agriculture, Environment, Uncategorized

Large-Scale Sugarcane Production in El Salvador

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A field of sugarcane burning just before harvest

Residents of rural communities throughout El Salvador are concerned that large-scale sugarcane cultivation threatens their environment, public health, access to water, local economy, and food sovereignty. El Salvador has laws and procedures in place that should regulate sugarcane production, but government officials at the national and local levels have been unable or unwilling to enforce them. Salvadoran sugarcane production has grown in recent years due to the country’s embrace of neoliberal economic policies that emphasize, in part, free trade and unregulated markets. Unfortunately, the profits and wealth generated by the industry do not trickle down to the communities where it is grown.

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Last year, Voices on the Border staff accompanied residents of the Bajo Lempa of Jiquilisco, Usulután as they stopped investors from planting sugarcane near local mangrove forests, wetlands, and community centers. Despite their success, the ad hoc protests failed to produce any long-term changes. During the process, however, residents, community leaders, and local civil society organizations articulated a need for more information about sugarcane production and how it affects the region.

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Voices on the Border staff responded by researching the issue of sugarcane cultivation and producing this report (click on the images to see the report in English and Spanish). We did so with several audiences in mind. The first was our partner communities in the Bajo Lempa that suffer the effects of burning fields, contamination of agrochemicals, loss of biodiversity, and other impacts of large-scale sugarcane production. A second audience is the government officials that have the power to regulate the industry, to ensure they know how sugarcane is affecting the regions like the Bajo Lempa. A third audience is members of the international community who are concerned with issues related to El Salvador, climate change, food sovereignty, environmental justice, and other topics.

Over the next several months, Voices on the Border will organize events in the Bajo Lempa to disseminate our findings and hopefully start a larger conversation about the impacts of sugarcane and large-scale agriculture. We will support the region in any advocacy campaign the organize, and will post regular updates to this blog.

 

agriculture, Environment, Uncategorized

Molasses Spill Contaminates Magdalena River in Chalchalupa

Several aspects of El Salvador’s sugarcane industry are detrimental to the environment – deep plowing, heavy application of toxic agrochemicals, burning fields, and excessive use of groundwater to name a few. (Voices will be publishing a report on the impacts of sugarcane in the coming weeks).

Last week, however, the Magdalena Sugar Mill in Chalchuapa, Santa Ana added industrial spills to the list of environmental harms. On Thursday the Salvadoran Civil Protection Services warned that the mill spilled 900,000 gallons of molasses into the nearby Magdalena River, which feeds into the Paz River.

According to the Ministry of the Environment, on Thursday Mill workers realized that molasses from freshly processed cane was unusually hot, almost 400° F (200° C), so they mixed in water and chemicals to cool it off. That led to a chemical reaction that caused the molasses to spill out of the collection area and into the Magdalena River.

Molasses is the thick, black syrup left over when mills (there are 6 operating in El Salvador) boil cane juice and extract sugar. The mills sell molasses on the international market where it is further processed into biofuel, alcohol, animal feed, and other products.

Following the spill, Civil Protection evacuated two homes. One man was burned when he tried to rescue his dog, who was stuck in the hot molasses (sadly, the dog did not make it out). The spill affects at least 454 families in eight communities around Chalchuapa. A quarter of those families depend on the river to satisfy their domestic and agricultural water needs.

Lina Pohl, the Minister of the Environment said in an interview that the spill has killed fish as far as 5 km down river, and maybe further. She added that the chemicals added to the molasses to cool it down can also kill people if ingested. The seriousness of the spill forced the Ministry of the Environment to declare an environmental emergency, warning locals to stay away from the river and not to drink or use the water. An Environmental Court has opened a case against the Magdalena Sugarcane Mill, which may result in a fine.

Here is an update from the Minister of the Environment:

The spill and contamination of the Magdalena River reinforces the need to protect El Salvador’s water supplies. This is especially true considering the recent announcement that parts of El Salvador are experiencing water crisis. Over 90% of the country’s surface waters are contaminated with agricultural runoff and sewage, as well as untreated industrial waste.

The Ministry of the Environment, Civil Protection, and other agencies seem to be responding to this disaster appropriately and clean up is underway. But Government agencies have to do more to prevent such disasters. The Ministry is pretty good about identifying issues and writing reports, but very weak on regulation and enforcement. Government agencies have to work closely with private interests, communities, and civil society organizations to prevent disasters, and clean up the 90% of surface waters that are too contaminated to use.

agriculture, Climate Change, Environment, Food Security

Earth Day Celebration in Parque Cuzcatlán

On Sunday, hundreds of Salvadorans gathered in Parque Cuzcatlán in San Salvador to celebrate Earth Day. The theme was food sovereignty, and groups from around the country came to share heirloom seeds and farming techniques, and talk about stopping multinationals like Monsanto that want to control of all aspects of food production.

