Myth: Burning cane is “cultural”

Burning of cane was typically associated with protests by workers at the turn of the 20th century especially in areas such as Cuba and Queensland, Australia. The Kingdom of Hawaii had a criminal law penalizing “malicious burning.” Burnt cane if not processed at a mill within 48 hours of burning begins to rapidly lose its commercially viable sugars to inversion. The transportation technology and condition/existence of roads, etc., available to move harvested burnt cane to the mills for processing in 1900 was not practical and was not considered seriously by anyone until 1908.

Moveable temporary railroads and temporary moveable downslope wooden flumes were used to move harvested cane to the mills and eventually cane haul roads were more fully developed to allow recently invented trucks to haul cane.

The abolition of indentured servitude/slavery in Hawaii in 1903 and simultaneous discovery that burning of cane leaves slowed the spread of leafhoppers and burning of cane slowed the spread of the cane borer, led Henry Baldwin, in 1908, to begin advocating for the burning of stripped cane leaves as a practice to other sugar planters, just before his death. Because of the problem of inversion however, many were skeptical. The long standing custom in Hawaii sugar plantations was for cane to be manually stripped of its leaves twice before being harvested — once during the tasseling season and again just before harvest.

In 1915, ‘holehole’ work which was the manual stripping of cane stalks was still the prevalent practice in Hawai’i and was overwhelmingly assigned to women workers at a fraction of the wage/rate of men plantation workers. In the early 1920s, Hawaii began to get access to federal monies for road projects and thereafter infrastructure developed to allow cane burning to become adopted as an industrial practice across the islands.

A 1924 film shows that they were not burning cane at that time. Cane harvesting starts around 3:00 minutes.

As transportation and mill technologies advanced and infrastructure developed, the amount of area that could be burned and processed within the sugar-inversion window also increased substantially. Cane burning as it began to be practiced nearly 90 years ago has little resemblance with the modern industrial practice as it occurs today.

Cane in pre-missionary Hawaii was not burned. Harvested cane was used as food, medicine and for spiritual purposes. Cane plantings themselves were used as a windbreaker, assisted in soil replenishment processes and used in maintaining lo’i and other garden walls. Stripped cane leaves were extensively used by Hawaiians as interior wall linings of houses. And there is no evidence that Hawaiians burned any part of the cane plant.

Burning cane means the sugar in the cane breaks down more rapidly than unburnt cane. From Good Management Practices Manual for the Cane Sugar Industry:

Research has shown (Wood 1976) that under hot, humid conditions chopped cane deteriorates far more rapidly after harvest than does whole stick cane. Green cane deterioration for both whole stick and chopped cane is slower than that of burnt cane….Benefits to minimum tillage [eg harvesting without burning] were quantified by Haywood and Mitchell (1987) and results showed a 60 % reduction in soil loss and 34 % reduction in runoff.

No-burn harvesting saves on water, fertilizer, herbicides and protects topsoil from blowing away.

Average results from five trials conducted with a rainfall simulator over a five-year period showed that trash saved 89 % of the soil and 58 % of the water lost from plots where tops from burnt cane had been spread (Platford 1982).

The report goes on to stress how important leaving the waste in the fields rather than burning it is to soil health and ability to retain water.

A Green Protocol was recently sponsored between UNICA and the State of São
Paulo that provides for the elimination of sugarcane burning by 2014 for areas that can be mechanized and 2017 for the other areas (UNICA 2008). All new sugarcane areas must be harvested mechanically. Specified prohibition areas are near urban perimeters, highways, railways, airports, forest reserves and preservation units, among others.

As Mahealani Wendt says in response to a post claiming that only newcomers complain about smoke,

Slavery was going on a long time, and it was always wrong. Just because something has been going on a long time doesn’t mean it’s right and should continue.

This post insinuates that newcomers, aka “haoles”, are the main instigators and opponents of this detestable practice.

In truth, a lot of individuals like myself, whose parents and grandparents worked in the cane fields, whose families lived in plantation camps and supported themselves and their families with sugar wages, agree that burning cane, especially because it now includes toxic plastic pipes and equipment, is wrong, unhealthful, and that the plantations need to end this noxious practice.