By Gabe Pollak, Staff Writer.
At a panel discussion and screening of “Swine Country,” a short documentary made by seniors Tom Clement and Sol Weiner, both filmmakers and panelists alike connected issues of environmental racism, occurring 164 miles from Greensboro around the hog farms of Eastern North Carolina, in Duplin County, to students’ lives here at Guilford.
First, Clement and Weiner unclogged our noses to a stench of social injustice in Duplin County.
Opening the film with flitting shots of the familiar, hog meat at a butcher store, “Swine Country” quickly fades to the facts.
“According to the USDA, factory hog farms in Duplin County produce more pounds of pork than any other area in the United States,” narrated Brian Smith over clips of pigs crammed in rural Duplin County’s Confined Animal Feeding Operations.
As the documentary began, Bryan Jr. remained nearly as packed as the CAFOs of the film. Many audience members sat on the floor in between aisles.
“The county’s 2514 factory farms produce 8.8 million gallons of untreated swine waste per day,” said Smith. “The swine waste is collected in cesspools, lagoons, and applied to fields under the pretext of being fertilizer.”
Sprayed into the air, the hog waste becomes the air Duplin County residents breathe.
“When you inhale the waste…your eyes burn,” said Duplin County resident Elsie Herring in “Swine Country.” Herring is also a member of the Rural Empowerment Association for Community Health, a Duplin County community organization whose work features prominently in the film.
“You gag, you cough, you feel like you want to throw up,” added Herring.
“The air pollutants have a very noxious odor and they can irritate mucous membrane meaning the eyes and the nose and the throat,” said panelist Dr. Steve Wing, a UNC-Chapel Hill epidemiologist, in the film.
Through netting the film in the sanctity of professorial research and statistics, “Swine Country,” flows into first-hand accounts, turning a geographically distant problem into a sensually alarming issue.
“There’s a hog farm right down the street from me … I get the spray on me. I get the spray on my house. I get the spray on my car, spray on my clothes. I live in the waste of the Duplin County,” added resident Renee Miller later in the film.
The health of the river basin is also at stake.
“The most significant contributor of pollution to the rivers of Eastern North Carolina are the CAFOs,” said Rick Dove, CAFO photographer and former Neuse River keeper, in the film.
And yet, river pollutants flow directly back into the lives of the people.
Dove, a former commercial fisherman, began developing sores on his body from pfiesteria, a flesh-eating bacterium that, as reported in the film, has “multiplied due to swine, chicken, and poultry waste leaching into North Carolina’s streams, rivers, and groundwater.”
Finally, race cannot be ignored.
Duplin County’s poor, African-American communities inordinately bear the brunt of North Carolina’s flourishing hog industry.
After shifts in legislation corporatized the hog industry, Clement and Weiner outlined in the second half of the film, “black participation in the hog industry nearly vanished, and disproportionally African Americans are subject to the foul odors from white-owned CAFOs.”
Following the screening, Maia Dery, visiting instructor of photography and experiential learning, facilitated a panel discussion.
Dery, who helped guide Clement and Weiner through the project, completed as a part of the Cape Fear River Basin seminar, funneled the issues further upriver, undamming a discussion about the ethics of higher education.
“What should we as educators and students be doing to encourage responsible values-driven education with the tens of thousands of undergraduates that are here learning in this river basin?” asked Dery.
For a moment, no one answered.
“I would love to see more students … active in these issues, not just as an academic subject, but because it’s your world,” said Haw River keeper Elaine Chioso.
Devon Hall, program manager for REACH, roughly agreed.
“It’s going to take the youth stepping up,” said Hall. “The way to fight money is people.”
Just as Clement and Weiner animated statistics into stories, relying equally on the experiences of individuals as much as any scientific data, Larry Baldwin, CAFO coordinator for the Water Keeper Alliance, underscored the importance of academic research, breaking down a division between students’ work inside the classroom and social justice issues beyond.
“The research students do in universities gives us the appearance we need,” said Baldwin. “Research says ‘here’s the paper that proves what we’re saying.’”
After “Swine Country,” raised a perhaps uncomfortable awareness around environmental racism in Duplin County, Baldwin brought the issue claustrophobically close to home.
Pork feces are only as far away as your fork.
“This is not just Duplin County…. If you eat pork, you are contributing to the issue,” said Baldwin.
By the end of the discussion, as students filtered quickly out of the auditorium, equipped with the burden of this realization, attending first-year Megan Gaieth expressed a newfound feeling of agency.
“How could I feel I have no effect?” asked Gaieth. “As long as you keep consuming what they’re producing, you’re perpetuating the cycle.”
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