On November 19, over 300 people gathered at the office of the Mangrove Association , EcoViva’s partner organization in El Salvador, to draw attention to the impacts of sugar cane plantations on communities living in and near the Bay of Jiquilisco Biosphere Reserve, El Salvador’s largest protected area. It was powerful to see national, regional and local actors joining with community leaders as they voiced concerns about the health and environmental risks posed by sugar cane plantations and the typical agricultural practices of the sector.
Serving as a stark reminder of the human toll of the sugar cane industry is the case of 8 year-old local resident Jason Lopez. The left side of his body completely covered from head to toe to protect recent burn scars, Jason stood during the event to present the Mayor of Jiquilisco, David Barahona, with a copy of the proposed legal mandate to limit particularly harmful practices occurring during the cultivation and harvest of sugar cane.
“Mr. Mayor, I present you this proposed law so that more children are not burned in the sugar cane fields, so that you can tell the producers not to burn their fields, and so that our children are healthy,” he said.
The proposed law will limit certain practices of the sugar cane plantations, including indiscriminate pesticide and fertilizer application, deforestation and burning before the harvest. It was written the help of legal expertise from the University of El Salvador and has the backing of eight coastal government districts and many community organizations.
A new coalition of local governments and community groups called the Movement for the Defense of Natural Resources and Human Life, headed up by the Mangrove Association, is leading a regional effort to eliminate these harmful practices that are commonplace in El Salvador’s highly unregulated sugar cane sector. According to members of the Movement, all of these practices have had a measurable impact on community health and local ecology.
Some national and local officials, including Mr. Barahona, believe that an unusually high local incidence of chronic kidney failure can be linked to the presence of specific agricultural chemicals in the groundwater, and he is calling on national agencies to take emergency action.
The practice of burning before the harvest is another critical issue. Even if Jason Lopez’s injuries are severe, he is one of the lucky ones. In 1996, an infant was reported to have been killed during a similar burning operation that is routine during the sugar cane harvest. Though burning is known to reduce soil productivity and even sugar content in the cane plant itself, it is still used to improve harvesting efficiency.
Members of the Mangrove Association heralded this event as a positive sign that the public is growing more aware of the health and environmental problems posed by the sugar cane sector, and that a solution needs to be found. While presenting the negative impact of sugar cane in the Lower Lempa, staff members also proposed several alternatives to current practices, including the use of sugar cane varieties less dependent on chemical inputs, the prohibition of burning, and changes in land use regulations. There is hope that productive dialogue with the sugar cane industry, together with effective government regulation, may lead to positive changes for the sugar plantations and the communities that surround them.
Post written by: Nathan Weller, Policy and Program Director, EcoViva
Example of Poster Used by Communities to Organize: