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).
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.
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.
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.
Workers 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.
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 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.
Yesterday we issued a press release reporting that Salvadoran government officials attribute last week’s record rainfall and flooding to climate change.
This morning Hernán Rosa Chávez, the Minister of the Environment and Natural Resources, told La Presnsa Grafica that El Salvador is about to “begin the process of shielding itself against climate change.” He wants El Salvador to be a model country for the international community on how to live with climate change.
He said, “we have to prepare ourselves for this [the rains] to occur every year. We have to make changes in agriculture so that [farmers] will not lose their crops. We have to build an infrastructure thinking about vulnerability, and develop the country without needing to destroy it.”
While these statements are an important recognition of the problem, they are also another sad reminder that the time for the United States and other industrialized nations to change their greenhouse-gas emitting ways is running out. And its countries like El Salvador that are suffering as a result.
With regards to Minister Chávez’ plan to change the agriculture sector so farmers won’t lose their crops, communities long-ago recognized that extreme weather patters would affect their crops. In the Lower Lempa region of Usulután, one of the most affected during last week’s historic rains and floods, farmers have been converting some of their fields to rice which is more flood resistant. That have also been installing irrigation systems that will allow them to plant corn in the dry season when the risk of flooding is low. Local development organizations and farmers talk openly about climate change and how to better protect their crops, and increase their food security.
If the Salvadoran government really wanted to help, they could work with local farmers to protect domestic markets for their crops instead of allowing cheap imports from heavily subsidized US farmers to run them out of business. In September, President Funes was in the Lower Lempa to announce an $18 million aid package for the region that will in part help farmers convert to “exotic crops” such as cashew nuts that they can sell in the US. Such crops are even more sensitive to climate change and would subject Salvadoran farmers to the ups and downs of US markets. And if locals are not growing corn and beans, it creates a greater market for US farmers. If the Funes administration really wants to help the domestic agricultural sector respond to climate change, they should help provide farmers access to simple technologies that give them more control over their crops, and protect domestic markets for domestically grown products.
Minister Chávez also said the government will improve the nation’s infrastructure to decrease vulnerability. That’s great, but communities in the Lower Lempa and other river basins around El Salvador have been asking for better levees and drainage systems for more than 10 years. The levees have failed in several of the most recent storms, and since 2003, communities have marched from the Lower Lempa to San Salvador to demand they repair them. It’s great that the Minister supports these efforts now. Imagine if he and other government officials had supported these efforts last year or the year before. Maybe Nueva Esperanza, Ciudad Romero, Zamorano, Nuevo Amanecer, Salinas del protrero, and hundreds of other impoverished communities would have faired a little better last week.
Climate change is a reality. And with all due respect for Minister Chavez, if there is a silver lining to last week’s rains its that the government and international community may begin supporting communities that have been trying to deal with it for years.