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.

Advocacy, agriculture, Environment

San Juan del Gozo Peninsula Communities Take Action Against Sugarcane Production

(Versión en español de abajo)

Yesterday, Monday November 10, communities on the San Juan del Gozo Peninsula took two separate actions against plans to plant 680 acres of sugarcane on a large stretch of empty fields between the communities of La Tirana and San Juan del Gozo.

At the end of September, community leaders learned that landowner Angel Velasquez had leased part of his land to a sugarcane producer. A source familiar with the deal told communities that the lease was for 15 years and planting would begin right away.

Burning sugarcane crop...
Burning sugarcane in the Bajo Lempa just before harvest.

Communities oppose sugarcane production on the Peninsula due to the adverse affects it can have on the local environment. Growers use large quantities of agrochemicals including the herbicide glyphosate (Monsanto’s Roundup), which ensures crops ripen at the same time. Sugarcane growers also burn their fields just before harvest to remove all of the leaves making the cane cheaper to cut and transport.

The 680 acres leased for sugarcane is adjacent to mangrove forests to the west and north, and a long stretch of undeveloped beach to the south. The mangroves are fragile ecosystems that support thousands of species of wildlife, as well as dozens of small communities that sustainably harvest crabs and clams, and fish the rich estuaries that weave through the forests. The beaches are equally as important, serving as a nesting ground for at least four species of sea turtle, including the Hawksbill, which is critically endangered. Spraying agrochemicals and burning fields would quickly kill off the mangrove forests and poison the turtle nesting grounds.

Over the weekend community members heard  the sugarcane grower was planning to start plowing on Monday (yesterday). They quickly organized two actions. The first was a blockade. More than one hundred residents from several communities gathered and blocked the road leading down to the property, in order to deny tractors access to the land. The grower likely heard about the planned action beforehand and decided to avoid a confrontation. The communities remain on watch and are ready to mobilize again if anyone tries to bring machinery to the region.

The second action was also substantial. Board presidents and other representatives from five communities traveled to the city of Jiquilisco, the municipal seat, to meet with Mayor David Barahona. The delegation, which was accompanied by a member of Voices’ staff, went into City Hall and asked to meet with and members of the Municipal Council. At first, mid-level staff told the Peninsula delegation that no one was available to meet with them. After a few tense minutes the community leaders went outside and began protesting in front of the main entrance to City Hall.

Shortly after they began protesting, members of the Mayor’s staff came out and invited them to meet with the Mayor and Municipal Council. The delegation had elected five people to participate in the meeting, but the Mayor permitted all fifteen representatives to participate.

The community leaders went inside and had a productive three-hour meeting with Mayor Barahona and members of the Municipal Council. The Mayor and Municipal Council agreed to support the communities in opposing the sugarcane production. During the meeting the Mayor even tried to call the Minister of the Environment (MARN) and several other offices in San Salvador to try to get action. Community leaders had tried to call MARN officials in the weeks prior but were unsuccessful in getting any support.

The Mayor promised that if a team from the MARN did not in the region investigating by the end of the week, he would travel with community leaders to San Salvador to protest outside the Ministry until someone meets with them.

Mayor Barahona also agreed to create a committee to consider municipal policies that would prevent sugarcane production in the future. The commission will be comprised of community leaders, civil society organizations, and officials within the Mayor’s office.

The actions Monday were important for many reasons. It was the first time that communities from the San Juan del Gozo Peninsula united to protest. It was also the first time that communities demanded that the municipal government take action to stop large-scale production of sugarcane, which is causing serious environmental damage throughout the Jiquilisco Bay. The actions were also important because earlier in the year the communities had formed an association to defend the mangrove forests, and successful actions will motivate the residents to continue organizing. This is especially important if tourism developers are serious about their plans to turn the Jiquilisco Bay into the “Cancun of Central America.” The people who live on the San Juan del Gozo Peninsula have stated clearly that when they work together they can accomplish anything.

Leaving the meeting in Jiquilisco, Naun Diaz, a leader from La Tirana, said “ we feel satisfied with what we accomplished today. We accomplished our objectives and we hope the mayor will honor his word. If he doesn’t we will come back as many times as is necessary to demand our right to a healthy environment.

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El pasado lunes 10 de noviembre, las comunidades de la Península San Juan del Gozo, en el municipio de Jiquilisco, realizaron dos acciones simultáneas en contra de los planes para cultivar 400 hectáreas de caña de azúcar en una gran extensión de campos de pastizales, entre La Tirana y la comunidad San Juan del Gozo.

A finales de septiembre, los líderes de estas comunidades se enteraron que el dueño del terreno había alquilado parte de su tierra a un productor de caña de azúcar. Una fuente cercana al acuerdo dijo a las comunidades que el contrato es por 15 años y la plantación comenzaría de inmediato.

