Monocultures will worsen, not solve, climate crisis

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Credit: Voces En La Frontera

In El Salvador, 97% of the total cultivated area for sugarcane is burned for the harvest, despite being prohibited in the Environment Law. Photo credit: Voces En La Frontera

Environmentalists Say Monocultures are a Non-Viable Solution to Climate Crisis in El Salvador

In order to adapt to climate change, Central America should prioritize “low-carbon” monoculture agriculture such as sugar cane, pineapple and African palm oil. At least that’s what the Minister of Environment and Natural Resources of El Salvador, Fernando López Larreynaga, suggested to the United Nations at the Global Climate Action Summit. The proposal has already received widespread disagreement from the social movement in El Salvador, citing existing health issues and environmental degradation for nearby communities from sugar cane cultivation, among other concerns. In a country where sugar exports have boomed due to neoliberal privatization and free trade agreements, Salvadorans worry this proposal is just the latest step to deliver natural resources into private hands.

The sugar industry in El Salvador is an important economic sector. In 2011, it alone contributed to 5% of El Salvador’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) or total economic activity. While this is good news for the six sugar mills that control the industry (down from 23 in 1948), it has brought nothing but misery for the communities surrounding the sugar cane plantations. In a recent interview, Carolina Amaya, an environmentalist with the Salvadoran environmental NGO ‘Salvadoran Ecological Unit’ (UNES), rooted her opposition to the continuity and expansion of monoculture in El Salvador in the “men and women who have died due to diseases such as kidney failure, which the Ministry of Health itself has linked this epidemic with agrochemicals, mainly glyphosate, which is the ripener that the sugar cane industry uses.” Aside from health conditions resulting in death, Amaya pointed out that “the sugarcane industry [also] monopolizes and steals [water from] rivers and basins for sugar production.”

In El Salvador, sugar production has been a staple since the 16th century, but it became a major export starting in the 19th century. That being said, the industry was privatized, removed from state ownership, beginning in the mid 90s with the 1994 ‘Law on Privatization of Sugar Mills and Plants.’ Article 3 of the 1994 Law mandated “that the property of the sugar mills, whose ownership corresponds to the Salvadoran Investment Corporation and the National Sugar Institute, must be transferred to the private sector, in order to maximize its production.” The 1994 Law would be joined by the dissolution of the National Sugar Institute and El Salvador’s ratification of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) with the United States on December 17, 2004. Under this agreement, the sugar quota allotted for El Salvador by the U.S. increased from 24,000 to 36,040 metric tons. Through U.S. supported neoliberal policies, the Salvadoran sugar industry has grown to be the size it is, at the expense of everything and everyone else.

While advances were made in land redistribution under the two consecutive FMLN administrations (2009-2019), the amount of land hectares dedicated to sugarcane cultivation doubled from 1985 to 2015. In 2018, El Salvador produced 788,344 metric tons of sugar with the participation of over 7,000 different entities. El Salvador was the second largest exporter of sugar in Central America after Guatemala in 2016 and is one of the top 25 sugar exporters in the world. Unfortunately, despite being so important to the Salvadoran economy, agricultural workers suffer from extremely low wages, little to no oversight from authorities and a lack of formal employment. To make matters worse, almost one-fifth of the workers in the Salvadoran sugar cane industry suffer from kidney failure.

On October 4th, at the presentation of a study by the Economics Department at the University of Central America - José Simeón Cañas, Professor Ricardo Alvarez discussed how “El Salvador faces a process of transformation in rural areas that has not been given the attention it deserves and far from this, it is supporting the transformation of traditionally agricultural areas as new spaces for capital appreciation.” Alvarez concluded that the prioritization of agricultural exports like coffee and sugar and heavy dependence on food imports “threatens the country's food sovereignty and leaves the country unprotected against international changes in food prices.” A few days earlier, on September 26th, in the midst of the Global Climate Strike, the National Alliance against Water Privatization in El Salvador described the expansion of monocultures such as coffee, sugarcane and African palm oil as “an offensive on the part of the green capitalists to control millions of hectares of land in Africa and America by displacing entire communities, destroying ecosystems like in Brazil, to generate millions of dollars in profits.”

In neighboring Honduras, Western nations are driving the production of African palm oil as a way to cheaply reduce their carbon footprint, but which in turn is fueling a growing social conflict between local palm oil producers and displaced farmers. Carolina Amaya from UNES expressed major concern regarding the possible introduction of African palm oil into Salvadoran exports, “In countries such as Honduras, for example, the displacement of indigenous people has to do with a false solution to climate change, because [African palm oil] is used for oil and of course for biofuels, that are in turn, are used to sustain the living standards of those in the Global North who are unwilling to take responsibility for their global pollution.”

In El Salvador, right-wing legislators have expressed interest in eliminating the constitutional limits on land-holding, the Ministry of Environment has fast-tracked tens of environmental permits despite outcry from environmentalists and the Ministry of Agriculture has reportedly negotiated the purchase of seeds from Bayer-Monsanto. After years of support for small local farmers and efforts to advance food sovereignty under the FMLN, the Bukele administration and Salvadoran right-wing establishment seem poised to concentrate land, water and power under big business once again and mirror the larger regional trend of resource exploitation sweeping Central America.

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