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

Large-Scale Sugarcane Production in El Salvador

TRH_6107
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.

Sugarcane Report Image Eng

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.

Sugarcane Report image spa

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.

Economy, Environment

Environmental, Cultural, and Economic Costs of Sugarcane Cultivation too High for Amando Lopez Community

Residents of Amando Lopez, a Canton of Jiquilisco, Usulután, and local civil society organizations, want to stop large-scale cultivation of sugarcane in their community. On one level, theirs is an environmental struggle. On another, it’s a struggle against globalization and the imposition of neoliberal economic policies of private investment and consumerism.

A 2013 report published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture projected that “higher yielding sugarcane varieties, diversification of the industry into the production of energy and alcohol/ethanol, investment in milling equipment to improve sugar yields, and additional access to the U.S. market due to CAFTA-DR will all benefit El Salvador’s sugar industry over the next 3 to 5 years.” What investors want and need is more land.

In the final months of 2014, more than 10% of the population of Amando Lopez fled the community, many overnight, to escape death threats from violent gangs. They left behind their possessions, homes, businesses, and farmland. Some relocated to other regions of El Salvador. Others fled north to the United States and were detained on the border (a topic for another post). When they left, sugarcane producers wasted no time acquiring abandoned farmland. Families that would have never considered leasing land to sugarcane farmers were all of a sudden unable to say no because they needed the income to rebuild their lives.

Those who fled did so because they were in serious danger. Political scientists identify a nexus between globalization and the violence Amando Lopez and other communities are experiencing (good reads here and here). They argue that economically impoverished communities exposed to market forces and consumerism are unable to participate in the globalized economy in a meaningful, healthy, or satisfying way. This produces strong feelings of inequality, and a breakdown in family structures and social networks that allow for gangs and violence. Residents of Amando Lopez have largely protected themselves from market forces and consumerism, but last year gangs from other regions moved in and recruited local youth with phones, clothing, shoes, and money. As the threats and violence commenced, the community became even more vulnerable to globalized interests seeking land for sugarcane production.

Sugarcane is not new to Amando Lopez; farmers have grown small, organic crops for years to feed livestock and make sugar for local consumption. While these small crops are ok, the community is opposed to large-scale production that negatively affect their environment and public health, and further expose them to market forces. Their main concern is the use of toxic agrochemicals – insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, fertilizers, and ripeners. When sprayed these agrochemicals drift to nearby farms, forests, water resources, homes, and schools. Post-application they leach into the soil and water.

For example, the community is concerned about is Glyphosate (Monsanto’s Round Up), which is used as an herbicide and a ripener (ensures that a crop is ripe and ready to harvest all at once). In March, the World Health Organization released a report concluding that Glyphosate is a “likely carcinogenic” and associated with spontaneous abortions, birth defects, skin defects, respiratory illness, and neurological disease. Russia, Mexico, and the Netherlands have banned the use of Glyphosate, and last month 30,000 doctors and health professionals in Argentina demanded that their government also ban it. Colombia recently prohibited the use of Glyphosate in national parks, citing environmental impacts.

In addition to the use of agrochemicals, residents oppose the practice of burning fields before harvesting a crop – growers do so to remove foliage, making cane easier and less expensive to cut, load, and transport. Burning, however, sends chemical-laden smoke and ash throughout the region, contaminating soil, farmland, water, and communities, causing high rates of respiratory illness.

Residents of Amando Lopez are also concerned that once one sugarcane producer starts growing and contaminates neighboring farmland, other farmers will be forced to lease their land just to survive. Others might be tempted by short-term financial gains. Once exposure to these market forces and investors begins, it will disrupt the entire economic and social structure that community leaders have tried to preserve.

Amando Lopez is not the first community in the Bajo Lempa to be faced with large-scale sugarcane production. Jose “Mario” Santos Guevara, the President of ACUDESBAL, a local organization recently said, “Sugarcane cultivation is growing at an exponential rate in the Bajo Lempa. It is being planted all the way up to the yards of houses, and the damage caused is serious. We have to put an end to these abuses. We are poor people, but we have dignity and we are not going to permit these types of violations of our right to live in a healthy environment.”

Last October/November the community of La Tirana, a small coastal community to the south of Amando Lopez, stood up to an investor who wanted to plant several hundred acres of sugarcane in a field adjacent to fragile mangrove forests. La Tirana residents, accompanied by civil society organizations, were successful, at least for the short term, and continue working to prevent future efforts to plant sugarcane.

La Tirana, Amando Lopez and civil society organizations are trying to get the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources (MARN, in Spanish) and the municipal government to intervene. Lic. Lina Pohl, Minster of the Environment, acknowledges that the law prohibits actions that harm mangroves. She also said that MARN will approve a plan that, in part, will reduce the use of agrochemicals and burning sugarcane in and around those protected regions. That is positive for La Tirana, but offers little protection for Amando Lopez.

Min. Pohl recognizes that there are lands subject to change of use, indicating that they would be appropriate for sugarcane production. She also indicated that MARN would have to approve changes, perhaps meaning that new sugarcane crops would be subject to environmental permitting. The law requires a permit for new agricultural projects, but MARN has never enforced it. Sugarcane growers in Amando Lopez have already begun plowing and clearing trees, and are likely to plant later this month when the rainy season begins in earnest. But there is no indication that the grower has applied for or received an environmental permit, or that MARN officials will require them to do so.