Our good friend Ebony Pleasants put together a very nice video of the event:

One quote from the woman interviewed in the video… “How is it possible that the transnational corporations are now saying that we can only use one type of seed? Monsanto has made many farmers [in El Salvador] dependent on their agro-business and the agrochemicals that they sell.  For us, agro-ecology is the alternative.”

One of the biggest threats to biodiversity and food sovereignty right now is large-scale sugarcane production. In the next few weeks, Voices will publish a report on sugarcane production in El Salvador, followed by a series of workshops and community meetings to discuss alternatives… and how to achieve food sovereignty.

The organizations and communities present at the event on Sunday was a demonstration of what is possible when communities are organized and united.

agriculture, Climate Change, Corruption, Economy, El Salvador Government

Carlos Rosario School Returns to El Salvador with New Delegates

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Voices had the pleasure of hosting a delegation from Carlos Rosario, a public charter school for adult immigrants in Washington, D.C. Seven of their staff came down to El Salvador, where a majority of students are from, in order to learn about the country and better understand their students’ roots. The delegates’ objective was to explore the broad reality of Salvadoran culture, economics and education as well as the dynamic effects that migration has on individuals, families and communities.

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After receiving a detailed explanation of the people’s history of El Salvador, they met with the Vice Minister of Education, Teacher’s Union Leaders, a human rights defender, visited the National Cathedral, the UCA, toured the Museum of Words and Images and bought a lot of good reads at Equipo Maiz. Then they traveled to Morazán where they talked with the pastoral team of Community Segundo Montes about the 9 years they’d spent in the refugee camps in Colomoncagua, Honduras. They got a thorough overview of the civil war at the Museum of Revolution in Perquin and reflected heavily after visiting El Mozote. In the lower Lempa River region, they stayed with hosts families in Amando Lopez and experienced life in agriculture based communities there and along the coast. They visited with local community leaders and teachers to hear their perspectives on development and education in the region, they donated much needed supplies to three separate schools and before it was all done they taught a class!

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The group was delightful. They asked great questions, covered a lot of ground, offered helpful suggestions, participated in meaningful dialogue and gave a gift to nearly everyone they met.

Carlos Rosario, thank you and keep up the good work in D.C.  |  READ THEIR BLOG!

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agriculture, Economy, Equality, Food Security

More Neoliberal Economic Policies Will Not Stop Unaccompanied Minors From Seeking Refuge

DSCF0020March 2-3, Vice President Joe Biden was in Guatemala with leaders from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB). Their agenda was to “accelerate the implementation of the Plan for the Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle (the Plan).” The meeting came just a month after Vice President Biden announced that the Obama Administration would ask Congress for $1 billion in aid for the region.

The purpose of the Alliance’s Plan, $1 billion fund, and the March meeting is to address the surge of unaccompanied minors leaving the Northern Triangle for the U.S. It’s an important goal. In FY2014, more than 60,000 youth were caught trying to enter the U.S. and government officials expect more than twice that in FY2015.

While the Plan arguably contains some constructive approaches towards decreasing violence, the emphasis is on implementing neoliberal economic policies. The proposal reads more like CAFTA-DR 2.0 or a World Bank structural adjustment plan, than an effort to stem the flow of emigration. The Northern Triangle and U.S. governments are proposing that foreign investment, more integrated economies, and free trade – and a gas pipeline – will provide the jobs and opportunities necessary to keep youth from seeking refuge in the U.S.

Income inequality and violence are the driving forces behind youth seeking refuge in the U.S., but its hard to imagine how more neoliberal economic policies, which many cite as the reason for inequality over the past 25 years, will do anything except ensure the region’s rich will remain so. A skeptic might even argue that the U.S. and Northern Triangle governments are using the “crisis” of violence and emigration in order to implement policies that further their own economic interests.

Increasing Foreign Investment and Investing in Our People

The Alliance Plan and other related documents emphasize that the solution to emigration, violence and inequality has to be economic – attracting foreign investment, unifying regional economies, increasing competitiveness in global markets, and training the workforce. The Plan, which was first published in September 2014, offers four Strategic Lines of Action. The first, and most detailed, is to stimulate the productive sector. The second is to develop opportunities for our people. Of the $1 billion grant from the U.S., $400 million will support these two lines of action.

