Environment

Another Molasses Spill in El Salvador

El Salvador has had another molasses spill. This time as much as 2.5 million gallons has poured into the Cañas River. The spill occurred at the Salvadoran Distillery located at km 15.5 on the Troncal del Norte highway in Apopa, north of San Salvador. In the past, the Cabaña and Jiboa Sugarcane Mills leased the facility to make alcohol, though it is unclear if either facility was involved in this incident.

A representative of the Sugarcane Association reported the spill to authorities yesterday morning (Wednesday, June 1) at 11:30, claiming it had occurred just a couple hours earlier. Residents, however, report that there was a strange smell in the air and molasses in the river as early as Sunday. Mauricio Quinteros, the Director of Operations for the Sugarcane Association, told the Ministry of the Environment (MARN) that the molasses had been in the facility about a month and that the cause of the spill remains unknown.

The storage facility at the Distillery is close to the Cañas River. When the molasses leaked it ran straight into the river. Footage of the spill shows steaming hot molasses pouring out of an old, single story industrial building, and running towards the Cañas, while photos on the MARN website show the thick, black molasses actually entering the river.

One report from the  MARN says that even though the Apopa spill is larger, the damage is not as serious as the La Magdelena spill in May because the Cañas River is already so polluted that nothing can live in it – it’s a dead river. The Magdalena River was clean in comparison.

The Apopa spill comes less than a month after the Magdalena Mill in Santa Ana spilled more than 900,000 gallons of molasses into the Magdalena River. Following that spill, the El Salvador’s Environmental Court ordered the Ministry of the environment to inspect all the mills to determine what measures they have in place to prevent future disasters.

The Apopa facility, however, was unregistered and did not have an environmental permit, so the Ministry of the Environment did not know it was being used for storing molasses. The Minister of the Environment Lina Pohl said, “this is an illegal storage facility. We in the Ministry did not have any idea that it existed. This distillery is not open and has not been in operation since 2006. None of the of the mills (Jiboa and Las Cabaña) that leased the place have applied for a permit to use the facility to store molasses.”

So far there is little information about who is responsible for the spill or whether they will be held responsible for the disaster. Minister Pohl said that the MARN’s job is to collect information and evidence, and that it is the Attorney General’s responsibility to file charges when crimes are committed.

Last week Voices on the Border released a report on large-scale sugarcane production in El Salvador. The report details the affects that tilling, application of agrochemicals, burning of fields, and use of ground water for irrigation has on the environment and nearby communities. Though the report does not discuss contamination of rivers and communities with molasses, it is proving to be a serious issue as well – one the MARN and other law enforcement agencies should be regulating more carefully. Unfortunately, government agencies seem to lack the will or authority necessary to protect El Salvador’s remaining natural resources. People and corporations have every reason to keep polluting, knowing that at least for now they enjoy almost complete impunity.

The communities that depend on the Magdalena River report that life is back to normal for them – less than a month after the spill. They say the water is crystal clean and they are able to use it again for washing clothes, bathing, and other domestic purposes. The Magdalena Sugar mill says it spent $200,000 in labor to clean up the mess, and that they will soon repopulate the river with fish and plant trees in the areas affected by the spill. The Attorney General’s Office reported in May that they have opened an investigation to determine whether the Magdalena Mill will face criminal charges. We’ll see…

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During these molasses spills, the Minister of the Environment and other government officials have been quick to voice their outrage, giving dramatic interviews in front of rivers of steaming molasses. These spills are outrageous and their response is justified, but it seems somewhat disingenuous in a country where 90% of rivers and lakes are polluted, and spills like this are a fact of life.Factories, municipalities, and others regularly dump untreated industrial waste and sewage into rivers without attracting the kind of attention these spills are getting.

And other aspects of large-scale sugarcane production are arguably worse than the occasional molasses spill. Burning sugarcane fields, which is a violation of the Salvadoran Penal Code (large-scale sugarcane production should not fall into the strictly cultural exception), should also generate outrage because it destroys land and makes people sick. Using crop dusters to spray deadly agrochemicals on sugarcane should also generate outrage because most of it drifts and settles on nearby homes, schools, soccer fields, and farms, also making people sick. Destructive tilling practices used in sugarcane production are also outrageous and arguably a violation of the Law on the Environment. The unregulated use of El Salvador’s remaining groundwater to irrigate sugarcane fields during the dry season is also worthy of outrage, especially because parts of El Salvador are experiencing a water crisis – a situation that will only get worse.

The Magdalena and Apopa molasses spills are just another outrageous aspect of a destructive industry and the government’s inability or unwillingness to enforce its environmental laws. Maybe these spills and the attention they are getting will force people and government officials to start doing something… or maybe the attention will go away after a couple news cycles.

