The Bitter Taste of Sugar

By: Voices on the Border

Fotografía: Al Jazeera. Quema de caña de azúcar en el Bajo Lempa.

Fotografía: Al Jazeera. Quema de caña de azúcar en el Bajo Lempa.

Originally from Southeast Asia, sugarcane arrived in the Caribbean Islands on Christopher Columbus’ second voyage in 1494 and its cultivation expanded rapidly throughout much of the continent. Sugarcane is now one of the main export products from tropical countries like El Salvador, where it accounts for 2.8% of the gross national product and almost 20% of agricultural production.

Mario Salvverria, president of the Salvadoran Association of Sugar Producers and former Minister of Agriculture said that sugarcane is not only resistant to the impacts of climate change, the last sugarcane harvest (2011-2012) actually grew by 10% over the previous harvest, reaching 15 million quintals. With that, El Salvador has gone from being a major industrial sugarcane producing country in Central America to being in the ninth largest exporter of raw sugar in the world.

The Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) is one factor that has stimulated the increase in production. CAFTA assigns export quotas that increase annually. For example, the sugarcane quota for the 2011-2012 harvest was set at 645,217.38 quintals (142,246 pounds), but for the 2012-2013 harvest it will be 673,913.03 quintals (148,572 pounds).

But the economic growth enjoyed by the sugarcane sector must be contrasted with the tragedy lived out by the communities located in regions where production has expanded. One of the regions most affected by mono-cultivation of sugar is the Lower Lempa region of Usultuan. The local population has denounced the destruction of biodiversity, consumption of water sources, depletion of agricultural land, destruction of traditional campesino agricultural traditions, and the health of the people exposed to agrochemicals and the methods used to spray them.

The Confederation of Federations of Salvadoran Agrarian Reform (CONFRAS) recently completed a study that included the Lower Lempa that determined that the cultivation of sugarcane uses at least eight different pesticides. Among them are Glyphosate, which is a controversial herbicide that environmentalist around the world would like to see banned.

This is one of the reasons that the Lower Lempa reports high rates of kidney disease, a problem evidenced by the results of a 2009 study completed by doctors from the Kidney Institute of Havana, Cuba. Their investigation revealed that 11 of every 100 residents of the Lower Lempa were suffering from kidney disease, and that in the Community of Ciudad Romero 30 people had already died within the past three years. The large majority of cases are reported in men – 25.7% of men tested were positive for kidney problems, while only 11.8% of women tested were positive. Cuban nephrologist Carlos Orantes led the study explained at the time that the problem is associated with a variety of factors, among them is agrochemicals.

The real problem for the communities is the burning of the sugarcane fields, the objective of which is to increase production of the workers who cut the cane by reducing the end product to the cane by burning off the unnecessary green leaves so they are not shipped to the plant. Ricardo Navarro from CESTA/Friends of the Earth stresses that the burning process has the highest environmental costs in that it destroys the soil and biodiversity, alters the local microclimate, contaminates the air, and generates greenhouse gases. The Sugarcane Producers Association of El Salvador, however, has said that the environmental impact of sugarcane production is positive. He says on the Association’s website that “planting a hectacre of sugarcane is the same as planting two hectacres of native forest.”

While few enjoy the sweet economic benefits of sugar, many suffer the bitter impacts of its production without the Salvadoran State institutions acting to take meaningful action to prevent damage.

**This article was first published in Spanish on Tuesday as an opinion piece by the Diario C0-Latino.

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