Stimulating the productive sector means “attracting investment and promoting strategic sectors capable of stimulating growth and creating jobs… we will make more efficient use of our regional platform to reduce energy costs that stifle our industries and the national treasury, overcome infrastructural and logistical problems that curb growth and prevent better use of the regional market, and harmonize our quality standards to put them on par with what the global market requires.”

The Plan identifies four productive sectors: textiles, agro-industry, light manufacturing, and tourism, none of which are new to the Northern Triangle. Textile maquiladoras, sugarcane producers, factories, and tourism have exploited the region’s labor force and natural resources for years. They have created jobs, but ones in which workers are paid a sub-poverty minimum wage and endure a myriad of human rights abuses. Saskia Sassen wrote in 1998, and other since then report that so far the global economy has produced “a growing supply of poorly paid, semi-skilled or unskilled production jobs.” That has not changed in the past 17 years. When unions and workers try to negotiate better wages or working conditions, manufactures and investors simply leave. The environmental impacts of these sectors have been equally devastating, and will get exponentially worse if large-scale tourism, a gas-pipeline, and other industries are allowed to move forward.

While CAFTA-DR pretends to address labor and environment, and the “race to the bottom”, Northern Alliance governments provide detail about the concessions they will give to foreign investors. These include lower energy costs, infrastructure, and “harmonization” of standards, which some believe means an agreement on a very low bottom.

The U.S. and Northern Alliance countries have been implementing neo-liberal economic policies since the early 1990s; the same period that crime and gang violence began to proliferate. Privatization, dollarization, free trade agreements, maquiladoras, Millennium Challenge Corporation grants, Partnership for Growth, Public-Private Partnerships, and more have all been implemented over the past 25 years. The same period that crime and violence has skyrocketed.

As academics (good articles here and here) and campesino leaders in rural El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras have articulated for years – globalization and neoliberal economic policies are the reason for the high rates of inequality that has resulted in the high levels of crime and violence, and lack of opportunities that have forced youth to flee. Poverty and inequality are nothing new in the Northern Triangle, but Globalization and neoliberalism is simply the latest tools the elite use to maintain and grow their wealth.

Just this week, El Faro published an article titled “The Neoliberal Trap: Violent Individuals or Violent Situations ” that is based on 2013 study in El Salvador. The authors found that communities that are more isolated from the global community and depend sustenance agriculture were less likely to experience social isolation, gangs, crime and violence. Communities that have a greater market mentality are more socially isolated and prone to crime. The article argues, “The neoliberal reconstruction has renewed and amplified the conditions of alienation. Meanwhile, some elites embrace neoliberal reconstruction as a means of assuring their position in the new “transnational capital class of global capitalism, while a large part of the population is left out and has to fend for themselves.”

Colette Hellenkamp drew a similar conclusion in her piece War and Peace in El Salvador. She concludes, “The wealthy few in [the El Salvador] do whatever is necessary to maintain their riches and quench their thirst for comfort and power. Their status and wealth will not be threatened as long as they ensure that the masses remain uneducated and in chaos.” The crime and violence in El Salvador has certainly caused such chaos that instead of opening small shops and providing services the region’s otherwise hard-working and industrious workforce is leaving en masse.

Academics also point out that proponents of neo-liberal ideologies believe their model is perfect – “everyone benefits, not just some, all.” Those that don’t are referred to as the “underserving poor or the underclass that demonstrate two characteristics – they are underserving and predisposed to unlawful behavior. Proponents argue that free market, neoliberalism is perfect and if people don’t benefit, its not the market’s fault, it’s because people are lazy and prone to violence.

The Northern Alliance Plan is to double down on the neoliberal policies that sustain the same economic inequalities they say they are want to correct. Bur more sub-poverty, minimum wages will only serve to further stratify the economic and social classes.

Albert Einstein said, “We can not solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.” But that’s what the Northern Triangle Plan seems to want to try and do.

Violence and Security

Instead of focusing on more neoliberal economic policies, the Plan must focus on putting an end to the high rates of crime and violence.

