Throughout Central America, a puzzling new epidemic is threatening the lives and livelihoods of sugarcane workers. In Nicaragua, it causes more fatalities than HIV and diabetes combined, and in El Salvador, it is the second leading cause of death among males. Thousands of Central American men are afflicted with chronic kidney disease, and some epidemiologists and local doctors speculate that the disease is the result of overwork and exposure to dangerous agrochemicals. We recently spoke with Guillermo Belloso, a farm management specialist in El Salvador, about the epidemic and the Rainforest Alliance’s work with SalvaNATURA to improve conditions for sugarcane workers. [SalvaNATURA is an El Salvadorian conservation organization and a founding member of the Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN), which manages the standard to which all Rainforest Alliance Certified™ farms are audited.]
Tell me a bit about the SAN’s decision to begin working with sugarcane farmers.
In 2008, the SAN looked at global land use projections and determined that there would soon be a significant increase in the area used to produce biofuels and foods, and — consequently — an increase in demand for palm oil to make diesel and sugarcane to make ethanol. The following year, we developed an addendum to the SAN standard for sustainable agriculture, which is proving to be an important tool for minimizing the negative impacts of sugarcane farming and reducing pressure on biodiversity and communities.
What are some of the most challenging issues surrounding sugarcane certification?
At the farm level, we are working with farmers to eliminate the use of fire for harvest preparation and to reduce the excessive use of dangerous agrochemicals. To do so, we need to create awareness of the dangers surrounding fire and agrochemicals within local communities, and improve worker education and training. And we also need to educate consumers about these issues and encourage them to buy sustainable sugar. Consumers everywhere must take an active role in caring for their own health, the health of workers around the world and the health of the planet.
Can you describe some of the health issues plaguing Central American farm workers, particularly sugarcane workers?
On Central American sugarcane plantations, many agricultural tasks are done manually and temperatures can reach 104◦ F (40◦ C). According to local medical surveys, high temperatures and inadequate fluid intake can trigger an increase in kidney disease — today, one of the major health issues facing Central American workers. Making matters worse, many workers have no access to health services and existing facilities lack the equipment or specialists needed to cope with such a serious ailment. The issues will only become more serious as we begin to see the effects of climate change — particularly increases in temperature – on farms in the tropics.
How does the SAN Standard attempt to address these issues?
The SAN Addendum includes these issues in the Standard, addressing them with specific criteria aimed at improving practices. Rainforest Alliance Certified™ farms must identify activities that can negatively impact health, improve rehydration practices, issue annual medical checkups, and work to eliminate medical disorders that might be caused by harvest or other dangerous practices.
What other issues does the Standard seek to address?
The SAN Standard works to ensure that Rainforest Alliance Certified farms protect high value ecosystems, develop renewable energy sources, restore ecosystem connectivity, protect threatened and endangered species, consider the impact of their actions on local communities, work to minimize greenhouse gas emissions, and eliminate the use of fire for harvest preparation.
Have we seen improvements in worker health and well-being on sugarcane farms that have earned Rainforest Alliance certification?
Currently, there are only two pilot sugarcane farms working with the Rainforest Alliance and the SAN. The first one is in El Salvador and the second is in Brazil. Conditions are very different in both places.
The El Salvador pilot farm is typical of a Central American sugarcane plantation, and local SalvaNATURA technicians and auditors have reported that community doctors have seen a decline in respiratory diseases. SalvaNATURA has also developed an on-farm diagnostic and training for workers and smallholder sugarcane producers. It’s still too early to see real results and determine the full on-the-ground impact.
Learn more about our work with sugarcane farmers.