within a few mile radius are thousands of acres of degraded farmland; a medical waste facility (bordering a playground); a large landfill and a sewage treatment plant (both bordering neighborhoods); a storage facility for chemical waste containers; and a disturbingly green-brown Lake Apopka.
“I couldn't believe how dirty Lake Apopka was...if the water was more than six inches deep, you couldn't see the bottom," said Sam Barns. Adrian Cohn added, that above all, “the students learned the human and environmental costs of the chemical toxins used in the Lake Apopka area.”
The Office of Community Engagement funded transportation for the trip. To learn more about ongoing efforts to assist farmworkers, visit: http://www.floridafarmworkers.org/
-- Lisa Tillman, Associate Professor
Critical Media & Cultural Studies