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Naeema Muhammad Gives A Master Class in Effective Advocacy

Connie Spence
June 1, 2021

The North Carolina Environmental Justice Network (NCEJN) does critical advocacy work for communities affected by industrialized hog farming.

Founded in 1998, NCEJN was formed to address environmental injustices affecting Black, Latino, and Native American communities when they saw they weren’t a part of the wider environmental justice movement.

In April 2021, Ms. Muhammad, NCEJN Organizing Director shared her organization’s story and struggles in North Carolina at the Plant-Based Climate Summit, hosted by PCRM. Especially illuminating during Ms. Muhammad’s presentation were her stories of effective action that NCEJN has taken.

It was a stroke of genius to fill kiddie pools with hog waste and place them within smell-shot of North Carolina General Assembly members. But first, let’s hear Ms. Muhammad’s story. Here’s much of the transcript from her talk at the PCRM summit:

Environmental Racism and Industrial Hog Farming

“Smithfield came to town, it began industrial agriculture. The growth of the pigs was very rapid. We went from a few pigs to ten million pigs in the state. By mapping the permits, we found that most of the pigs were mostly in eastern North Carolina and located in Black, Latino, and Native American communities. We deemed this to be environmental racism because we felt these communities were intentionally targeted being perceived to have very little political and economic power to fight off this company. Smithfield came to town, they were billionaires, and industrialized agriculture has brought them huge profits in North Carolina.”

Naeema Muhammad,

The world’s largest slaughterhouse is in Tarheel NC. They employ 5,500 workers slaughtering 35,000 pigs per day. The problem is the waste management program. They have lagoons and spray field systems. This isn’t the lagoon that Brooke Shields hung out in.

Organic Fertilizer or Toxic Waste?

These pigs are producing about 19 million tons of animal waste on an annual basis. It’s going into our rivers and streams. It sits out in the air openly until they decide to irrigate it. They irrigate this waste out around the fields and crops. They call it organic fertilizer and say that there was no harm to it. But the problem is that it has all kinds of toxic chemicals. Hydrogen Sulfide comes off the lagoons and it’s making people in the community sick. As an organizer, I’ve been working with these communities since the early 2000’s. People say they get sick, nauseated, you get headaches and you get angry and frustrated living like that. People don’t go outside anymore.
You know, children love to be outdoors. But you drive through these communities, and children are not outside.

People have lost the use of their property. They’ve been forced off of their wells because the waste seeps into their soil.

Naeema Muhammad

The Moratorium

In 1997, there was a moratorium put in place by our general assembly to slow down the growth of the pork industry in North Carolina. It was renewed every two years. In 2006, we heard talk that they may not renew the moratorium. Smithfield told the General Assembly that these community members were lying and making up this stuff. As a result, researchers began looking at the impact of industrialized agriculture on human life. They conducted the Community Health effects of Industrialized Hog Operations study.

Naeema Muhammad

Meanwhile, the research showed that people had elevated blood pressure and high rates of asthma, among other adverse health effects.

NCEJN Brings Hog Waste to the Capitol

We set up a mock hog farm in Raleigh (near the General Assembly meetings). It had two little hog houses sitting on the ground. We bought two baby swimming pools and put them between the two hog houses. We called them our lagoons. Once set up, we trucked in 40 gallons of “organic fertilizer.” As we were pouring it into the pools, the facility manager asked us what we were doing. He said, “who told you to bring that waste out here. …. if you spill one drop on this lawn we’re going to fine your organization thousands of dollars for cleanup because we’ll have to call in a hazmat unit because this is toxic waste.”

We said, “toxic waste? Really? Well we didn’t know that. They told us it was organic fertilizer. We only drove it 40 miles up the highway, we don’t know how it went from organic fertilizer to toxic waste in just 40 miles.”

As legislators walked by, they’d ask “What on earth is that smell?” We’d answer, “it’s 40 gallons of animal waste. You’re asking us to live with 19 million tons of this stuff every year? You can’t take 40 gallons? What is the problem?”

The end result of the 51-hour vigil was they reinstated the moratorium.

From Naeema Muhammad’s Plant-Based Summit presentation

In fact, the kiddie pools containing 40 gallons of ‘organic fertilizer’ were so compelling, that in 2007, the hog CAFO moratorium wasn’t simply extended, it became permanent.1

But that hasn’t stopped the industry. Since that vote in 2006, Smithfield agreed to update their waste management processes and facilities, but according to Ms. Muhammad, they haven’t lived up to that pledge. NCEJN works tirelessly to make them do so.

Support the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network

We at AFA feel incredibly fortunate to learn from the masterful work of Ms. Muhammad and the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network. Thank you to PCRM for platforming NCEJN’s work. We look to them for examples of effective advocacy, and we suggest you do too.


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