Is Selling Sugar to China Really Such a Sweet Deal for El Salvador?

Salvadoran government officials recently announced a deal to export 52,000 tons of sugar (12% of the country’s annual production) to China in a deal worth $15-20 million to local producers. El Salvador has sold sugar to South Korea, Taiwan, the U.S., Mexico, Canada, Indonesia, and the European Union, but this is the first time exporting to China.

Sugarcane burning in the Bajo Lempa

Sugarcane burning in the Bajo Lempa

With Partnership for Growth pressing El Salvador to produce more exports, sugarcane has become a larger part of the country’s economic plan. Already, sugarcane production has created 50,000 direct jobs and 200,000 more indirect jobs. This week Vice President Oscar Ortiz said “This is the key, this is the solution for our country: to diversify our production of exports. We are unable to be alone in a market, we have to be open to a variety of markets and in this direction we have to have the ability to improve our process of commercialization.”

Exporting $15-20 million of sugar to China and creating 250,000 jobs may sound like a sweet deal, but El Salvador is paying a substantial price. In addition to labor, agrochemicals, machinery, processing, and shipping, there are enormous costs related to the environment, public health, food sovereignty, and local culture. The individuals and corporations profiting from sugarcane exports don’t pay these costs. Instead they pass the debt on to the country’s poor who earn sub-poverty wages, suffer from chronic renal failure and other diseases, live in depleted ecosystems, struggle to feed their families, and are forced to migrate to urban areas.

DSCF0037Last year, Voices staff spoke with a team of migrant workers from Santa Ana cutting cane in a field in Usulután. They said they earn the agricultural minimum wage for cutting sugarcane 14-hours a day during the hottest months of the year. In 2014, the minimum wage for agricultural workers was $3.79/day. In 2015, it is up to $3.94/day. That is less than half of what is needed to feed a family. When these migrant workers arrive in a field of ripe sugarcane, they begin by burning the field to defoliate the cane, making it faster and cheaper to harvest, transport and process. The next day, as the field smolders, workers use machetes to cut the cane and pile it into rows. A tractor then loads the cane into tractor-trailers that deliver it to a processing plant. Yes, these and others workers have jobs, but they still live in abject poverty.

Another issue with sugarcane exports is way it is grown – large-scale monoculture production that relies on agrochemicals and is burned before harvest. Monoculture production of any crop destroys local ecosystems and displaces or kills the wildlife and people that once depended on them. When an ecosystem is destroyed, soil structures and natural defense systems deteriorate, requiring inputs such as fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, and many other toxic agrochemicals that contaminate local communities, rivers, streams, fields and forests. Many of these chemicals are linked to high rates of chronic renal failure, cancer, and other diseases common where sugarcane is produced.

Perhaps the most egregious practice with sugarcane production is burning the fields before harvest. Once alight, sugarcane burns quickly, flames and smoke snapping acre to acre, throwing thick black smoke, ash, and soot high into the air before snowing down on schools, soccer fields, homes, farms, and communities. The particulates include residues of all the agrochemicals that had been sprayed on the fields the months before. In addition to contaminating surrounding communities, burning sugarcane emits large quantities of greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change.

The use of toxic agrochemicals and burning of fields motivated residents of La Tirana, Monte Cristo, San Juan del Gozo and other communities to oppose large-scale sugarcane production next to mangrove forests on the San Juan del Gozo Peninsula. Residents fear that Glyphosate and other agrochemicals would have an adverse affect on their health and destroy the valuable and fragile ecosystem that they depend on.

In addition to the environmental impacts, large-scale sugarcane production also disrupts the local economy and culture. Rural communities in El Salvador have traditionally supported themselves by growing corn, beans, rice and other crops. Farmers generally keep a portion of what they grew to feed their family and sell the rest at local markets to generate a modest income. While small-scale farming will not generate the kind of concentrated wealth that large-scale monoculture can, it is a more sustainable way to live. And the campesino culture has always been one of humility, respect, and simplicity.

In 2013, the UN Commission on Trade and Development published a report titled “Wake Up Before It’s Too Late”. One of the report’s findings is “the world needs a paradigm shift in agricultural development: from a ‘green revolution’ to an ‘ecological intensification’ approach. This implies a rapid and significant shift from conventional, monoculture-based and high external-input-dependent industrial production towards mosaics of sustainable, regenerative production systems that also considerably improve the productivity of small-scale farmers.”

El Salvador’s focus on producing more sugarcane and other export crops does just the opposite. It is doubling down on monoculture production at the cost of small-scale farming. Monocultural production displaces families when they rent, sell, or otherwise lose their land sugarcane producers. There has been a long trend of farming families moving to urban areas where at best they work for minimum wage jobs. Idle youth lack access to education and are subject to the violence and gang culture that El Salvador has become famous for.

Selling $15-20 million in sugarcane may be good for a few Salvadorans, but the money does not pay for or trickle down to people who are bearing the environmental, health, economic, and cultural impacts. The demand for sugarcane is going to grow and the Salvadoran and U.S. governments will continue to promote it as a way to develop the stagnant economy. But Salvadorans should have to an informed debate about whether they are willing to pay the real costs of sugarcane.

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