Agrofuels in vogue: The case of ethanol in Colombia

Agrofuels in vogue: The case of ethanol in Colombia

By Paula Alvarez Roa

In the agrarian policy of the current Government, the promotion of agrofuels has been taken as a strategic axis. Through the Ministry of Agriculture, initiatives are being developed to expand the sowing of these crops and to promote the conditions for investment, approving the tax exemption for agrofuel producers, establishing the obligation to mix gasoline with ethanol, providing legal stability for investors, among other provisions.

In the agrarian policy of the current Government, the promotion of biofuels has been taken as a strategic axis, for which a series of reforms have been carried out that guarantee this business for investors without taking into account the environment and the living conditions of the populations. .

Through the Ministry of Agriculture, initiatives are developed to expand the sowing of these crops, to promote the conditions for investment, to promote laws such as the Rural Statute, Safe Agro-income, and the forestry law, which are aimed at providing guarantees to the private sector to direct its production towards biofuels. The issue takes on a strategic nature to the extent that the government projects agrofuels as the new Colombian field and its objective is to position the country as a power in the next 20 years.

For this, the Government has approved tax exemption for agrofuel producers, has established the obligation to mix gasoline with ethanol, has issued resolutions to increase prices, has declared free zones, has provided legal stability for investors, that is, , a series of guarantees have been created for producers and business owners in the domestic market with a view to exporting. It is important to mention the role of Cenicaña [1] and other research centers who receive millionaire investments, public and private, to develop new varieties of sugarcane, cassava, etc., to carry out genetic improvement studies and technology transfer.

This article wants to show some considerations on the production of ethanol, since that of agrodiesel extracted from the oil palm, although it has similarities, also has particularities that require another analysis. We begin, then, with a general historical overview of what the sugar cane industry (main crop in ethanol production per hectare) has meant in the country, the problem of land tenure, a brief description of how it has It has been the work in the mills, the current situation of outsourced work, to reach the ethanol business as a Government proposal in which it is stated that agrofuels represent an opportunity to create employment, wealth and prosperity to show how agrofuels threaten the food sovereignty, since the land for food production will be used for the production of fuels

Some History

When sugar cane began its technification process, greater investments were made in technology, more labor was needed, which was supplied in large part with the opening of the Chocó mining border, from where men and women arrived in Valle del Cauca of black race who were linked to the haciendas and mills. At the beginning of the 19th century, the cultivation of sugarcane spread throughout the department of Valle del Cauca, where some peasants had artisanal mills, this being a particularity in relation to the peasantry of the rest of the country, since they and the landowners were They benefited from the rents left by sugarcane production: the colonial State made this crop one of its most important income lines through the collection of the tithe on honey and the establishment of the liquor store.

The importance of sugarcane production was maintained despite the crisis of the colonial mining system, derived from the political conflicts of Independence and the social reforms initiated by the Republican State. The agricultural rebound led to the sugar mill estates being mainly dedicated to the production of brandy. Later came the abolition of slavery in 1851 and with it the advance of the massification of wage labor. The haciendas invested in modern stills that could be supplied with cane, through the recruitment of concerted labor through land leases on the haciendas that were paid with work.

This is how the bases were consolidated for the formation of an agribusiness that between 1920 and 1930 gave rise to the main sugar mills: the Central Azucarera del Valle, which is known today as Ingenio Providencia S.A; Ingenio Riopaila belonging to the same economic group as Colombina (confectionery company); Mayagüez sugar mill; Bengal; Parodies; The industry; and María Luisa. In the 1940s, new entrepreneurs began to set up mills such as San Carlos, Pichichí, Oriente, Papayal, La Esperanza, El Arado, Castilla, El Porvenir, Meléndez and San Fernando.

The problem of land tenure

The emergence of the sugarcane agribusiness was framed from the beginning by confrontations over land ownership that still persist, since its development was thanks to the appropriation of the land by the mills due to the dispossession of the undivided (plots of land that had the families in material possession, without deeds). In most cases, the landowners and the big mills expropriated the owners of these lands in various ways.

There were problems in the deed, lands with false tradition, changes in the agricultural vocation that was in favor of the monoculture of sugar cane. One of the forms of expropriation was the violence exercised against the owners who did not have title to the land. Another way was through the leasing that the peasants were forced to make to the mills that eventually became the property of the tenant through deception. There were so many years that the ingenuity took advantage of the ignorance of the owners and made them sign or place their mark to keep their land. When they realized they no longer owned the land but only the house, usually a small house, but the farmland had changed ownership, they had been stripped of their plots [2].

