Government institutes common-sense limits on burning, while industry motions toward 100% sustainability by 2020.
El Salvador experienced its driest period in over 40 years this past summer. The drought caused major crop loss across Central America, and family farmers who depend on rain have been hit particularly hard. Rivers, lakes, and groundwater levels have also been greatly impacted; the Bay of Jiquilisco watershed will be an estimated 50 to 70 percent below normal levels through April 2016.
Drier conditions also mean a greater risk of forest fires. In response, El Salvador’s Ministry of Environment recently announced a ban on agricultural burning during high winds. By monitoring wind patterns in the Environmental Observatory – a national climate monitoring center – the Ministry will be able to give notice of burning restrictions two days in advance.
Agricultural burning is common in El Salvador, for clearing grassland and farming waste as well as preparing crops like sugarcane for harvest. But although burning makes harvest cheaper, it has a major impact on the health of people and the environment. Burning contaminates air and contributes to carbon emissions. And, as the latest restriction on burning indicates, agricultural burning threatens protected areas like the mangrove forest of the Bay of Jiquilisco, a critical ecosystem for countless species as well nearby farming and fishing communities.
The Ministry is taking other proactive measures to mitigate forest fires in national protected areas. They have already provided firefighting equipment to many areas, and, in collaboration with local governments and organizations, they plan to dig 110 km of firebreak trenches in strategic locations to slow the progress of potentially destructive forest fires.
Not long after announcing the burning ban, the Ministry of Environment clarified its position in a tweet: “The decree prohibiting burning during high winds is meant to avoid forest fires, but burning should be eradicated [entirely].”
El decreto que prohíbe las quemas durante vientos fuertes está orientado a evitar los incendios forestales, pero se debe erradicar la quema
— MARN El Salvador (@MARN_Oficial_SV) January 14, 2016
The prohibition on burning coincides with this week’s release of the sugar industry’s plan to improve sustainability in sugarcane cultivation, including a manual of best practices for sugarcane producers. These steps are reportedly being made to bring the Salvadoran sugar industry up to the environmental standard of certifiers like “Bonsucro”, as well as meet goals set forth by El Salvador to completely transform all harmful land use practices in sugar by 2020.
Time will tell if the sugar industry’s proposal represents a legitimate turn toward improving performance along their supply chain, and the impact that some 7,000 growers have on the environment and economy in adjacent rural communities. New handbooks on “best practices” may be smart public relations, but instituting their industry-wide adoption takes commitment beyond the press conference. Indeed, the widespread adoption of sustainable methods promised by some in the sugar industry would be an unprecedented shift from their status quo behavior in El Salvador’s economy. In 2014, just 4.5% of sugarcane in El Salvador was harvested using similar “best practices.”
While the Ministry’s recent actions on burning represent sound rural policy, it is just an initial step out of the many that need to be taken by public and private entities alike in adopting more sustainable methods, and enforcing a higher standard of rural living.