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June 22, 2011

Modern-Day Earth Angels

A new book, Eco Amazons, celebrates women at the forefront of the environmental movement — almost 50 years after Rachel Carson’s seminal manifesto, Silent Spring, led the charge. Three pioneers share their vision.

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Photo Credit: Courtesy of Eco Amazons & PowerHouse Books

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KATHRYN GILJE
San Francisco, California

Vital stats: Cofounder of workers' rights group Centro Campesino in Minnesota; executive director of the Pesticide Action Network.

Backstory: When I was young, my grand-mother told me stories about the farm she grew up on. Farming's in my blood, and my work is grounded in the values she taught me — making policy changes for good, clean, fair food. I think she'd be proud.

Bold move: I went to the University of Minnesota's College of Agriculture, where biotech companies had a disturbing influence. The 
Department of Agronomy was developing a "Roundup Ready" soybean gene, to allow plants to withstand Roundup, a herbicide from Monsanto, the leading producer of genetically engineered seeds. Despite studies showing Roundup was toxic — and the fact that farmers had to purchase the seeds yearly instead of saving them from one season to another — there was no talk about the implications for rural communities. Worker issues weren't on the curriculum. To raise awareness, I organized lectures on the rights of migrant farm workers, and cofounded Centro Campesino, a nonprofit group that advocates for Latino and migrant agricultural workers through community organizing.

Turning point: In 2005, I joined San Francisco's Pesticide Action Network (PAN). We work to ban pesticides and support sustainably grown food. I'd just been diagnosed with an auto-immune disease, and I believe it's linked to environmental contaminants. Autoimmune diseases are increasing in women, but research on the link to chemicals is lacking. I want to focus on the causes of these illnesses.

What's next: PAN recently helped convince the U.S. to end the use of endosulfan, a highly toxic insecticide linked to autism and birth defects. We are the world's third-largest consumer of pesticides, and people are realizing they've been part of a huge, toxic experiment. We want to ensure liability rests with the corporations that make — and market — these contaminants.


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