“Bitter Sugar” Campaign Seeks to Eliminate Agrotoxins in Sugar Industry

By Norma Carolina Mejía | Red Uniendo Manos El Salvador

Sonia Gutierrez of the Red Uniendo Manos El Salvador (ARUMES) makes a statement at a press conference on the World No Pesticide Use Day. Photo courtesy of ARUMES.

The production of sugar comes with high ecological and human health costs. Producing sugar requires intensive water use for irrigation during the dry seasons of the year, depleting aquifers and artisinal wells that supply water to families and communities. Currently, there are no laws in El Salvador that prevent the agro-industry from excessive water consumption.

A typical practice in the sugar industry is the burning of sugar cane fields. This is a dangerous practice that contaminants communities and the environment with thick smoke and ash, even impacting the air quality nationwide. And then of course, there is the heavy use of agrochemicals in the production of sugar cane that also comes with high environmental costs such as soil deterioration, biodiversity destruction, microclimate alteration, contamination and the generation of greenhouse gases.

Agrotoxins are at the root of environmental destruction and harms to human health in El Salvador. Sugarcane producers apply chemical fertilizers, fungicides and herbicides such as paraquat 2 4D, Actara 25-WG, Jade 23, Benomyl and Carbendazium in large quantities to their fields. The most widely used agrochemical in El Salvador is Glyphosate. Glyphosate is an herbicide used as a ripener, facilitating a quicker harvest. It is applied through aerial and ground fumigation.[i]

Worldwide, glyphosate is a dangerous poison. Residues have been found in bottled water, drinking water, beers and even tortillas. Glyphosate is a weapon of mass destruction,[ii] violating human rights, especially the rights to life, health, and food.[iii] Other studies confirm the increase in cases of chronic kidney disease due to direct and indirect exposure to pesticides in agricultural areas, mainly in sugarcane monocultures.

Bitter Sugar campaign supporters deliver petitions to the Salvadoran Ministry of the Environment on the World No Pesticide Use Day. Photo courtesy of ARUMES.

El Salvador is the second largest sugar producer in Central America and the eighth largest exporter of raw sugar in the world.[iv] The 2020 / 2021 cane harvest produced 1.74 billion kg of sugar which was a slight decrease compared to the previous year due to the weather.[v] However, sugar cane production has trended upwards in most recent years. The 2019 / 2020 set a new record for production with 1.79 billion kg produced, which was 80 million kg more than the previous year’s harvest.[vi]

The main driver for this growth in production is the growth in demand for sugar in the international markets of the United States, Taiwan, Korea, and China. So far, it has been very difficult to determine the names of the international corporations that are purchasing the sugar from El Salvador. There is a lot of secrecy in the sugar agro-industry within the country and the interests and power of the industry are very much protected by free trade agreements.

So, in 2021, faced with the realities of increasing demand and production of sugarcane, a group of six well-known Salvadoran civil society organizations came together to promote a campaign with the aim of disclosing, denouncing, and stopping the expansion of the sugarcane monoculture. The campaign is calling for an end to aerial fumigation of pesticides. and field burning to protect the population’s rights to health and a pollution-free environment. The goal of the campaign was to shift public opinion by documenting the harmful impacts of the industrial production of sugarcane on communities living within the cultivation zones. The Joining Hands network in El Salvador, Red Uniendo Manos El Salvador, is one of the founding organizations of this campaign and very dedicated to the cause.

Since our beginnings in 2021, the “Azúcar Amarga” campaign (Bitter Sugar campaign) has achieved small victories. Impacted communities are organizing and joining the campaign. The campaign has helped raise awareness of the harmful consequences of the use of toxic pesticides. We have managed to Garner a lot of attention in the media with interviews on the radio, television, newspapers, and on social media. We have organized a number of public actions to demand that the executive and legislative bodies and ministries of health, environment, labor, and agriculture address the problem in favor of the affected people and communities.

Through our partnership with the Presbyterian Hunger Program, we have understood that faith must be accompanied by action, and that justice goes hand in hand with mercy and compassion. The support of God and donors is evident in all this walking, this campaign was launched a year, but the foundations began to be built on the rock since 2012, the union has made strength and the organizations are learning to row together in the same direction, believing that we are on the right path.

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

[i] HEINRICH BOLL, Agroindustria del azúcar: un análisis de sus efectos económicos, sociales y ambientales en El Salvador, página 11.

[ii] https://www.lavanguardia.com/comer/al-dia/20181019/452415463251/glifosato-herbicida-polemico-que-es.html

[iii] https://consumidoresorganicos.org/2019/08/22/uso-de-herbicidas-glifosato-y-paraquat-causan-cancer-a-mexicanos/

[iv] http://azucardeelsalvador.com/impactos-economicos/#PIB

[v] https://www.eleconomista.net/actualidad/El-Salvador-Zafra-deja-17-millones-de-quintales-de-azucar-20210607-0016.html

[vi] https://diario.elmundo.sv/agroindustria-azucarera-logra-zafra-record-17-9-millones-de-qq/?fbclid=IwAR0OJ4xT9dRBKOU8TGrClHn-f8RsQA5HkxIBTXCgg1vdj8OH5OlJ2LN45NI

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