Burning sugarcane: a regulated, necessary practice that protects workers and facilitates the harvest of a staple crop, or an environmental and public health hazard?
This debate, though not a new one in Costa Rica, has once again reached the country’s high court. The Guanacaste Brotherhood Association, an environmental group based in the northwestern province from which it takes its name, has filed suit against two of the country’s largest sugarcane growers before the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV) in an attempt to get the companies to stop burning their crops. The justices accepted the suit but have not yet voted on the issue.
“It’s an extremely harmful practice for the environment and public health,” said Gady Amit, vice-president of the Costa Rican Federation for Environmental Conservation (FECON), an umbrella organization for dozens of conservation groups in Costa Rica.
Burning sugarcane is legal with a permit from the Production Ministry (formerly the Ministry of Agriculture and Cattle), and farmers who do it say it helps them harvest quickly and safely, reducing hazards for workers.
According to Amit, the practice kills animals in the fields and causes health problems in humans. Bernardo Monge, the doctor who heads the Public Health Ministry’s Human Environment Department, said the debris in the air can cause asthma, pulmonary infections, allergies and other problems, with incidence and severity depending on the wind and on the distance from the cane field to the nearest residences.
The Brotherhood Association and FECON advocate a “green harvest” using harvesting machines or machetes instead, though people within the industry differ regarding whether this change is feasible.
Giving the environmentalists’ case an added boost of publicity, the suit, filed Sept. 6, names not only Ingenio Taboga S.A. and Azucarera El Viejo S.A., two large sugar producers in the northwestern province of Guanacaste, but also President Oscar Arias, a 3.22% Taboga shareholder. However, the Sala IV document announcing that the justices had accepted the suit does not mention Arias.
Other parties against whom the suit was filed are the municipalities of Cañas and Carrillo, as well as the Ministries of Public Health, Environment and Energy, and Agriculture (now the Production Ministry), which Amit said have not done enough to supervise cane burning.
Monge, of the Health Ministry, said he welcomes members of the groups that are critical of the government’s handling of cane burning to pay him a visit to talk about ongoing efforts, which include discussions between the Health Ministry and LAICA about how to reduce the use of the practice.
“They’ve never come to talk to me,” he said.
Officials from the Ministry of Environment and Energy (MINAE) and the Production Ministry did not return phone calls from The Tico Times by press time.
A Sweet Controversy
Marcos Chaves, of the Agroindustrial Sugarcane League (LAICA), told The Tico Times burning is “almost obligatory.” It eliminates leaves and debris between the plants, allowing workers to pass easily between the rows and destroying havens for snakes and spiders, he said.
“You don’t do it because you want to, because it seems really easy… and it’s not a question of not having technologies or knowledge,” he told The Tico Times, adding that U.S. growers burn 100% of their sugarcane.
However, Fabio Alfaro, management assistant at Coopevictoria in Grecia, northwest of San José, says he doesn’t understand why more producers don’t give up burning.
The cooperative and its members – about 3,100 coffee and sugarcane farmers, with an average farm size of 3-5 hectares – have completely eliminated burning as a harvesting method over the past 10 years, motivated by a desire to reduce farms’ impact on the environment and public health, he said.
“Here, everything’s by hand,” he said of the Central Valley farms the cooperative represents.
“In Guanacaste it’s done by machine, and it seems strange to me because with machines it’s all much more efficient,” making a green harvest easier. Chaves, who directs LAICA’s Sugarcane Investigation and Extension Division, said the crop grows nationwide, with the largest companies in Guanacaste and Puntarenas and the largest number of companies in the Central Valley, near Alajuela, west of San José. Costa Rica produced 3.6 million metric tons of sugarcane in the 2005-2006 season, which yielded 369,935 metric tons of sugar, according to LAICA.
Harvests take place each year from early December to May, with the exact dates varying somewhat by region. In Guanacaste, harvests generally begin and end earlier than in the rest of the country. Cane burning has been going on in Costa Rica since the 1950s, when the crop became prevalent in Guanacaste. There, the crop’s leaves and the fact that farmers leave the cane undisturbed starting five months after planting make cane fields a perfect haven for snakes, Chaves said. (In the Southern Zone, where cane is planted in the cantons of Pérez Zeledón and Buenos Aires de Puntarenas, spiders are the primary threat to sugarcane workers.)
The danger posed by animals, combined with the extreme difficulty of hacking one’s way into a dense sugarcane field, have made burning so common, Chaves said. The process, which involves a quick fire that doesn’t harm the sturdy stalks but removes the leaves and debris from among them, can cut harvesting time in half. As a result, teams of workers, many of whom come from Nicaragua for the harvest, often tell farm owners they won’t harvest the field unless they’re allowed to burn it.
Alfaro, of Cooperativa Victoria, admitted some workers still object to the cooperative’s no-burn policy, mostly because of dangers posed by snakes.
In order to burn, farmers must obtain a permit from the Agriculture Ministry, now part of the Production Ministry. A 1994 decree states that a qualified ministry official must visit the proposed burn site before and after the burn to ensure the land is suitable for the process, and that the farmer or company has firebreaks and emergency preparations. Cane growers must also advise local police before they
burn and conduct the process only between 4 p.m. and 7 a.m.
According to environmental groups, however, these regulations aren’t enough. The World Conservation Union and the government of Denmark are financing a FECON project called “Sugar Without Ashes,” which seeks to eliminate burning altogether, according to Amit.
Luis Carlos González, another FECON environmentalist, said the regulations designed to control burning aren’t effective because government ministries don’t enforce them.
“The Public Health Ministry doesn’t have the agility to act in time,”González said, adding that the justice system hasn’t done enough to protect the environment either. “There’s total impunity here,” he said.
Several companies have begun the process of reducing the percentage of burned crops, some because of Sala IV decisions requiring the Public Health Ministry to ensure the companies reduce their burning.
According to Sala IV documents, the chamber found in favor of the Guanacaste association in a 2002 case against Central Azucarera del Tempisque, another Guanacaste sugar company. The court ordered that the ministries of Public Health, Agriculture and Environment work with the company to create, within 10 months, a plan to eliminate problems stemming from cane burning. The decision states that side effects of the practice, such as foul odors, violate neighbors’ right to “a healthy and ecologically balanced environment,” outlined in Article 50 of the Constitution.
Amit said similar logic should be applied to Ingenio Taboga and Azucarera El Viejo, the companies mentioned in the current suit.
However, according to Ingenio Taboga, located in the town of Cañas, Guanacaste, which responded promptly to the suit in a statement, the company implemented a program to reduce its burning procedures in 2002, and in its most recent harvest collected 60% of its cane without using burning techniques.
The statement also said the burning process is “totally controlled” and supervised by internal and external environmental advisors, and that Taboga has not registered any cases of respiratory diseases that can be attributed to burning cane.
Azucarera El Viejo officials referred The Tico Times to company lawyer Medford Solís, but he did not return calls by press time.