Sugarcane production has more than doubled in El Salvador over the last several decades, especially in the eastern region surrounding the Bay of Jiquilisco. The department of Usulután, particularly in the Lower Lempa zone where our partners the Mangrove Association and La Coordinadora del Bajo Lempa are based, has experienced the greatest growth rates since the 1970s, with a 93 percent increase in the amount of land used to harvest sugarcane. In the blog series Sugar, Sustainability, Society, EcoViva explores the implications of sugarcane production for our partner communities and their work in promoting sustainable livelihoods and social inclusion.
This is the first installment of the tripartite series. Read the second blog, “Kidneys, Chemicals, and Clinics: What Rural Communities and the Salvadoran Government Are Doing About a Global Epidemic,” here, and the final blog, “Sugar and El Salvador’s Economic and Social Woes: Not Just a Tempest in Your Coffee Cup,” here.
Since activists have exposed poor corporate practices, linking Nike with the stigma of sweatshop labor and Walmart with worker abuse in the public mind, companies have had to respond. Companies now create social sustainability platforms, report their carbon footprint and environmental scorecard, disclose labor policies, and promote a discourse within the private sector grounded in the triple bottom line: profits, planet, and people.
Such movements are both encouraging and admirable. However, not all social responsibility platforms are created equally.
El Salvador celebrates a week of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) for the third year in a row this week from July 20 to 24, hosted by the Salvadoran Business Foundation for Social Action (FUNDEMAS). The week will host panel discussions and presentations on the “The Role of Leadership in Sustainability,” “Generating Value for the Country,” and “The Value of Being Big.”
One of the bigger businesses that will attend is the Salvadoran Sugar Company, or CASSA Group. Accounting for two of the six sugar mills in El Salvador, the CASSA Group represented approximately 45 percent of the country’s prosperous sugar industry during the 2012-2013 sugar cycle. That’s economic activity amounting to nearly US $384 million.
Historically, sugar production throughout Central America has been linked to child labor, health concerns for workers – including chronic kidney disease, the second leading cause of mortality for working men – and environmental impact such as water contamination, chemical runoff, and soil degradation. The industry has responded to these social and environmental injustices with businesses such as the CASSA Group adopting CSR and best management practices to improve worker conditions, prohibit child labor, and reduce their environmental impact, all while boosting their public image.
Though initial efforts are welcome, they are by no means complete, nor are they to scale. Within its yearly sustainability report [PDF], CASSA boasts that in 2014 it committed to harvesting 4,018 hectares of sugarcane using “green” methods, which prohibits the traditional pre-harvest burning. Pre-harvest burning indiscriminately eliminates unused biomass, pests, wildlife, and soil nutrients, leaving the land scorched and infertile. While efforts by businesses to reduce such harmful practices are welcome, green harvests accounted for less than 6 percent of CASSA’s total harvest that year. The industry as a whole harvested 4.5 percent of sugarcane in 2014 using green methods. Moreover, green harvests don’t directly address the exorbitant amounts of chemicals applied to crops or the industry’s large water footprint.
Following the Sugar
Supply chain management is a principle component of a truly embedded sustainability platform. Sugarcane mills such as CASSA fall short in monitoring the impact of their sugar supply and incentivizing good practices in sugarcane fields. Rather, they continue to encourage harmful practices such as aerial spraying of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. With sugarcane fields and rural communities side-by-side in places like the Lower Lempa, aerial fumigation lands on crop and neighboring homes, schools, and health centers alike. Moreover, aerial spraying and excess runoff contaminate domestic water-wells, nearby natural resources, and adjacent agriculture and aquaculture production.
Supply chain management is also at the core of big, impactful change. Large actors such as food processors, value-added manufacturers and retailers, have the influence and financial standing to drive change through their supply chain. Imagine Walmart taking a stand against food produced with glyphosate: agribusinesses around the world would radically shift their production techniques to fit the requirements of the retail giant. On the other hand, supply chain management can be a headache, requiring large businesses to monitor and regulate their often disperse and distant suppliers.
Simply recording and publishing their comprehensive impact along the supply chain would also measurably improve sugar mills social accountability. Transparent recording helps to demonstrate that they recognize the gaps in their CSR and to highlight low-hanging fruit. The Salvadoran Sugar Foundation (FUNDAZUCAR) reports on its website that it is working with a consultant to evaluate the value chain and identify “relevant aspects of social responsibility”; however, the results of the diagnosis are not currently available.
Government or Business: Who will Lead?
Where companies’ social responsibility initiatives fall short, government must ensure that communities’ health and livelihoods are protected. Governments need to incentivize and/or require industries to meet higher social and environmental standards. Central governments, however, are often physically distanced from the impact of business on local communities and ecosystems, especially in El Salvador. This makes regional governments, alongside civil society, better positioned to closely monitor businesses’ environmental and social impact.
The municipal government of Jiquilisco is stepping up to fulfill its role in protecting civilians rights and requiring the sugarcane industry to meet its social responsibility. With technical support from EcoViva and the Mangrove Association, the municipality is drafting an ordinance to regulate the harmful practices of sugarcane production, including aerial fumigation and chemical application, pre-harvest burning, and water consumption. Its goal is to ensure the health and well-being of rural communities and surrounding natural resources. The municipality has emphasized the importance of public consultation and participation from community organizations, civil society, national ministries, and the private sector. To begin the consultation process, the municipal council presented on July 16 to the Roundtable for Environmental Management of the Bay of Jiquilisco, enabling a future space for public comment and suggestions.
Sugar harvests begin November 1. Businesses can use the three months until then to take the lead in adopting serious CSR measures to manage their supply chains, or they can simply wait until local governments make the industry innovate.