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, 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, Tourism

Sugarcane Production Threatens Mangrove Forests in La Tirana

For the past few years, residents of the small, coastal community of La Tirana have spoken out against plans to develop large-scale tourism in and around the region’s mangrove forests. Tourism remains a serious threat, especially with the recent signing of the Millennium Challenge Corporation grant, but as of last week the most immediate concern is sugarcane.

Residents learned a couple weeks ago that don Angel Velasquez, a wealthy landowner on the San Juan del Gozo Peninsula, is leasing 400 manzanas (989 acres) in La Tirana to a sugarcane producer, who has been out preparing the land for planting. A contact in the neighboring town of San Juan del Gozo confirmed that don Angel, as he is known, is leasing the land out for 15 years.

The estuary, somewhere between La Tirana and Monte Cristo
Estuary, somewhere between La Tirana and Monte Cristo

The 400 manzanas they want to plant is adjacent to one of El Salvador’s most pristine mangrove forests. Locals who live in and take care of the forest say it would be impossible to grow sugarcane in the region without destroying the fragile ecosystem. The estuary that flows through the forest comes very close the fields where they want to plant. Any agrochemicals applied to the area would certainly leach into the estuary and quickly contaminate large sections of the forests. One of the biggest threats would be Glyphosate, or Roundup, which growers spray on sugarcane to ensure that all the plants are ripe or ready to harvest at the same time. Roundup is a very effective herbicide (the sugarcane is genetically modified to be “Roundup Ready”) and would kill the plants and animals exposed.

The land don Angel is leasing should be zoned a buffer zone due to its proximity to the mangrove forests. That means that it should be illegal to use the land in a way that would harm the mangroves, which are a protected natural area. For many years don Angel has used the land for grazing a few head of cattle, but mostly it has lain fallow. Before civil war broke out in 1980 the stretch of land was used for growing cotton. But the environmental laws and regulations passed since the end of the war should protect the region. Recognizing the destructive practices associated with sugarcane production, Lina Pohl, the Minister of the Environment said during a July visit to the neighboring Bajo Lempa region of Jiquilisco, that she would not permit any new growing operations.

(In the Satellite image above, the fields visible along the coast are those planned for sugarcane production, all the way up to the mangrove forests, which are the dark green sections)

On Wednesday of this week community leaders from La Tirana and Monte Cristo, another community in the mangrove forests, met to discuss the sugarcane issue. The discussion focused not on whether they should oppose the plan – the consensus was that sugarcane production would be catastrophic – but how to stop it.

Recalling Environmental Minister Pohl’s statement during a July meeting that the Ministry would not allow for expansion of sugarcane production, leaders from Monte Cristo and La Tirana decided to write a letter asking her to intervene. Voices’ Field Director was at the meeting on Wednesday and on the spot he helped them type up a letter, which they printed and signed. Actually, it was a little more complicated than that. Our field director just happened to have a laptop and small printer with him. Typing the letter was easy but the community is not connected to the power grid, so they had to go to the one house in the community with electricity, which is generated by a small solar panel.

Residents of La Tirana and Monte Cristo are also organizing a watchdog group that will monitor Mr. Velasquez’s property. At the first sign that sugarcane growers are arriving with their tractors and machinery to plow, the communities will block the only road in and out of the region. They are also planning a to ensure everyone in the region knows they will do anything necessary to protect the mangrove forests.

While La Tirana, Monte Cristo, and Voices were the only communities and organizations at the meeting, community leaders will also tap into a much larger network for support. In May, fourteen communities along the peninsula created the Association of Mangrove Communities in Defense of Land (ACOMADET) to ensure proper management of their forests and defend against threats such as tourism, sugarcane, and other development activities. ACOMADET also has the backing of civil society organizations like CESTA, ACUDESBAL, ADIBAL, Voices on the Border, and others. So they have support in taking on this issue.

One other action proposed on Wednesday was that local leaders should go talk to don Angel about how destructive his leasing the land to sugarcane growers would be. Meeting participants pointed out that in addition to contaminating the mangroves in and around La Tirana and Monte Cristo, it would affect a lagoon in San Juan del Gozo, of which he owns a large section. The idea of talking to don Angel was dismissed, however. Residents believe that El Salvador’s wealthy landowners are only interested in money, and that they don’t care about the environment or the impact of their actions on other people. They decided that negotiating with him would be fruitless.

One meeting participant pointed out that pressure to grow sugarcane in El Salvador is one of the many negative products of the 2005 Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). Under the agreement, the United States has increased the amount of sugarcane it will buy from El Salvador making it one of the only ways to make money in agriculture. Small Salvadoran farmers cannot compete with large US farms that produce large quantities of beans, rice, corn and other products, but they can make money selling or leasing their land to sugarcane growers.

After the meeting on Wednesday, Voices field director took the letter signed by community members and will hand deliver it to the Minister of the Environment this morning. Community leaders hope she meant what she said in July about no new sugarcane operations. But they also know that money has a way of trumping regulations and that La Tirana, Monte Cristo, ACOMADET, and others will find other ways to protect the mangroves.

