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Sugarcane plantations in the Cauca Valley, Colombia


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.

Basic Data

Name of conflict:Sugarcane plantations in the Cauca Valley, Colombia
State or province:Valle del Cauca, Cauca, Risaralda y Caldas
Location of conflict:Santander, Cali, Florida, Pradera, Palmira, Buga, Tulua, Zarzal, entre otros.
Accuracy of locationHIGH (Local level)

Source of Conflict

Type of conflict. 1st level:Biomass and Land Conflicts (Forests, Agriculture, Fisheries and Livestock Management)
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Intensive food production (monoculture and livestock)
Water access rights and entitlements
Agro-fuels and biomass energy plants
Land acquisition conflicts
Specific commodities:Land

Project Details and Actors

Project details

The sugar cane monoculture is mostly located on the banks of the Cauca River, in several departments, north of Cauca, Valle del Cauca and part of Risaralda and Caldas. The planted area almost doubled between the 1960s and 1980s, going from 64,000 to 110,000 ha. As of 1990, as a result of the economic opening, specialization towards the cultivation of sugar cane is accentuated until reaching 203 thousand hectares planted in (half of the available land of the geographic valley of the Cauca River).

The industry is highly productive: 126 tons of cane and 12 of sugar/ha and, in addition, important developments in research and biotechnology. In contrast, the policy of the Associated Work Cooperatives (CTA) is implemented as forms of labor contracting, which allows them to lower wages to minimum figures and evade the payment of social security and the direct employment relationship.

This agribusiness also entered the agrofuels business, producing 50,000 million liters of ethanol per day.

It finds a fixed demand, since in the country there is an obligation to mix gasoline with ethanol at 10%. This policy indicates that the percentage will continue to rise gradually, it went from 1.2 to 2.3 million tons between 1980 and 2007. Part of this sugar boom is explained by the export dynamics that increased from 280 thousand tons of sugar and derivatives in 1980 to 1.2 million in 2005, to later drop to 716 thousand tons in 2007 due to the displacement of sugar cane cultivation towards ethanol production. Honey production has decreased from 321 thousand tons in 1980 to 250 thousand in 2007. And the new agrofuel business, supported by government policies, has increased its production since its inception in 2005, going from 29 million liters to 275 million in 2007.

The sugarcane agribusiness generates 36,000 jobs, in addition to some 216,000 indirect jobs, such as suppliers of goods and services, clients of the mills and other companies that interact with them in different subsectors (transport, financial, commercial, logistics, food, liquors, paper, sucrochemistry, graphic arts, energy, agrochemicals, research, guilds, fuels, etc.).

Project area:205000
Type of populationRural
Affected Population:10,000,000
Start of the conflict:2003
Company names or state enterprises:Asociación de Cultivadores de Caña de Azúcar de Colombia - Asocaña
Centro de Investigación de la Caña de Azucar - Cenicaña
Asociación Colombiana de Productores y Proveedores de Caña de Azucar Procaña from Colombia
Relevant government actors:Presidencia de la República de Colombia, Ministerio de Agricultura, Gobernación del Valle del Cauca, Gobernación del Cauca, Risaralda y Caldas, Corporación Autonoma Regional del Valle del Cauca
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:Coordinación Agraria del Cauca, Movimiento de Trabajadores Corteros de Caña 14 de Junio, Instituto Mayor Campesino - IMCA, Sindicato Nacional de Corteros - Sinalcorteros, Community Biodiversity Development and Conservation - CBDC, Universidad del Valle Cinara, Grupo Semillas

Conflict & Mobilization

IntensityHIGH (widespread, mass mobilization, violence, arrests, etc...)
Reaction stageMobilization for reparations once impacts have been felt
Groups mobilizing:Farmers
Local ejos
Landless peasants
Social movements
Trade unions
Local scientists/professionals
Forms of mobilization:Blockades
Community-based participative research (popular epidemiology studies, etc..)
Creation of alternative reports/knowledge
Development of a network/collective action
Development of alternative proposals
Involvement of national and international NGOs
Media based activism/alternative media
Objections to the EIA
Official complaint letters and petitions
Public campaigns
Shareholder/financial activism.
Street protest/marches
Arguments for the rights of mother nature
Appeals/recourse to economic valuation of the environment


