San José, Costa Rica, since 1956


Why should hundreds of CostaRican residents suffer year after yearbecause a few wealthy farm owners wantto make a profit and continue to disregardthe laws of not burning sugarcanefields?Why are residents with asthma,bronchitis and allergies forced to sufferand live in fear of their houses burningdown?Why must firefighters risk theirhealth much more often during the cane harvestingseason because deliberatelyset cane fires spread to neighboringareas?Do cane-burning farmers not knowthat the leaves left on unburned fieldsprovide mulch and nourishment to theprecious topsoil for next year’s crop?Why do cane-cutters have to work onthe burned fields and breathe ashes intotheir lungs? Is their health of no consequencebecause they are mostlyNicaraguans?Is there no authority in the governmentthat has the courage to say,“enough is enough”?The claim that burning helps protectcane-field workers from snakes is amyth. Ask the farmers who do not burn!Urgent action is needed. Not a daylonger should cane burning be allowed!–Martin Borner,Rincón de Salas, GreciaThe burning of sugarcane fields inCosta Rica is permitted by an executivedecree developed in 1994 by the Ministryof Agriculture and Cattle, the Ministry ofPublic Health and the Ministry of PublicSecurity during the administration of then-President José María Figueres, accordingto Patricia Leandro, Agriculture Ministrylegal advisor.She told The Tico Times the legislationregulates the controlled burning of agriculturalfields, which is allowed only afterinspection of the grounds by an agricultureofficial to determine whether the site meetsa set of requirements. One of the requirements,for example, is to have sufficientwater and tools such as rakes and broomsavailable to extinguish the fire in case of anemergency.According to Agriculture Ministryengineer Roberto Azofeifa, Law 7779 – thelaw of land use, management and recovery– allows “communities to elaborate theirown management plans to control air pollutionin their area.”To create a valid management plan,concerned residents must first form a localcommittee, meet with representatives frompertinent institutions and decide on a proposalto present to the community.Any new practices must be implementedin the community gradually, Azofeifasaid.Though the engineer admitted workingin a burnt cane field is “unhealthy,” he saidthe Ministry of Agriculture is not attemptingto change the existing decree.Bernardo Monge, director of humanenvironment protection at the Ministry ofPublic Health, said cane fields typically areburned once a year from January toFebruary (during the driest months).“Burning takes care of fungus and ratproblems and allows for manual labor thatis cheaper than working with machinery,”he said.“However, it promotes asthma, irritationof respiratory tracts and can cause cancerif any plastic containing bleach particlesis present,” he added.According to Monge, the HealthMinistry is reviewing the legislation thatallows burning and may consider revisingit next year.Marcos Chaves, a representative of theAgricultural Industrial League ofSugarcane (LAICA) with 25 years of experiencein cane production, told The TicoTimes he has seen very few field burningsturn into fires.According to Chaves, cane-harvestingmachinery can lead to unemployment,replacing up to 200 workers per farm.“I am against field burnings, but theyare a harmful necessity. They produceundesirable side-effects, but they ease theharvest and get rid of snakes,” he said,adding that a field burning should not lastlonger than 10 minutes.However, Jesús María Vargas, a canefarmer in Piedades de San Ramón, northwestof San José in the province ofAlajuela, grows both conventional andorganic sugarcane and says he is an enemyof burning because it is completely unnecessary.“Burning causes a lot of extra work;weeds grow all over burnt fields andremoving them is time-consuming. Also,by not burning, I save a lot of herbicide,because you only have to spray once,” heexplained.

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