La Tirana and civil society organizations have also been pressuring the municipal government of Jiquilisco to stop destructive large-scale sugarcane production. The municipal council is considering a new ordinance that would regulate the use of agrochemicals and prohibit new sugarcane projects. The ordinance has not passed yet, and would do little to stop the new project in Amando Lopez.

Residents of Amando Lopez have worked hard for many years to protect their environment and natural resources in order to provide their youth a healthy place to grow up. Even though the community has been struggling and lost 10% of its population, they are not going to stand by and allow private investors to contaminate their land and water, and make their children sick with agrochemicals, just so they can make money. And they are not going to allow globalization and market forces to deconstruct the campesino culture and local economy.

Economy, Environment

Is Selling Sugar to China Really Such a Sweet Deal for El Salvador?

Salvadoran government officials recently announced a deal to export 52,000 tons of sugar (12% of the country’s annual production) to China in a deal worth $15-20 million to local producers. El Salvador has sold sugar to South Korea, Taiwan, the U.S., Mexico, Canada, Indonesia, and the European Union, but this is the first time exporting to China.

Sugarcane burning in the Bajo Lempa
Sugarcane burning in the Bajo Lempa

With Partnership for Growth pressing El Salvador to produce more exports, sugarcane has become a larger part of the country’s economic plan. Already, sugarcane production has created 50,000 direct jobs and 200,000 more indirect jobs. This week Vice President Oscar Ortiz said “This is the key, this is the solution for our country: to diversify our production of exports. We are unable to be alone in a market, we have to be open to a variety of markets and in this direction we have to have the ability to improve our process of commercialization.”

Exporting $15-20 million of sugar to China and creating 250,000 jobs may sound like a sweet deal, but El Salvador is paying a substantial price. In addition to labor, agrochemicals, machinery, processing, and shipping, there are enormous costs related to the environment, public health, food sovereignty, and local culture. The individuals and corporations profiting from sugarcane exports don’t pay these costs. Instead they pass the debt on to the country’s poor who earn sub-poverty wages, suffer from chronic renal failure and other diseases, live in depleted ecosystems, struggle to feed their families, and are forced to migrate to urban areas.

DSCF0037Last year, Voices staff spoke with a team of migrant workers from Santa Ana cutting cane in a field in Usulután. They said they earn the agricultural minimum wage for cutting sugarcane 14-hours a day during the hottest months of the year. In 2014, the minimum wage for agricultural workers was $3.79/day. In 2015, it is up to $3.94/day. That is less than half of what is needed to feed a family. When these migrant workers arrive in a field of ripe sugarcane, they begin by burning the field to defoliate the cane, making it faster and cheaper to harvest, transport and process. The next day, as the field smolders, workers use machetes to cut the cane and pile it into rows. A tractor then loads the cane into tractor-trailers that deliver it to a processing plant. Yes, these and others workers have jobs, but they still live in abject poverty.

Another issue with sugarcane exports is way it is grown – large-scale monoculture production that relies on agrochemicals and is burned before harvest. Monoculture production of any crop destroys local ecosystems and displaces or kills the wildlife and people that once depended on them. When an ecosystem is destroyed, soil structures and natural defense systems deteriorate, requiring inputs such as fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, and many other toxic agrochemicals that contaminate local communities, rivers, streams, fields and forests. Many of these chemicals are linked to high rates of chronic renal failure, cancer, and other diseases common where sugarcane is produced.

Perhaps the most egregious practice with sugarcane production is burning the fields before harvest. Once alight, sugarcane burns quickly, flames and smoke snapping acre to acre, throwing thick black smoke, ash, and soot high into the air before snowing down on schools, soccer fields, homes, farms, and communities. The particulates include residues of all the agrochemicals that had been sprayed on the fields the months before. In addition to contaminating surrounding communities, burning sugarcane emits large quantities of greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change.

The use of toxic agrochemicals and burning of fields motivated residents of La Tirana, Monte Cristo, San Juan del Gozo and other communities to oppose large-scale sugarcane production next to mangrove forests on the San Juan del Gozo Peninsula. Residents fear that Glyphosate and other agrochemicals would have an adverse affect on their health and destroy the valuable and fragile ecosystem that they depend on.

In addition to the environmental impacts, large-scale sugarcane production also disrupts the local economy and culture. Rural communities in El Salvador have traditionally supported themselves by growing corn, beans, rice and other crops. Farmers generally keep a portion of what they grew to feed their family and sell the rest at local markets to generate a modest income. While small-scale farming will not generate the kind of concentrated wealth that large-scale monoculture can, it is a more sustainable way to live. And the campesino culture has always been one of humility, respect, and simplicity.

In 2013, the UN Commission on Trade and Development published a report titled “Wake Up Before It’s Too Late”. One of the report’s findings is “the world needs a paradigm shift in agricultural development: from a ‘green revolution’ to an ‘ecological intensification’ approach. This implies 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.”

El Salvador’s focus on producing more sugarcane and other export crops does just the opposite. It is doubling down on monoculture production at the cost of small-scale farming. Monocultural production displaces families when they rent, sell, or otherwise lose their land sugarcane producers. There has been a long trend of farming families moving to urban areas where at best they work for minimum wage jobs. Idle youth lack access to education and are subject to the violence and gang culture that El Salvador has become famous for.

Selling $15-20 million in sugarcane may be good for a few Salvadorans, but the money does not pay for or trickle down to people who are bearing the environmental, health, economic, and cultural impacts. The demand for sugarcane is going to grow and the Salvadoran and U.S. governments will continue to promote it as a way to develop the stagnant economy. But Salvadorans should have to an informed debate about whether they are willing to pay the real costs of sugarcane.

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.