Analysts agree that most of the youth detained on the U.S. border were fleeing violence. A report published by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees found that 58% of the minors interviewed “were forcibly displaced because they suffered or faced harms that indicated a potential or actual need for international protection.” The report identified two sources of violence – “organized armed criminal actors and violence at home.” A report written by Fulbright Fellow Elizabeth Kennedy found, “59 percent of Salvadoran boys and 61 percent of Salvadoran girls list crime, gang threats, or violence as a reason for their emigration. Whereas males most feared assault or death for not joining gangs or interacting with corrupt government officials, females most feared rape or disappearance at the hands of the same groups.” Other reasons for leaving included the lack of economic opportunities and reunification with family members in the U.S. But of those youth, “most referenced crime and violence (the chaos) as the underlying motive for their decision to reunify with family now rather than two years in the past or two years in the future.”

The proposal for decreasing violence in the Northern Triangle is a mixed bag at best. The Plan wants to invest more money into the same heavy-handed, militarized, law enforcement policies that have been failing for 25 years. Alexander Main provides a good critic of these policies in his Truthout article, Will Biden’s Billion-Dollar Plan Help Central America.

But its not all bad. There are some proposals in the Plan that focus on alternative conflict resolution, safe schools, trustworthy community policing, modernizing the justice system, and giving civil society and churches a greater role in prevention and rehabilitation. There are also needed reforms for ensuring better governance and addressing organized crime. One of the more positive ideas is to “improve prison systems, including infrastructure based on prisoner risk profiles, the capacity of prison staffs, and rehabilitation programs, including those focused on juvenile offenders and their prison conditions.”

El Salvador has even proposed an ambitious $2 billion plan that proposes similarly progressive policies for ending violence at the national level. The plan “promises parks, sports facilities, education and training programs for the country’s 50 most violent municipalities, as well as improvements to the worst prisons where the country’s biggest gangs – Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS13) and Calle 18 – have proliferated over the past decade.”

If implemented, these projects could help decrease levels of crime and violence, and calming the chaos that helps maintain high levels of inequality. But if academics and campesino leaders are right, and globalization is the cause of the inequality, these positive steps are unlikely to have any lasting impact. The undeserving poor will still be limited to working sub-poverty wages and have little if any social and economic mobility.

If Not More Neoliberal Economic Policies…

Stemming the flow of emigration is a complex task, and the Northern Triangle and U.S. governments are right to consider a multi-faceted approach that aims to provide economic opportunities, end violence, and address other deficiencies.

Instead of more neoliberal economic policies, the Northern Triangle and U.S. governments, and the IADB should focus their plan on making the region safe from crime and violence. There are very smart, informed civil society leaders who have put forth some very reasonable proposals. The governments should do more to work with them to implement their ideas and proposals on a large scale. The plan articulates some of these ideas, but instead of taking second place to more neoliberalism, they should be at the heart of the proposal.

The solution should include creating economic opportunities, but that does not require foreign investors or selling out the region’s workforce and environment. Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Hondurans are known as hardworking and industrious. Instead of building infrastructure and providing incentives to multinational corporations, the governments should focus those investments on supporting and incentivizing local, small businesses. That does not mean small business loans, but it might mean making it more difficult for international corporations like Walmart to run all the mom-and-pop shops out of business. Family businesses do more than provide jobs; they build neighborhoods and social networks.

Instead of promoting agro-industry and exports, as proposed by the Plan and Partnership for Growth, governments should support communities in their efforts to promote food security and sovereignty. El Salvador’s family seed program, for example is an example of a relatively low cost government action that supports small family farmers that are trying to feed their family and contribute to their local economy. In 2013, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development called for 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.”

There are solutions. The only question is motive and whether policy makers are really interested in addressing emigration, violence, and economic inequality, or using the chaos and “crises” as means to further their own economic interests. This month, President Sanchez Cerén and the Legislative Assembly declared March 26 as the National Day of Peace, Life and Justice – a day in which all Salvadorans will unite and demand an end to the violence and chaos. But even this simple idea of bringing people together was too much for the business class. ANEP (El Salvador’s Chamber of Commerce) came out against the Day of Peace, Life, and Justice, argues that celebrating a National Day of Peace would cost El Salvador $56 million in lost economic opportunities. ANEP representatives argue, “the suspension of just one day of work will cost Salvadorans more that 56 million dollars, and could result in the loss of contracts from export businesses, and thus the employment of workers.”

Their position could be one of pure practicality. More likely it is a true reflection of their priorities – money and profits over peace, life, and justice.

agriculture, Environment

The Sugarcane Standoff in La Tirana

Wednesday morning tensions on the San Juan del Gozo Peninsula peaked when 60 people from eight communities gathered on farmland outside La Tirana to stop tractors from plowing 680 acres for sugarcane production.

