Toxic Sugar Production in El Salvador

By Norma Carolina Mejía | National Coordinator, ARUMES

On December 3 (2021) which is the world day against the use of agrochemicals, Norma Carolina Mejía   the coordinator of ARUMES and other members of the #BitterSugar campaign held up photos that demonstrate the harms of the sugar cane industry in front of the El Salvador Ministry of Health. Photo courtesy of ARUMES.

The issue of agrochemicals in El Salvador deepened with the so-called Green Revolution between 1960 and 1980, which introduced the sale of agricultural technology, improved seeds, chemical fertilizers and pesticides. The improved seeds were more resistant to pests and had higher yields, if the appropriate chemical fertilizers and chemical pesticides were applied.

“Before [the Green Revolution], peasant families were fine, they were poor but healthy, they diversified their crops with corn, beans, vegetables, aromatic herbs, medicinal plants, fruits, and small farm animals (chickens, ducks, pigs). We lived well. Even when we only had very small plots of land, we had what we needed to eat and live,” recalls a 93-year-old woman nostalgically.

Then everything changed, they found themselves planting only improved bean and corn seeds, applying poisons to dry out weeds and combat pests, and using chemical fertilizers to increase production.

And soon after the shift away from ancestral farming practices, negative effects on human health and the environment began to manifest. People began dying from unexplained illnesses, lacking access to healthcare for treatment.

Fumigators in El Salvador are paid $6 a day to carry around a backpack sprayer and apply toxic pesticides to sugar cane fields. These people don’t have shaded places to rest in very hot weather, and the poison spills from the backpack onto their back and hands and travels all over much of their bodies with their sweat. They arrive home tired, with muscle aches and headaches, feeling overheated like they have a fever. So, they don’t bathe for fear of falling ill. They continue this routine day after day until they become so sick that they are no longer able to work and are eventually diagnosed with kidney disease. They lose their job and income and are no longer able to support their families, nor afford treatments.

Norma Mejía standing in the agro-ecological plot of the El Tintral community, Coatepeque Santa Ana. Photo courtesy of ARUMES.

The El Salvador Ministry of Health reported that between 2010 and 2019, around 9,915 people died from chronic kidney disease (or chronic kidney failure), which is a multifactorial disease, meaning it is caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Since 2010, at least 1000 people have died from chronic kidney disease in El Salvador every year under similar circumstances. Dr. Marla Isabel Rodriquez, the Minister of Health, conducted an investigation in 2013 that found that all the deceased shared a common history of direct and prolonged exposure to agrochemicals and contaminated soil, water and crops, aggravated by harsh working conditions, exposure to high temperatures and insufficient consumption of liquids, among other aspects.[i]

El Salvador purchases most of its chemical pesticides and fertilizers from the United States. In August of 2019, farmers applied more than 696,000 liters of glyphosate, or Roundup, on sugar cane fields by way of aerial and ground fumigation.[ii] In El Salvador, the cane is burned when it is ready to harvest, making it easier to cut and transport, which causes air contamination, and when the dust settles, it results in more contamination of the soil and water.

Sugar cane is big business in El Salvador. According to the Central Bank, in 2018, the sale of sugar reached $178.2 million, in 2019 it rose to $193.3 million and despite the pandemic, in 2020 and 2021, El Salvador sold $215.6 million dollars[iii] in sugar to its buyers in the United States, Canada, Taiwan, and South Korea, where demand continues to grow.[iv]

In 2013, the coastal community of San Luis Talpa caught the attention of the media and the entire population in El Salvador because people were dying every day there from chronic kidney disease. Since 2012, the Asociacion Red Uniendo Manos El Salvador (ARUMES), the Joining Hands network in El Salvador, has been accompanying this community in its struggle to remedy public and environmental health. In 2015, ARUMES, brought together affected families from the coastal area of the country to give their testimonies to the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman (PPDH) which led to a formal investigation into the human rights violations these families had suffered due to the bad practices of the sugar cane industry and a report on the use of agrochemicals and its negative impacts.[v]

The Covid19 pandemic has aggravated El Salvador’s existing crises, including environmental pollution, destruction and pollution of ecosystems, hunger and malnutrition, poverty and inequality, unemployment, injustice, and racism during this trying time.

Under the pandemic we have suffered confinement, food shortages, diseases, and we have discovered what we already knew – we are vulnerable. This crisis has shown us that we urgently need a radical transformation, Agrochemicals in El Salvador and worldwide is a serious issue that needs attention and action. We are feeding ourselves poison.

We are feeding ourselves poison.

This is why ARUMES coordinates small advocacy and agroecology schools where we demonstrate that it is possible to return to ancestral, healthy, pesticide-free agriculture and eat well for better health and a cleaner environment. And ARUMES continues to accompany directly impacted communities and families suffering from illness, pain, and loss.

Our work involves risks due to the political and economic interests behind agrochemicals, which is why it is so important that we join together, transcending borders to fight these problems in coalition together under a shared #Bitter Sugar campaign that exposes the dangers of toxic sugar production and agrochemicals use.

We, members of ARUMES, believe that we are doing the right thing. We feel supported by the Presbyterian Hunger Program in this work. We have seen that God clears ways for us to move forward with firm steps. We believe that our struggle will continue to bear fruit and that in a not too distant future, we will all have access to healthy food, soils, and water, clean air, and live in peace, justice, and equality.


[i] Punto de Vista, La enfermedad renal crónica en nuestras comunidades agrícolas: implicaciones de una epidemia

[ii] Fertilizantes y su uso en Centroamérica

[iii] Datos del Banco Central de Reserva de El Salvador

[iv] La Prensa Gráfica, Asociación Azucarera de El Salvador

[v] Página 42 del Informe de la Procuraduria para la Defensa de los Derechos Humanos sobre el uso de agrotóxicos en El Salvador y el impacto en los Derechos Humanos

The work of the Presbyterian Hunger Program is possible thanks to your gifts to One Great Hour of Sharing.


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