Long-time sugar cane practice defies carbon neutrality

Neighbors of sugar cane fields in central Costa Rica are unhappy again this year with the annual ritual of burning the fields before harvest.

Burning is an age-old procedure meant to reduce the need for labor, but this year, perhaps because tourism is fragile, some residents are angry. So are snowbird tourists.

Said one tourist couple:

“We are enjoying Costa Rica and its people but are concerned about the pollution and damage done by the fires that we see almost daily.  An environmental awareness and concern were priorities to us in choosing this country as our destination and we hope that something will be done in this regard very soon.”

Said a tourism operator:

A.M. Costa Rica/April ONeill
This was the scene near Grecia a few nights ago as
a cane field was burned off.

“Our guests were appalled and they said it is even worse in Guanacaste where they have seen fires every night during the month they have been here. She has had a persistent cough the whole time. Is this carbon neutral environmentally friendly Costa Rica? If it is, it’s a joke.”

The complaints are probably not going to go anywhere or will a petition that some residents of Atenas are circulating. The issue already has gone to the Sala IV constitutional court which merely instructed the health ministry to keep an eye on the burning.

Cane burning is a universal problem. There are consequences in Brazil’s Amazon, Australia, the southern United States and just about anywhere cane is grown.

The fires are set by growers to destroy the underbrush and the leaves of the cane so that harvesting is made easier. The blaze also kills or chases away dangerous bugs or snakes. The Atenas and Grecia areas are covered in smoke many times from December to April while the harvest is taking place.

In addition to smoke there are the charred bits of plant matter that take to the air and rain like black snow kilometers away.

Fire fighters at the Cuerpo de Bomberos told reporters that cane burning is controlled by permits issued by the Ministerio de Agricultura y Gandería. The only time fire fighters are involved is when the fires get out of control, which is possible in this windy season.

There are a number of academic articles available that address the dangers of the pollution products created by the burning. The fires also can cause changes in the weather, particularly when vast stretches of Amazon cane land are ignited, one report said.

One report from University of Florida research said that about 80 percent of the trash and leaves in a cane fields are consumed by the fires. The practice produces about a tenth of the carbon emissions of a forest fire, the report said.

One suggestion in Florida has been to collect the debris and burn it to produce steam for electrical generation. In the meantime, the high season in some parts of the country will continue to be known as the eyes watering, choking season.

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