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.

 

MARN Weak in Wake of Molasses Spill

DSC_0723Last week the Magdalena Sugar Mill in Santa Ana spilled 900,00 gallons of hot molasses into the Magdalena River, causing an environmental disaster. The spill is a reminder of how impotent the Ministry of the Environment is in protecting El Salvador’s natural resources.

In August 2015, the Constitutional Court ruled that the Ministry of the Environment cannot to impose fines against persons or corporations that violate environmental laws. The Environmental Court can find someone guilty of polluting, engaging in harmful activities without an environmental permit, or any other violation, but they cannot impose a fine.

The problem is Article 89 of the Environmental Law. When the Environmental Court finds someone guilty of violating the law, Article 89 says the Ministry should impose fines based on the daily salary for urban workers in San Salvador. Day fines are a common tool in Latin American countries for measuring appropriate penalties. If a person or business cuts down a forest without permission, or spills molasses into a river, the court can (in theory) fine them the equivalent of 2-100 or 101-5,000 days salary depending on the severity of the crime. The dollar amount of the day salary is based on the minimum wage for urban workers in San Salvador. Unfortunately, the minimum wage decree does not have a category for urban workers in San Salvador, therefore the Constitutional Court said the Ministry cannot levee any fines.

Following the molasses spill, the Environmental court ordered the Magdalena Mill to issue a public apology by taking an ad out in El Salvador’s two largest newspapers. They also have to come up with a cleanup plan. But the Ministry cannot impose a fine or otherwise punish the Mill. Their only real loss is the revenue that selling 900,000 gallons of molasses would have brought in had they not spilled it. At $150/ton, that would be a $789,500 loss. That is definitely a hit to the Mill, but it is not punitive nor does it compensate locals or the State for the damage to an important common resource and the clean up. El Salvador is in water crisis and damage to a river like the Magdalena is more serious than ever, especially to the 450 families that depend on it for their survival.

In December 2015 and again this week Environmental Minister Lina Pohl asked the Legislative Assembly to fix Article 89 so the Ministry can levee fines. It seems like this would be an easy one – they just need to change a couple words so that fines are based on an actual minimum wage or some other measure.

Unfortunately, the Legislative Assembly has a bad record on doing the right thing when it comes to the environment, food, and water. The current arrangement is ideal for powerful business interests – there is an environmental law but no real consequences for ignoring it. They can skip environmental permitting processes and pollute with impunity. These businesses have a lot of influence over the Legislature and are likely to oppose any effort to change Article 89, just as they have opposed the General Law on Water proposed in 2005 and efforts to amend the Constitution to recognize food sovereignty and access to water as basic human rights.

Residents of the Bajo Lempa region of Usulután have seen the Ministry’s impotence in action (or inaction). In trying to stop sugarcane growers from planting crops near mangrove forests, community leaders asked Ministry officials to stop the project, arguing that the project did not have an environmental permit. The Ministry told the communities that they could only ask the growers to go through the permitting process but could not do anything to stop them.

The Ministry of the Environment is good at writing reports and declaring states of emergency, but their mandate is so much more than that. The Ministry is tasked with ensuring that Salvadorans enjoy their Constitutional right to a clean, healthy environment. The reports and states of emergency detail just how badly the Ministry has failed over the years.

This has to change if El Salvador is going to address the water crisis and other pending disasters. The Legislature must reform Article 89 to give the Ministry some teeth, but then the Ministry has to use those teeth to go after poluuters. Similarly, the Legislature has to pass the General Water Law as drafted by civil society organizations in 2005, and finally recognize that all Salvadorans have the right to food sovereignty and access to water.

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.

El Salvador and Water: Chaos Reigns

 

El Salvador is facing a water crisis. Government officials say it’s due to a climate change-induced drought. We recently argued on this blog that the crisis is the result of unregulated development on fragile aquifer recharge zones. While these are serious problems, the bigger issue for the water crisis is that no one entity is responsible for managing water resources and ensuring they are used in a sustainable manner.

In the absence of water management, chaos reigns. The National Association of Aqueducts and Sewage (ANDA) provides water to 40% of the population. Another 40% of the population depends on no fewer than 2,366 local water boards (that’s 2,366 water boards in just 262 municipalities). The rest rely on private for-profit companies, wells, and other sources. In addition, the Ministry of Agriculture is supposed to regulate irrigation; while the Ministry of the Environment protects recharge zones, rivers and lakes; and the Ministry of Health makes sure water is clean. This patchwork system fails because government agencies do not fulfill their roles and no single entity is responsible.

The ensuing chaos and lack of oversight allows golf courses, bottling companies, sugarcane growers, and other private interests to use all the water they want, no matter how it affects local communities. One golf course mentioned in the news a couple weeks ago has all the water it needs while 75% of the nearby populations struggle to satisfy their daily needs. Similarly, residents of the Bajo Lempa region of Usulután report that sugarcane growers use so much ground water for irrigation that their wells are no longer deep enough and they don’t have enough water for their small farms.

