By Yael Falicov
El Salvador’s growing sugar cane industry, dominated by a small network of giant sugar cane mill companies, is one of the clearest threats to environmental health and well-being faced by our partners in the Bajo Lempa region. And it isn’t just thanks to the incredibly toxic chemicals they use and the severe environmental damage caused by sugar cane burning.
On my trip to El Salvador last week, I learned a lot about the way that El Salvador’s sugar cane industry is also contributing to increased flooding in some communities in the Bajo Lempa.
Two of the communities that faced the most severe flooding during October’s record-setting rains—Nueva Esperanza and Salinas del Potrero—had experienced very little flooding since Hurricane Mitch in 1998—that is, until last year.
Recently, new sugar cane fields were created in a wetlands area near these communities. The sugarcane growers drained the wetlands and created a culvert that now channels all the water towards those communities.
Nueva Esperanza is located 6 kilometers (about 3 miles) from the Lempa River. Since they had experienced very little flooding in the past, when the community was told to evacuate many people didn’t bother—at that point it wasn’t raining and the ground was dry at the time. Who would think that water released from the dam could flow 3 miles to an area that had barely ever flooded before?
When the water arrived it rushed in as a gigantic wall. The people of Nueva Esperanza told me that they heard a massive roaring sound as it approached and it came crashing through the community, catching them by surprise. The tremendous power of the flood pushed away cars, trucks, animals and appliances. Those who hadn’t evacuated had to climb onto rooftops and up into the church bell tower to survive.
This is just one problem of the many caused by sugar cane’s growing dominance in the area. Many local people live essentially as sharecroppers, as used to be the case amongst African American farmers in the US South. The largest sugar mill—reportedly owned by the Regalado family, one of the wealthiest families in El Salvador—controls much of the local economy.
I was told that the mill provides the fertilizers and pesticides for growing the cane on loan, and then subtracts that from the amount the growers receive at the harvest. The mill decides when and what to pay the farmers. The mill also mandates what chemicals must be used and when.
And those chemicals can be deadly. I learned that in La Papalota, dozens of people were taken to the hospital in 2009 after a crop-dusting plane accidentally sprayed their houses and poisoned them. I can only imagine the long-term health impacts to those families.
What we do know is that there is an epidemic of chronic kidney disease (CKD) in the area. Many of the families I met have at least one person dying of the disease, and the government has pledged to build a dialysis clinic in Ciudad Romero. –
A recent study in Nicaragua linked the chemicals used to grow conventional sugar cane to CKD. This is why we are supporting a local movement to regulate the spraying of pesticides, led by our partners at the Mangrove Association, with the support of five of the municipal governments in the Bay of Jiquilisco area.
Additionally, our partners at the Mangrove Association have been fostering viable economic alternatives for local farmers. They’ve been working with the Ministry of Agriculture to encourage farmers to grow seeds for basic staple crops instead of cane. The Ministry’s Family Agriculture Plan buys the seed and distributes them to thousands of farmers around the country in a major initiative to reduce the country’s reliance on Monsanto and other giant agribusiness companies.
Our partners convinced 450 farmers in the Lower Lempa region, many of whom were previously growing sugar cane, to grow corn seed for the Family Agriculture Plan this year. Those farmers received three to four times more for their crop than they typically receive for sugar cane—a win-win for all involved.
But now, I’ve been told, some of these farmers face the vengeance of the sugar cane industry. The mill has threatened to not repay them money owed from last year’s harvest, not unless they get back into growing sugar cane next season–an act of blackmail which is both illegal and outrageous.