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Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Making Human Rights Day More Than Just a Symbolic Action

Below is what I wrote for Pachamama Alliance's blog for Human Rights Day.

With Human Rights Day upon us, Food Empowerment Project (F.E.P.), like many, looks at this day and wonders what we can do to end many of the heartbreaking and abhorrent human rights abuses here and abroad. With the killings of the unarmed Andy Lopez, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and others at the hands of cops, and the horrific murders of the students in Mexico, Human Rights Day feels more like just good intentions with no follow through.

I am overwhelmed by sadness and rage, mostly because I feel absolutely helpless.

One of the reasons I started F.E.P. is the desire to do something to alleviate some of the injustices in the world that I contributed to on a frequent basis, and so I chose to focus on food. And I wanted to encourage people to use their individual choices to reflect their beliefs and their collective voices to help create change.

Going vegan to help eliminate forms of animal oppression is just one part of this.

But it would be a shame to not acknowledge that some of the outrage that is taking place is tied to situations of similar abuse and oppression, and much of it is taking place against people of color, from the lack of access to healthy foods in communities of color and low-income communities to those who pick our food.

Farm workers in this country are victims of human rights abuses, and many are people of color and undocumented. Farm workers feed not only those of us in the state of California, but people around the globe. Unfortunately, farm workers do not make living wages, are often forced to work in dangerous conditions, and are retaliated against and dismissed for exercising their rights. It is well documented that many of the women workers experience egregious forms of sexual harassment, including rape.

Here is an area where changes are coming, but clearly not fast enough. F.E.P. has worked to assist farm workers by organizing not only school supply drives for their children but also food drives for these same workers who help put food on our tables. We are currently working with a coalition to change a regulation that negatively impacts the education of children living in farm worker labor camps in California. And the Coalition of Immokalee Workers unveiled the new Fair Food Program to have workers monitor humane wages and working conditions in the fields.

If only such changes could happen more quickly. A majority of chocolate comes from Western Africa, where children are victims of the worst forms of child labor, including slavery. In fact, according to one report, there are about 1.8 million of these children in Ghana and the Ivory Coast alone. Children are forced to carry heavy cacao pods, and if they do not move fast enough, they are beaten. The children come to the plantations in variety of ways: some are stolen, some are sold, and others go thinking they will be able to help provide some income for their families, whom many will never see again. Some children are locked in overnight and if they try to escape are beaten or killed.

In order to help those who feel compelled to avoid contributing to these kinds of abuses on Human Rights Day – or on any day, for that matter – we created a chocolate list (available on our website and in app form: so that people can buy chocolate that is not sourced from areas where the worst forms of child labor are the most prevalent. And since we are a vegan organization, to be on our list, the companies have to make at least one vegan chocolate.

We recently were able to convince Clif Bar to be transparent about the country of origin for the cocoa they use. Transparency from corporations is one of the first steps. Although the road to ending the worst abuses in the chocolate industry, including child and slave labor, is going to be a long one, corporate transparency is an important step corporations can take to show they are beginning to view the issue seriously.

There are always things we can and must do. And part of this is recognizing that this system that seeks to exploit is one that we must fight – in every form it takes. We must use our voices and actions to speak out against it and hope that one day we can make Human Rights Day more than just a symbolic action. And we need to make sure that we, in the US, take a look at all of the ways we too contribute to human rights violations.