The cultivation of sugar cane, although a staple of trade in the Caribbean during the 16th and 17th century, only truly arrived in El Salvador in the past twenty years. This new agricultural development in the country has had devastating effects on the environment and on countless communities along the coastal region of El Salvador, where sugar cane cultivation is concentrated. According to people in the communities and those who work in the cañaels, or sugar cane fields, it isn’t the sugar cane itself that is damaging but rather the fertilizers and pesticides that are used. Toxic chemicals are applied by hand or by airplane to rapidly increasing quantities of land where sugar cane is grown, alarmingly close to people’s homes, schools, and water sources.
Raul Carbajal Clima, 28 years old, lives and works in Las Anonas, in the department of San Vicente to the east of the nation’s capital. “The owners have us put chemicals on the plants so they mature faster, and if these chemicals touch your skin it burns. And when you breathe in the fumes it can be toxic and causes kidney damage. I know a man who died last year because of it.” He pulled a few bottles out of a box; their labels read in large letters “Toxic Chemicals. Do Not Touch.”
Where Raul works these chemicals are applied by hand, but he says they also spray chemicals from airplanes. These chemicals kill fish and birds upon contact as well as plants and trees surrounding people’s homes. “We used to have a banana tree right here by our house that we ate bananas from, but when the chemicals came from the airplane the tree died and now we can’t grow any fruit around our house.” Raul and his family’s house, made of corrugated metal nailed to posts, is just 50 meters or so from a sugar cane field.
It is not only the application of chemicals that is concerning, but also the practice of burning the fields before harvest. These fires are hazardous to the communities that are interspersed with the sugarcane fields, killing livestock, endangering children, and re-releasing harmful chemicals into the air. It is common knowledge that this practice reduces the nutrient level and sugar yield of crops, but because it increases harvesting efficiency, burning continues to be widespread.
The majority of the residents of communities like Las Anonas work in the cañaleras due to the fact that in the past 10 years nearly all agricultural land has been turned over to sugarcane. Where in the past people grew corn, millet, papayas, yucca, and other produce that is consumed by the local population, there are now acres upon acres of sugarcane. That means that these basic grains upon which the local population depends now have to be purchased whereas people used to cultivate their own. A laborer working in the sugar cane fields earns about $4.45 a day, hardly enough to feed a family and pay for other basic needs.
Yet for all the environmental and health problems that accompany the cultivation of sugarcane, the benefits are few for the communities that are suffering. Owners of sugarcane production are almost exclusively wealthy investors who live in the city and who rarely show up on the haciendas. Some of the land occupied by sugarcane is owned by locals but rented to large investors. In tough economic times, the offer of around $400 per acre per year to rent land for cultivation of sugarcane is hard to turn down.
“People who rent their land to the sugarcane producers don’t realize what they’re doing until after, when their land is so contaminated with chemicals and stripped of nutrients that they can’t grow anything else there,” says Raul.
64,000 hectares of land in El Salvador have now been converted to sugarcane production, according to a 2012 report from the Global Agricultural Information Network. Raul is not alone in hoping that the government of El Salvador and more importantly the owners of sugarcane production take into consideration the devastating effects that this cultivation has on the local population, and work to pursue environmentally sound agricultural practices that will yield crops without devastating the landscape and population.
*Las Anonas is one of the Sister Cities communities. The US Sister committee is in Philadelphia.