Mexicans Blame Industrial Hog Farms
Sunday, May 10, 2009
LA GLORIA, Mexico -- For years, farmers in the communities that dot this arid valley complained about the effects of the industrial pig farms that had multiplied near their fields.
The overpowering stench gave them headaches and drove them from their homes. Packs of wild dogs feasted on discarded pig carcasses and occasionally turned on their children and pets. There were fears that vast lagoons of excrement from more than 1 million hogs might seep into their groundwater.
Health officials have found no connection between the pig farms, owned and operated by Virginia-based Smithfield Foods, and the flu virus that paralyzed Mexico for much of the past two weeks. But the crisis, which appears to be abating, has inflamed tensions between the world's largest hog producer and the poor neighboring communities here that have long warned that the farms are a danger to their health.
"To the people of this community, what brought about this problem was the pig farms," said Guillermo Franco Vázquez, the mayor of Perote, a county seat that has 22 farming communities, including La Gloria, in its jurisdiction. "To clear up this myth -- or to confirm it as reality -- we need more studies."
La Gloria, in the southeastern state of Veracruz, has been at the center of the flu crisis since late March, when a mysterious respiratory illness infected 616 residents, or more than 28 percent of the population. Among them was a 5-year-old boy identified as one of the first confirmed cases of the new virus. The remainder of the cases now appear to have been seasonal flu, according to state health officials.
With the crisis playing out, local residents and officials appear to be increasingly focused on the area's relationship with Smithfield, which operates in Mexico under its subsidiary, Granjas Carroll de Mexico. The conglomerate, which had $11.4 billion in sales last year, has made the Perote Valley a cog in its global expansion, an aggressive strategy that has frequently put the company at odds with the local population.
In 2007, hundreds of protesters blocked a federal highway in an effort to halt construction of a pig farm near La Gloria. Mexican officials say the company responded by pressing criminal charges against five residents who were perceived as leading the demonstration, including a 66-year-old farmer who was forced to sell his corn crop to defend himself. Smithfield has denied any involvement. The case is still pending.
Bertha Crisostomo, an elected La Gloria official who was also charged -- Perote's mayor posted her bail -- said she believes that Smithfield has targeted residents who object to the company's expansion because of health and environmental concerns. Crisostomo said she supports local investment, but added: "Our health is not up for negotiation."
"The only good thing Granjas Carroll has going right now is really good lawyers -- legal representatives who can tie up the people," said Fidel Herrera Beltrán, the Veracruz governor, during an interview in Jalapa, the state capital. "Instead of spending money to go after these people, it would have been easier for them to maintain good terms with the government of Veracruz and its citizens, to make social investments, to open clinics, to reforest the land." Herrera said he was working to get the case against the five La Gloria protesters dismissed.
Smithfield declined to make officials from the parent company or Granjas Carroll available for comment. In an e-mail, Gregg Schmidt, president of international operations for Murphy-Brown LLC, Smithfield's hog production subsidiary, wrote that Smithfield had nothing to do with the criminal action against La Gloria residents. Granjas Carroll receives random quarterly inspections from Mexico's environmental protection agency, he wrote, and conducts monthly tests for swine diseases, including influenza.
The company "believes that it has had no negative impact on the local community or the environment through its operations," Schmidt wrote.
Smithfield employs 907 people, making it the largest employer in the Perote Valley. The company works with 262 local service providers, according to the state, pays federal taxes and contributes 2 percent of its payroll, about $125,000 last year, to support Veracruz's infrastructure. The company said it has funded reforestation and irrigation and has provided computer equipment to local schools.