Environmental ImpactsVisible: Air pollution, Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Fires, Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Deforestation and loss of vegetation cover, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Groundwater pollution or depletion, Large-scale disturbance of hydro and geological systems, Reduced ecological / hydrological connectivity
Potential: Genetic contamination, Global warming, Soil contamination, Soil erosion, Waste overflow, Desertification/Drought, Floods (river, coastal, mudflow), Food insecurity (crop damage)
Health ImpactsPotential: Occupational disease and accidents, Other environmental related diseases, Health problems related to alcoholism, prostitution
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Increase in Corruption/Co-optation of different actors, Displacement, Lack of work security, labour absenteeism, firings, unemployment, Land dispossession
Potential: Increase in violence and crime, Loss of livelihood, Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures, Militarization and increased police presence, Specific impacts on women, Violations of human rights, Loss of landscape/sense of place


Project StatusIn operation
Conflict outcome / response:Compensation
Criminalization of activists
Deaths, Assassinations, Murders
Environmental improvements, rehabilitation/restoration of area
Strengthening of participation
Violent targeting of activists
Application of existing regulations
On February 17, 2011, Sandra Viviana Cuellar Gallego was murdered. 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 [1].
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.
Proposal and development of alternatives:Some researchers indicate that with what the sugarcane agribusiness owes for reasons of the social and environmental debt of the sector for the period 1990-2007 (environmental liabilities) it is a value close to $11.1 billion current pesos, a sum that is equivalent to US$ 6,092 million dollars. That could be invested in housing, health, education and better labor contracts for cane cutters.
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:No
Briefly explain:The conflict generated by the monoculture of sugar cane cannot be considered a triumph of Environmental Justice, because it currently continues despite the efforts of different social and environmental organizations, as well as scientists and researchers who have demonstrated the serious consequences generated by this intensive exploitation. The support of the national government is maintained for the sugar union, which to a certain extent has polarized the conflict, preventing the environmental justice process from taking place.

Sources & Materials

Juridical relevant texts related to the conflict (laws, legislations, EIAs, etc)

Ley 693 de 2001 estimula el uso y la producción de alcohol carburante

El Código de Recursos Naturales: Esta norma surgió en 1974 como principal respuesta de Colombia ante los acuerdos alcanzados en la Conferencia de Estocolmo sobre Medio Ambiente y Desarrollo.

Ley 788 de 2002 introdujo las exenciones del IVA, impuesto Global y sobretasa al componente alcohol de los combustibles oxigenados. CONPES 3510 de 2008 en donde se definen las políticas y estímulos para el sector cañero.

Ley 1233 de julio 22 de 2008, pero que solo tiene vigencia a partir del 22 de enero de 2009. Esta nueva Ley rige las Coperativas de Trabajo Asociado.

Ley 99 de 22 de diciembre de 1993. Se crea el MINISTERIO DEL MEDIO AMBIENTE, se reordena el Sector Público encargado de la gestión y conservación del medio ambiente y los recursos naturales renovables, se organiza el Sistema Nacional Ambiental -SINA.

References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

Pérez, M & Alvarez, Paula. (2009) Deuda Social y Ambiental del Negocio Cañicultor en Colombia: Responsabilidad social empresarial y subsidios implícitos en la industria cañera análisis en el contexto del conflicto corteros-empresarios. Grupo Semillas, Bogotá.

Álvarez, P. (2008). Los agrocombustibles en Colombia: una historia de ciencia ficción. En tierra y territorios sin agrocombustibles. Asproinca y Grupo Semillas.

Pérez, M. (2008). Los agrocombustibles: ¿Sólo cantos de Sirena? Análisis de los impactos ambientales y sociales para el caso colombiano.

[1] Censat - Por una permanencia digna en los territorios: Seguimos recordando Sandra Viviana Cuellar Gallego


26 sept 2008 - 12:00 a. m.

El paro de los corteros de caña

Ambiente agitado

2 de octubre de 2008

Meta information

Contributor:MARIO PÉREZ RINCÓN, updated by Dalena Tran
Last update15/02/2022
Conflict ID:686



Sandra Viviana Cuellar Gallego

Sugarcane field in Cauca