While wine producers often depict their agricultural operations as small, idyllic, and picturesque, the reality is that most are anything but. The wine industry erodes local ecological balance and accelerates climate destabilization through planting monoculture crops, intensive water use, soil erosion, and application of toxic pesticides and herbicides.

Calling themselves trabajadores de la tierra (land workers), farmworkers like de Leon say they’re tired of having their labor used by the vineyard bosses to deplete the land. So instead, they’re fighting for the training, resources, and job opportunities to restore ecological health and mitigate the worst impacts of climate chaos already set in motion.

Tens of millions of public dollars have already come into Sonoma County for wildfire mitigation and vegetation management since 2020, and there are many millions more on the way from both state and federal governments. As climate chaos accelerates and unnatural disasters multiply, more county, state, federal, and private dollars for ecological restoration services will become available. What remains contested is what that work will be, who will get that work, how much it will pay, and how it will be governed.

Too often, cost-cutting measures among vegetation management companies—which clear overgrown brush to minimize the risk of wildfires—result in low wages, lack of training, and excessive clear-cutting. Instead, immigrant and Indigenous farmworkers are positioning themselves as the leaders who have the ancestral knowledge, practical skills, work ethic, and heart to do this work, and asserting they should be fairly compensated for it.

Their fight began two years ago, when these workers on the front lines of climate-change-fueled wildfires started organizing for safety and respect. Through their 5 for Farmworkers campaign, North Bay Jobs With Justice farmworker leaders have won improved job safety and training in indigenous languages, and a first-of-its-kind $3 million disaster-insurance fund for frontline workers who lose work during disasters. They’ve also secured unprecedented commitments from growers both large and small to provide hazard pay for workers who harvest when the outdoor air quality is unhealthy.

Despite these impressive victories, farmworkers say the California wine industry remains ecologically unsustainable. The vineyards’ contribution to local ecological degradation, combined with global climate change, results in heat, droughts, wildfires, and floods that cause increasing insecurity for existing agricultural workers. In short, workers know the wine industry won’t last forever.

Instead of waiting for collapse, workers are getting ahead of the impending transitions, assuring they happen justly.

“If we’re talking about funds for capacity building, we should train the people already working on the land. These workers are the backbone of the ag sector in Sonoma County. They should get a piece of the pie,” says Hannah Wilton, program associate at Occidental Arts & Ecology Center, a nonprofit center in Sonoma County that develops strategies for biocultural diversity and community resilience at regional scale. “Folks who are working in these industries, how does their labor get reclaimed for restoration, toward something positive for the Earth? They’re helping to bring in the new world. They’re stewarding the transition. We should be following their lead.”

Read the full article about land protectors by Brooke Anderson at YES! Magazine.