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The right to water as a common good

Since the early 1990s and the implementation of neoliberal economic policies, Salvadorans have struggled over two competing visions for water management. Civil society organizations and communities argue that water is a common good and access is a basic human right. Accordingly, the government should protect water resources and ensure that all people have what they need to live healthy, productive lives. Business interests and conservative politicians argue that water is a commodity to be bought and sold, and the only way to satisfy demand to privatize and let the markets take over. These competing visions are not unique to El Salvador. The United States, Bolivia, India, and other countries around the world have struggled, at times violently, over whether water is a right or a commodity.

Civil society organizations have organized protests and marches, created an advocacy coalition (the Water Forum), and drafted legislation that recognizes water as a basic human right and regulates its use. The government and private actors have taken loans from the Inter-American Development Bank to facilitate privatized use of water, and drafted a law of their own. So far, the government has done nothing, forcing communities to take care of their own needs and allowing private interests to use all the water they want.

The one positive development is the 2,366 local water boards that provide services to communities that would otherwise go without. One example of a local board is the Association of Water Users in the Rural Areas of Tonacatepeque (ABAZORTO), which serves 1,700 families on the outskirts of San Salvador. In addition to providing water, ABAZORTO protects aquifer recharge areas with reforestation and conservation activities, and promotes sustainable agriculture. ABAZORTO has a model garden with 150 varieties of fruits and vegetables where they teach local farmers how to grow without using harmful agrochemicals that pollute rivers, streams, and groundwater. They also have a team of promoters that goes door-to-door and holds workshops in schools to teach the community about water management. ABAZORTO and other water boards are doing what the Legislative Assembly and Central Government are failing to do – managing water resources in a sustainable manner. But they cannot do it alone.

This week the President of ANDA and a block of FMLN legislators requested that the Legislative Assembly declare local water boards to be a social interest and exempt them from State fees leveed for water use. They also asked the Assembly to forgive outstanding debts water boards have for past use. This kind of support is an important part of water management, but it does nothing to stop private interests from exploiting the country’s water resources. The only way to accomplish that is by passing the General Water Law that the Water Forum proposed in 2005. The law would recognize water as a right, require sustainable management of water resources and recharge zones, and regulate private, for-profit use of water.

Environmental activist Carolina Amaya says the Legislative Assembly has not passed the Water Forum’s proposed law because business interests represented by conservative politicians want control over water resources. Their inaction and ongoing lack of water management is defacto privatization, in that private interests continue to use what they want with no oversight or regulation. Until that changes, El Salvador will continue to experience water crisis, no matter how many new pumps or miles of pipes that ANDA adds to the current system.

Extrajudicial Killings in El Salvador

This week, El Salvador’s Ombudsman for Human Rights, David Morales, reported that police and military forces likely committed extrajudicial executions on at least two separate occasions last year. One was the March 2015 massacre at the San Blas Finca in which security forces killed at least eight alleged gang members. The other was an August 2015 massacre at Los Pajales in Panchimalco in which security forces killed five alleged gang members.

The Ombudsman announced that, “in both cases we concluded that there were extrajudicial executions.” They reached their findings based on evidence that police moved bodies to make the scene appear like a shootout. In addition, some of the bodies showed signs of being beaten prior to being shot. Of the 13 killed in these two incidents, 4 were minors under the age of 18.

The Ombudsman also said that his office is reviewing 30 other incidents involving 100 deaths that they suspect to be cases of extrajudicial killings.

The allegations are not new. Experts have long suspected f that many of the shootouts reported in the papers are actually extrajudicial killings committed by police and military. Because the victims are reported to be gang members, few citizens or government officials ask questions or demand more information.

The Ombudsman’s announcement comes just over a year after President Sánchez Cerén’s administration said publicly that the police should use their weapons in defending against gangs without fearing that they will “suffer consequences.”

The question of extrajudicial killings of alleged gang members goes beyond on-duty police and military forces. In January 2016, the Ombudsman for Human Rights said, “in this country we see that there exists a pattern of violence concerning death squads. According to our observations as the Ombudsman’s Office, I presume the existence of these groups, it is very likely that they are in operation.” Just in the past year and a half, extermination groups have taken to social media to claim responsibility for many homicides of alleged gang members, but they are not investigated and the perpetrators continue to enjoy impunity.

As the Ombudsman announces their findings of extrajudicial killings, the government is doubling down on the use of force to combat gangs. The government recently deployed a special combat force to attack gangs in rural areas. It is comprised of 600 elite military soldiers and 400 members of the police, and will start by focusing on hard to reach rural areas where they believe that gangs are operating. Vice President Oscar Ortiz said, “This is a firm action that says to the gangs that the State is stronger.”

