A sugar cane field adjacent to the house of cause leader Karen Chun has been systematically set on fire every year since she moved to her neighborhood 15 years ago. “I was coughing for a month and it got so bad that my stomach was sore from coughing. I went in to see my doctor and they immediately gave me an x-ray.” Last year, a doctor diagnosed cause leader Karen Chun with asthma due to years of smoke inhalation. After her diagnosis, Karen knew enough was enough. Last month she launched a petition on Causes.com asking the State Health Department of Maui and Hawaiian Cane & Sugar (HC&S) — the company that owns the field — to end sugar cane burning and prioritize alternative means of harvest by 2017. As of last week, more than 4,800 people have signed the petition. We spoke to Karen this week and asked about her next steps in the campaign.
Karen lives on the island of Maui in the town of Pa’ia. A tight-knit community comprised of 5,000 residents, her town is surrounded by 35,000 acres of sugar cane. Every year, half of that acreage is burned to harvest sugar for brands such as Sugar In The Raw, a ubiquitous staple in almost every coffeeshop in the US. Although there are other means of sugar cane harvesting, Karen told us that sugar cane burning, from what she has researched, is the cheapest form of harvest. Unfortunately, she said, it’s also the most damaging to the health of neighboring communities. “Last year [HC&S was] out of control on their burning. In the past, they tried not to burn on days where the smoke would be really bad. Last year they didn’t care about that.”
Karen described the environment created by these fires as something similar to living in the middle of a yearly brushfire. “The worst burn [last year] was as though my house was on fire. I grabbed my animals to leave my house and I could not even see my next door neighbor. My neighbor’s house was hazy and the house beyond my neighbor’s house. The house 120 feet away was not even visible.”
Repeated attempts by community members to file complaints about the health risks of large-scale burns have proven ineffective. Yet, Karen believes this new campaign on Causes has given people the confidence to stand up to big companies like HC&S. “This petition has made people braver. We have a state senator who says he’s now going to introduce a bill to tighten up regulations that give out the open-burn permits. I was pleasantly surprised that so many people are involved. Causes has been a great way to get the word out.”
Karen said that everyone in her neighborhood is on board and she will submit the signatures on September 29 to Maui health officials and HC&S representatives. If you would like to learn more about Karen’s petition, visit her petition page and share your thoughts on the issue in the comments section below.