California: Hunger strikers take on stars in LA's battle of the lawns

It is a fight about how to clean up the leaves, but it has taken on the character of a human rights struggle. LA's poor - in the form of Hispanic gardeners - are taking on the rich for the right to annoy them and pollute the air as much as they do. Tim Cornwell reports from the front line.

The Latino gardeners who keep Los Angeles green and tidy yesterday vowed to continue their hunger strike outside the City Hall, where a small tent city sprang up last Friday. The issue: a council ban on leaf blowers, enacted at the behest of wealthy home-owners and Hollywood stars.

The sight of a Hispanic man with an engine strapped to his back and a giant nozzle in his hand, propelling leaves along the grass or pavement in a noisy cloud of dirt and smoke, has long been a fixture in the better- off areas of LA. It is a symbol of a city not only addicted to the internal combustion engine, but where immigrants from Latin America too often appear as second-class citizens, as maids, gardeners, and parking attendants.

Exactly how much pollution the leaf blowers add to LA's smog, compared with the engines of its giant cars, has never been calculated. It is the buzz-saw noise that has most infuriated the likes of Peter Graves, the Mission Impossible actor, and his wife, Joan. "We're all victims of this machine," he told the council.

The leaf blowers do indeed seem noisy and dirty. But the gardeners say that if they are limited to time-consuming brush or rake, they cannot make enough to live on by clearing lawns or drives - sometimes they do a dozen a day.

"We have a group of working people, and this is their basic tool that they use every day and we're saying you can't use it," council member Mike Hernandez, who represents the heavily Hispanic east LA, told a packed chamber.

The new law bans the use of petrol-powered leaf blowers within 500 feet of residential areas, at risk of fees and fines of $270 (pounds 170) for gardeners and those who hire them. Neighbours can call the police, or make a citizen's arrest. Mayor Richard Riordan, who supports the ban, is expected to sign the measure within 10 days.

A dozen people are now camped outside the City Hall, however, vowing to consume nothing but water and sports drinks. "The situation is really bad for us. We're staying until we have some action," said activist Adrian Alvarez, of Association of Latin American Gardeners.

Environmentalists, spearheaded by Joan Graves and actress Julie Newmar - Catwoman on the Batman television show - have campaigned for a dozen years to outlaw the blowers. Other Californian cities, including Beverly Hills, have already banned them. The law was first enacted in mid-1996, but voted through again today, by a 9-6 margin, with amendments that removed a threatened six-month jail term. A more realistic obstacle than the gardeners' protest may be a threatened law suit by the machines' manufacturers, who say it is impossible to lower their decibel level.