Pathways to Change – the rights of forest workers

Pathways to Change – the rights of forest workers – Brief Article

Jessica Morrison

He fought for social justice in his native Chile. Now Victor Benavides is dedicated to helping America’s forest workers.

Victor Benavides sees his fight for social justice as a small step along a path blazed by countless others. After 11 tumultuous years fighting for forest workers’ rights in Chile, he was exiled to the United States, where he lives near the Oregon border in White Salmon, Washington. The United States is technologically advanced compared to Chile, Benavides says, but the plight of forest workers is a “contradiction” because the U.S. timber industry does not recognize or protect them. For this reason, Benavides has dedicated his life to “finding a path toward the participation and betterment of workers’ conditions,” he says.

Because labor teams contain ethnically diverse workers – including Spanish, Vietnamese, and English speakers – communication conflicts soon began to arise. Realizing that to implement change he must help workers find a common language, in 1996 Benavides founded the Alliance of Forest Workers and Harvesters. Its goals: create forums for worker participation, provide training and education seminars, and set up English classes.

Benavides also has fought for recognition of the nontimber forest products industry by federal agencies. Workers first started this industry to supplement their income by collecting products such as mushrooms, huckleberries, salal, and moss. Although the number of workers grew during the 1980s and 1990s, Benavides says that 10 years ago many people still considered the products a nuisance. Some Forest Service personnel laughed at workers. Others failed to recognize the products’ value and applied pesticides or thinned to remove products from timber roads. Only recently have the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management begun to acknowledge special forest product workers and create rules regulating the industry.

“In the past, only immigrants could look to the forest and see the value,” Benavides says. “Environmental groups could only see destruction, and industry thought there was nothing to gain.”

Although the Alliance has little money, Benavides says the hardest obstacles are the myths people hold, such as the idea that communication among ethnically diverse groups is too difficult to overcome.

“When people look to the forest, they don’t want to use the word diversity,” he says. “They fail to see the people inside who live out of it and how they are affected by the actions of other groups. These people are the intrinsic component. Congress says it is difficult to resolve – we are showing there is a way to communicate.”

Despite such setbacks, Benavides cites groups such as AMERICAN FORESTS as instrumental in helping workers voice their opinions and express their perceptions of their surroundings. In addition, he says the Oregon-based Jefferson Center, a community-based organization, offered opportunities for the workers, participated in the decisionmaking process, and helped design training programs.

The U.S. Department of Labor recently awarded Benavides its Unsung Hero Award for his outstanding contributions to community partnerships. Although he appreciates the recognition, he feels most proud that he has never lost touch those he represents.

“Groups of people paved the road,” he says. “I walked in the footprints of others. I could not have done it by myself.”

Jessica Morrison is an intern in AMERICAN FORESTS communications department.

COPYRIGHT 1999 American Forests

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group