Las comunidades se oponen a la producción de caña de azúcar en la península debido a los efectos adversos que puede tener sobre el medio ambiente local. Los cultivadores utilizan grandes cantidades de agroquímicos incluyendo glifosato (Roundup, de Monsanto), que se aplica para asegurar que los cultivos maduren al mismo tiempo. Los sembradores de caña de azúcar también queman sus campos antes de la cosecha para reducir costos en la corta y el transporte.

Las 400 hectáreas arrendadas para la caña de azúcar se encuentran junto a los bosques de manglares al oeste y al norte, y frente a un largo tramo de playa. Los manglares son ecosistemas frágiles que albergan cientos de especies de fauna silvestre, así como docenas de pequeñas comunidades que viven de lo que el bosque les provee. Las playas son tan importantes, que sirve como lugar de anidación de cuatro especies de tortugas marinas, incluida la carey, que está en peligro crítico. La aplicación aérea de agroquímicos y la quema de campos de caña matarían rápidamente los bosques de manglares y envenenarían los sitios de desove de tortugas.

El fin de semana pasado miembros de la comunidad se enteraron que el productor de caña de azúcar tenía previsto iniciar a preparar la tierra el lunes. Ellos organizaron rápidamente dos acciones. Lo primero fue una gran protesta que bloqueó el acceso al terreno, con el objetivo de evitar el paso de tractores. Temprano unas 100 personas residentes de varias comunidades se reunieron a lo largo de la carretera. Al parecer, los productores se enteraron de la acción planificada de antemano y decidieron evitar una confrontación. Las comunidades se mantienen en guardia y están dispuestas a movilizarse nuevamente.

La segunda acción de la comunidad también fue sustancial. Presidentes y otros dirigentes de 5 comunidades, viajaron a la ciudad de Jiquilisco, la cabecera municipal, para reunirse con el Alcalde David Barahona. La delegación, que estuvo acompañada por un miembro del personal de Voces, entró en la Alcaldía y pidió reunirse con miembros del Consejo Municipal.

Al principio, el personal de nivel medio dijo a la delegación que el Alcalde no estaba disponible para atenderles. Después de unos tensos minutos, los líderes de las comunidades mostraron carteles con mensajes en contra del monocultivo de caña de azúcar y se situaron a ambos lados de la entrada principal del edificio municipal.

Poco después de que comenzaron a protestar, los miembros del personal de la Alcaldía salieron y los invitaron a reunirse con el Alcalde Municipal. Inicialmente la delegación había elegido a 5 personas para entrar a la reunión; sin embargo, el Alcalde permitió pasar a toda la delegación, unas 15 personas en total.

Los 15 representantes de las comunidades sostuvieron una reunión de tres horas con el Alcalde y parte del Concejo Municipal. El Alcalde dijo que apoyaría a las comunidades en su oposición a la producción de caña de azúcar. Incluso durante la reunión el Alcalde trató de llamar a la Ministra de Medio Ambiente (MARN) y otras oficinas en San Salvador. Los líderes comunitarios habían enviado una carta a los funcionarios del MARN, en las semanas anteriores, pero no tuvieron éxito en conseguir ningún apoyo.

El Alcalde prometió que si un equipo del MARN no visita la región esta misma semana, para realizar una inspección, el mismo viajaría con los líderes de la comunidad a San Salvador para protestar frente al Ministerio hasta que alguien se reúna con ellos.

También se acordó la creación de una comisión para considerar las medidas municipales que impidan la producción de caña de azúcar en el futuro. La comisión estará formada por líderes de las comunidades, organizaciones de la sociedad civil que acompañan a las comunidades en su lucha, y funcionarios de la oficina de la municipalidad.

Las acciones llevadas a cabo el lunes, son importantes en varios sentidos, en primer lugar porque es la primera vez que las comunidades de la Península de San Juan del Gozo se unen para protestar y exigir a su gobierno municipal que tome medidas para evitar el monocultivo de caña de azúcar que ya está provocando graves afectaciones en otras regiones de Jiquilisco. También porque las comunidades están iniciando la conformación de una asociación para la defensa de los bosques de manglar, este tipo de acciones le da un impulso favorable a este trabajo organizativo, sobre todo teniendo en cuenta que los desarrolladores turísticos quieren convertir la Bahía de Jiquilisco en el “Cancún de Centroamérica.” Pero la población se ha dado cuenta que cuando trabajan juntos, pueden lograr mucho.

Al salir de la reunión, Naún Díaz, líder de la comunidad La Tirana expresó: Nos sentimos satisfechos de lo que hemos conseguido este día. El objetivo de la visita se ha conseguido, esperamos que el señor Alcalde cumpla su palabra, y si no cumple, aquí estaremos, las veces que sea necesario, para exigir nuestro derecho a un medio ambiente saludable.