Cane fires are a health issue for everyone in Costa Rica

Photo by Joan Ritchie Dewar
Cane firing generates giant flames and smoke

Wrong assumptions are being made regarding the firing of sugar cane.

It is not an expat or tourist problem, but one that concerns the whole Costa Rican community, families, children, you, me, and everyone who breathes the air.

Just as Costa Rica is coming into the 21st century with improved technology and even street signs in San José, its citizens are becoming aware of the health problems created by not only the pre-harvest firing of sugar cane but also of post-harvest burning of tomato plastic, pineapple, rice and banana fields (a/k/a biomass), bush fires and from automobile emissions. It all adds up, but cane firing is the worst and most visible for at least four months of the year!!

Pollution is considered to be the No. 3 global problem (after hunger and poverty), causing 33 percent of all human illness. Air pollution is a significant risk factor for multiple health conditions including respiratory infections, heart disease, and lung cancer, according to the World Health Organization. Studies in many countries of the world indicate that respiratory diseases increase during the sugar cane season. It is said that it takes 250 days to cleanse the air of particulates – just in time to start a new cane firing season!

Costa Rica has not yet made relevant studies on the incidence of asthma related to biomass burning. However, a study conducted by Pediatrician Soto-Quiroz, director of pneumology, National Children’s Hospital of Costa Rica, determined that, of 59 countries surveyed, Costa Rica has the third highest asthma index in a young population. A study conducted in 2009 by Posada Arevalo in Tabasco, Mexico, concluded that smoke is one of the planet`s most fearsome contaminants.

The excuses of firing cane to get rid of snakes, to make cutting easier and to reduce the cost of transportation due to lighter loads just don’t cut it against the conditions cane workers endure and breathe: covered in ash like a chimney sweep at the end of the day! Few Costa Ricans will even cut cane anymore. Instead, most is done by foreigners, people from countries so poor that they are willing to suffer health risks to send money home to their families.

To date only two countries have banned the firing of cane, Cuba and Paraguay, where mills are fined if they process burnt cane. Brazil’s main sugar cane state of Sao Paulo has agreed to stop the practice of burning cane fields by 2017.

The government of Costa Rica does show concern. It was rumored in 2005 that Costa Rica would ban the firing of cane. That didn’t happen. Instead, since 2009 permits are required to fire cane following certain guidelines. But, very few permits are applied for. Most firing is, therefore, illegal and, regrettably, there are no sugar cane fire police!

The eradication of pre-harvest sugar cane burning is key to reduction of air pollution and improvement of air quality. Some Costa Rican sugar cane farmers have seen the light and are, in fact, already green cutting.

Ingenios (sugar processing plants) are another significant factor. Some, like Grecia’s Cooperativa Victoria, work to minimize burning. Other ingenios actually require that cane be fired before they will process it! Smokestack emissions from ingenios often add to the polluted atmosphere.

Costa Ricans and expat residents are proud of the coffee and sugar cane industries, as much as they are of their parks, palm trees and beaches. Cane is grown in the Guanacaste, Central Valley and Turrialba regions. We don’t want anyone to lose production, rather to improve the health of the nation.

Just as Costa Rica has established a certification for sustainable tourism program, the same should be developed for the agro industry. Perhaps then the country will attain its goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2021, and we’ll all live longer and healthier.
Joan Ritchie Dewar, Jean Kalbun,
Carolina Rugeles

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