MontecristoWorkers had already begun plowing when the communities arrived, so they surrounded the tractors and made them stop. The men plowing were not interested in a confrontation so they shut down their equipment and tried to call their boss. The boss was unavailable so they left the site. Naún Diaz, a community leader from La Tirana, said they were hoping the owner would come talk to them, but he never arrived.

As mentioned in two earlier posts this week (click here and here), residents oppose sugarcane production due to the impact on the environment. Don Jorge, a resident of La Tirana told Voices’ staff “it’s their land and they can’t plant about anything they want, just not sugarcane. They can raise potatoes, cattle, corn… anything but sugarcane.”

While there is a break in plowing, community leaders continue their efforts to get the Ministry of Agriculture or the Ministry of the Environment to intervene. Both have jurisdiction, but so far, no one has responded to calls or letters. Voices staff learned today that a mid-level employee from the Ministry of the Environment failed to pass on a letter the communities wrote to Environmental Minister Lina Pohl asking for help. In the coming days Voices and other civil society organizations will be following up with the Ministry to determine what happened to the letter and ensure a copy finally reaches Minister Pohl. Don Jorge from La Tirana calls on Minister Pohl “to give the vulnerable people in the region and Bajo Lempa priority.”

Mr. Diaz said that on Monday, fifteen community leaders visited City Hall in Jiquilisco with the hopes that “the Municipal Environmental Unit or the Mayor [David Barahona] would promote a municipal ordinance against sugarcane cultivation. He added, “it’s our hope that [Mayor Barahona] will support us in this way. We are in his municipality and he has to do something positive that benefits the communities.

La Tirana has been quiet since Wednesday, but the issue is far from over. The investor who signed a 15-year lease for the land is unlikely to just walk away from it or the idea that he can plant sugarcane. And the communities are emphatic that they will not allow sugarcane production near the mangroves.

Mr. Diaz said the communities are “ready to stop the cultivation of sugarcane [so close to their natural resources], but the Ministry of the Environment or Ministry of Agriculture should help [resolve the situation].” Voices and other civil society organizations are also working to find legal and political ways to protect the region from sugarcane production.

agriculture, Environment

Another Day of Protest on the San Juan del Gozo Peninsula

Tensions are rising on the San Juan del Gozo Peninsula this morning. Tuesday, workers arrived in La Tirana with tractors to start preparing more than 680 acres for planting sugarcane. On Monday residents of La Tirana and other communities blocked access to the region and met with the David Barahona, the Mayor of Jiquilisco in an effort to prevent direct confrontation with the sugarcane grower.

La CanoaAs the tractors rolled in yesterday, community members gathered along the road to protest. They are engaging in a much larger action this morning in order to stop workers from breaking ground. Local leaders have called the police, the Ministry of the Environment, and members of the press. Representatives from Voices, ACUDESBAL, ADIBAL, CESTA and other civil society organizations are also present.

The Law on the Environment requires that agricultural projects like large-scale sugarcane production should receive an environmental permit before they begin. The process for getting a permit requires an environmental impact statement, public hearings and other steps that are to ensure an activity does not harm the environment or surrounding communities. The Law on Protected Areas also requires that most if not all of the 680 acres should be designated a buffer zone due to its proximity to the mangrove forests and turtle nesting grounds.

Community leaders were hoping to stop the sugarcane production using the law and political process. Unfortunately, those systems still don’t work for peasant communities and residents are having to take more direct action, such as cutting off access to the region.

As mentioned in yesterday’s post, communities oppose sugarcane production because the adverse affects that agrochemicals and burning fields will have on the region’s mangrove forest and undeveloped beaches where at least four variety of sea turtles nest. The land targeted for sugarcane production is adjacent to some of the most pristine mangrove forests in Central America. Any agrochemicals sprayed or used on the sugarcane will immediately drift or leach into mangroves via a tidal estuary that comes within 100 feet of the field. The leaching agrochemicals will carry the toxic agrochemicals through the forest, killing vegetation and the wildlife.

The two communities that will be most affected are La Tirana and Monte Cristo, both of which are located in the mangroves and depend on crab (punches in Spanish), clams, and fish for their survival. The town of San Juan del Gozo will also be adversely affected as the sugarcane production will contaminate the pond, rivers, and forests where residents life and work.

Naún Diaz, a community leader from La Tirana says the forests sustain them – if the mangroves are healthy, the people are healthy. But if the mangroves are weak the people cannot survive. So when residents go out to block the road this morning, they will be defending their very existence.

(we will most an update later today or tomorrow with news on this mornings activities)