In addition, last week the Legislative Assembly passed reforms to the Penal Code and other laws making it illegal to provide aid to or act as a intermediary for gangs. It also makes it a crime for government officials to agree not to prosecute gangs or in any way negotiate with gang members. The penalty for being found guilty of violating these laws is up to 15 years in prison. Raul Mejango said the reforms “burn all boats that could somehow afford to find other solutions to this problem [of violence], betting solely on repression as the solution, and historically this has proven not to resolve the problem.”

What is especially terrible about extrajudicial killings, extermination groups, use of Special Forces, and the new laws is that repression and force this is the only approach the government is taking to addressing insecurity in El Salvador. Salvadorans need more. El Salvador is among the most violent countries in the world, and instead of moving towards long-term solutions, or even identifying the roots of the violence, the government is responding with even more violence and more repression.

The gang issue is complicated, and the violence and extortion perpetrated by these groups destroy communities around the country. Voices on the Border staff has seen this first hand. But reverting to wartime tactics will only lead to more violence and more violence. Gangs exist, at least in part, because there is a void created by socio-economic and political inequalities. Even if a militarized solution led to the destruction of the gangs, something else less than positive would take their place. And even in war, extrajudicial killings like those being reported by the Ombudsman for Human Rights would be a war crime and should be punished.

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.

The Water Crisis is not a Surprise

This week, El Salvador declared a State of Emergency in response to a major water shortage. ANDA says it is unable to extract the water it needs to satisfy the needs of the population. The most affected area is San Salvador.

water jugs - Roddy HughesThe lack of potable water is not a new issue for most Salvadorans. Impoverished communities in and around urban centers, as well as rural regions have struggled with limited access to water for many years. The issue has been so serious that ten years ago a coalition of El Salvador’s most prominent civil society organizations introduced a water law that, in part, recognized that all Salvadorans have the right to water. The proposed law was a response to years of reckless development, deforestation, unregulated dumping of solid and industrial waste, and poor management of water resources. The Legislative Assembly never approved the law.

In the 1990s and 2000s, activists tried to stop development projects in the El Espino Finca, an important forest at the base of the San Salvador Volcano. El Espino was a recharge zone for the largest aquifer in El Salvador, and one of the reasons for protecting it was to protect the country’s most important water resource. Activists lost and developers replaced the forests with high-end shopping centers, housing developments, golf courses, and highways. Activists also tried to stop development projects on the Cordillera del Balsamo. Government officials and developers ignored them and cut down trees, built homes, and paved roads. The La Prensa Grafica article about the State of Emergency cited the Altavista subdivision in Soyapango, a dense development of 38,000 homes, as an example of how bad development practices have diminished water supplies. As activists have argued for more than 20 years, if the government allows developers to cover recharge zones with buildings and roads, the ground will not absorb rainwater, and instead it will run off into the Pacific Ocean.

The current state of emergency is the price that Salvadorans are paying for many years of short-sited decisions that have generated wealth for a few, but put the greater population at risk of disaster.

In an interview this week, Lina Pohl said, “climate change is affecting water resources in El Salvador, so water levels in wells are falling.” There is no question that climate change is affecting El Salvador – at times there is no rain, at times there is too much. And climate-related storm surges have already caused salt water to contaminate wells in communities along the coast.

But the current crisis is more about reckless development and the mismanagement of water resources. Government agencies are responsible because they allowed developers to destroy the country’s natural resources. The Legislative Assembly is responsible for ignoring civil society organizations and their proposed General Water Law. Developers are responsible for putting their own economic interests over the wellbeing of the Salvadoran people. If these actors had not been so short-sited all these years, El Salvador would not be quite as vulnerable to the droughts and storms that climate change is bringing.

This crisis, however, is not just about sins of the past. The Ministry of the Environment still permits sugarcane growers to burn their fields before harvest. This bakes the soil, leaving it hard and unable to absorb rainwater and recharge aquifers along the coast. Government agencies still refuse to regulate the use of agrochemicals or stop illegal dumping of industrial waste, which pollute surface and ground water. And as El Faro pointed out this week, government agencies allow golf courses unlimited use of water supplies, while nearby populations go without.

It is good that the government has recognized the problem, though the solutions offered (some new pipes and pumps) are grossly insufficient, and will only allow for the more efficient depletion of groundwaters. Rain still won’t be able to soak into the ground and refill the aquifers, and surface waters will still be too polluted to use. It is time that the Legislative Assembly and Central Government take steps to undo twenty years of bad development; enforce environmental laws against agro-industry, factories, and all other large-scale development; begin managing water resources equitably; and pass the General Water Law proposed by civil society in 2005.