Environmental and social conflict in the Cauca River Valley is caused by intensive sugar cane monoculture exploitation. Although the planting and subsequent industrial processing of cane has been considered for years an important sector of economic development for the region, it was only until 2008 when cane cutters began mobilizing to demand true labor and environmental protection in the region.
Since the beginning of the 20th century, several farms have been grouped into family-owned companies, with a growing use of laborers, many of whom had been recruited since slavery was abolished. Production was characterized by rent paid with servile labor, which allowed the landowners, at the same time, to obtain cane and process it.
Thanks to the climate, agro-ecological, and social conditions (the mills were built based on labor exploitation), a development model based on the sugar cane agroindustry was implanted, which today has at least thirteen large mills with more than 100 companies, in lines such as energy (ethanol), paper, sugar chemicals, sugar, honey, organic fertilizers, food, beverages, alcohol, liquor, and others.
The economic success of the sugar cane sector, through which it has been able to consolidate political-business power, has had environmental and social consequences. This great economic dynamic also implies a large ecological footprint that is reflected in the use of natural resources and their associated polluting processes. This has led to important environmental conflicts related to ecological problems that have affected the communities that live near the crops. In addition, these problems have remained almost out of the control of the environmental authority due to the great political, economic, and lobbying power that the union has.
The situation intensifies with the support that the government shows to agribusiness not only through monetary subsidies, but also with what some researchers have called ecological subsidies, which are related to ecological or environmental liabilities (that legal or social obligation to pay or incur an expense as a consequence of environmental damage or social damage, resulting from the use of natural resources and the environment). When economic activities do not cover these environmental liabilities or externalities, an ecological debt is generated.
The intensive use of the environmental functions of the biosphere by the sugarcane business has generated three types of specific conflicts: i) The subsidy associated with the use of water by the cultivation of sugar cane; ii) The subsidy associated with the use of water sources as a landfill by the sugar industry; iii) The environmental subsidy related to the burning of sugar cane. The mills’ monetary compensation does not adequately cover environmental and social consequences for water quality, the atmosphere, and the community.
The tensions caused by the agro-industrial exploitation of sugarcane, which is summarized in the so-called subsidies, provoked the community (especially sugarcane cutters because of precarious working conditions since 2003) to organize. They founded the Sinalcorteros union, whose main task was to reform the existing contracting model in which the associated labor cooperatives hired thousands of people and freed the sugar mills from the responsibilities that they would have to assume with direct contracting (12,467 cutters registered by the Association of Sugar Cane Growers of Colombia - Asocaña for 2004, 2,735 are hired directly by the mills, while the remaining 9,732 are hired through the Associated Work Cooperatives - CTA). The union also aimed to show that with the recent business of biofuel (ethanol), the profits were not being manifested in the entire productive chain. For this reason, in mid-2008 they began a strike that paralyzed the entire agribusiness, forcing the directors of the mills to sit down at the table and respond to the cane cutters' list of demands.
Despite the agreements and commitments that the sugar union assumed, the same environmental and social conflicts are still present today because of the sugar cane monoculture. Tensions intensified in the aftermath of several murders. For example, on February 17, 2011, Sandra Viviana Cuellar Gallego was murdered on the way from her home to the National University in Palmira, where she was going to teach a class. Sandra was recognized in Valle del Cauca and nationally and internationally for her work as a defender of the rights of local communities struggling against sugarcane, and for her work as an artist. In addition, on April 27, 2012 in Florida, Valle, unknown individuals murdered DANIEL AGUIRRE PIEDRAHITA, a trade unionist, general secretary of the National Union of Sugarcane Cutters-SINALCORTEROS and a worker at the Ingenio del Cauca. Whether or not the crime has any relation to the evidence and complaints of sugar cane monoculture is under investigation, but what is clear is that the economic gains generated by sugar cane monoculture are not transmitted to all who are part of the same production chain, leaving as a consequence serious environmental and social liabilities for the entire region.