Cabanas, Mining, U.S. Relations

Oxfam Petition on El Salvador and Mining

Word on the street is that the ICSID (International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes) tribunal hearing Pacific Rim Mining Company’s lawsuit against El Salvador will hand down a decision on the second round of preliminary objections before the end of the month. (Here is an article and a webpage with good information on the case).  Pacific Rim, a Canadian firm based out of Vancouver, filed suit against El Salvador over three years ago for not granting them the permits necessary to extract gold from their Cabañas properties. Between 2002 and 2008, Pacific Rim allegedly invested $77 million in exploring properties in Cabañas and other parts of El Salvador. When the government and people of El Salvador said the mining company could not mine, Pacific Rim sued to recover their investment, lost profits, and damages. If Pacific Rim wins, they could receive a judgment worth more than $100 million.

El Salvador responded to the lawsuit by filing two rounds of preliminary objections, asking the court to dismiss Pacific Rim’s claim on procedural grounds. The first round of objections was unsuccessful, and we should hear about the second round in the next week or so. If the Tribunal finds in favor of El Salvador, they could dismiss part or all of Pacific Rim’s case. If they find for Pacific Rim, the mining company’s suit lives to see another day.

Oxfam is currently organizing a petition asking U.S. citizens to demand that the U.S. end their support for Pacific Rim and their claim against El Salvador. The petition reads:

Act Now: Speak up for El Salvador’s Right to Decide

In El Salvador, communities are fighting for their right to decide how companies can use their lands. Many of them have made a decision: they don’t want the metal mining industry to continue to destroy the environment they live and farm in. And they’re paying the price – each day, community leaders and activists face threats of violence and death because they’re standing up to metal mining companies.

What’s making this fight even harder? Right now, Canadian mining company Pacific Rim is trying to force El Salvador to keep metal mines in business by suing El Salvador for $77 million under the US-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). This case could not only cost El Salvador a significant portion of its GDP, but it could prevent citizens from deciding which industries develop in their country.

A win for El Salvador in this case means that El Salvador could choose to stop metal mining – for good. The US government’s support for El Salvador over Pacific Rim in this case has been crucial. That’s where you come in. Will you help us make sure the US supports El Salvador in this case?

Tell Secretary of State Clinton: Support the people of El Salvador.

Please visit the Oxfam site and sign the petition!

The petition is important because some within the US State Department associate anti-mining with being anti-development. They argue that if El Salvador passes a law that bans mining, it means the country is hostile to foreign investment. In 2009, Former Chargé d’Affairs Robert Blau wrote a cable to the U.S. Secretary of State with the Subject line: “New Environment Ministry Moves to Ban Mining, Sends “Anti-Development” Signals.” A ban on mining is not anti-development, it is respecting the wishes of the people who would be most affected by its disastrous environmental impacts.

The cable is worth a read. We recognize that Robert Blau has a pretty extreme view of U.S. foreign policy and that his view may not represent everyone within the Embassy (Blau is no longer at the Salvadoran Embassy). His view, however, exemplifies how neoliberalism affects policies in countries like El Salvador. The same people who want to gut the EPA and remove the environmental regulations that protect air, soil, and water in the U.S., also want to remove any barriers that might prevent them from pillaging resources around the world. Any efforts to protect the environment and the communities where people live are called anti-development.

The petition is important because we have to make sure the State Department understands that Salvadoran communities said no to mining because they want to protect their very limited natural resources. They are not anti-development, rather they don’t want their vision of development trumped by an international corporation that is only interested in profit. The U.S. should not support Pacific Rim and other corporations, but ought to respect the wishes of the affected communities.

Oxfam’s petition is not the only anti-mining news to report. Yesterday the MESA (Roundtable Against Metallic Mining in El Salvador) released a statement expressing their frustrations with the Salvadoran government’s inaction on mining. , the government commissioned a Strategic Evaluation of the Mining Sector to determine whether mining was feasible in El Salvador. The report was supposed to inform the Legislative Assembly and government ministries on how to manage mining, and whether they ought to pass an all out ban on mining, which is what the MESA has been advocating.

The MESA is frustrated with the lack of transparency in completing the study and the release of its findings. They recently filed a request for information about the report under El Salvador’s relatively new Law on Access to Public Information. They also requested information about what mining companies have applied for or hold mining permits. Lina Pohl, the Vice-Minister of the Environment and Natural Resources recently said the only possible scenarios are the suspension of mining permits (so far for just exploration, no mining company currently has an exploitation permit), and not granting new ones. The MESA believes this to be insufficient and that the study fails to take on the most important issues concerning the impact that mining would have on the country. They call on the government to be more proactive in defending Salvadorans and banning mining altogether. The MESA has posted several interviews on Youtube detailing these issues. If you speak Spanish, they are worth watching.

Please sign the petition today!