The conflict over capitalist land rent explains why the great losers have always been the peasant, indigenous and local communities, which when they were not expropriated in the name of modernization, had to lose in the distribution of the capitalist surplus. But one way or another they have always had to pay for access to land that was originally theirs. Thus, this model has been mounted since its genesis in the expropriation of the land.

Work in the Sugar Mills

Since the beginning of the 20th century, several estates were regrouped into family businesses [3], in which labor relations went from a semi-feudal model to dependence on wages that was based on contracts, often of a verbal nature. The landholding was combined with an increasing use of laborers, many of whom had been recruited from the moment slavery was abolished, but this labor relationship also increased as new economic developments led to its gradual abolition [4 ].

Such has been the degree of exploitation existing in the sugar mills throughout history, that the demands of the workers in 1953 in the main strike of cane workers, and later in 1974, do not differ from the last mobilization in 2005. We spoke of minimal requests such as the transport conditions of the workers so that trucks and dump trucks could be exchanged for buses, demands for toilets on the work fronts; appropriate eating areas; and a fair remuneration per ton of cane cut.

But, we insist, it seems as if time will not pass and those same demands were at the center of the 2005 strike, in which the sugarcane cutters rose. 2,700 cutters from Ingenio del Cauca, Incauca began, who blocked the entrance to the Ingenio and presented a list of requests. The mobilization of the workers and their families, the support of merchants, politicians, and even the population and the solidarity of the union movement, allowed another 7,000 cutters from the Mayagüez, Manuelita, La Cabaña, Pichichí, Central Tumaco, Castilla, María Luisa and Tumaco will go on strike, paralyzing production.

This shows that the great growth of the mills has been on that basis of exploitation, until it became one of the main industries in the country, with more than 100 companies related to the activity: energy, paper, sugar chemistry, sugar, honey, organic fertilizers , food, beverages, alcohols, spirits, etc., as well as high productivity, reaching yields of 126 tons of cane per hectare and 12 tons of sugar per hectare (surpassing Australia and Brazil), added to a great advance in research and an implementation of cutting edge technologies. In contrast to the above, workers suffer a real deterioration in wages and an absence of social security.

What happens today ...

A worker, a cane cutter, called these precarious working conditions "the slavery of this century" in meetings held in Palmira. These workers have worked for more than 25 years at Ingenio Mayagüez and it is surely a generalized thought in the more than 16 thousand cutters in Valle del Cauca, who work daily on 200 thousand hectares.

And it is that the situation of the workers historically has been the same of the slaves of the 18th and 19th centuries. What we thought had surpassed modernity is a reality for sugarcane workers, for example the strenuous work days at temperatures that exceed 37 degrees Celsius, forced and humiliating quality controls for the cutters, the non-recognition of the rights to health and social security. All this continues as if we were still in those days for these cutters who represent almost half of the workforce of the mills and who perform the most demanding physical work.

Cane cutters who on average are over 45 years old live in sub-normal neighborhoods, on the outskirts of municipalities such as Palmira, Puerto Tejada, Florida, Cali and Santander de Quilichao. They do not receive any cash payment (less than the current legal minimum wage) because the cooperative system, which we will talk about later, captures the resources and gives the worker their salary in kind: household items, food for their family and limes to sharpen their machetes (main work tool).

To add to this dramatic situation, the family of a cane cutter on average is 5 people, parents and three children, who can hardly access a secondary education and much less technical or higher and do not have job stability either. And at this point it is very important to differentiate the workers of the cooperatives, who represent 90% of the total sugar cane workers, from the 10% who are still directly hired by the mills, since it is the latter who The different reports of Asocaña [5] are referred to when they present the working conditions of the sector and the social benefits granted: the Educational Sugar Network Program, recreational and cultural activities, own housing and technical or university training of half of the employees.

Labor Flexibility

When labor flexibility became a State policy, through Law 50 of 1990, new forms of contracting were promoted, such as Associated Work Cooperatives (CTA), which have increased since 2000. In 2004, He spoke of 1,500 cooperatives in the sugarcane sector, to which 90% of the cutters belong. Regarding these cooperatives, the following should be noted:

  • Eliminate collective bargaining rights and union organizing for workers
  • They supply labor to third parties
  • They make the associates equally assume the risks of each work carried out
  • Partially affiliate workers with social security
  • They oblige each worker to sign a document in which the desire to voluntarily retire is expressed
  • There are different types of cooperatives: sale of inputs to households, sale of tools for work, etc., generally with higher prices

This cooperative system is made possible by a new legal framework that responds to market demands and that makes it possible to perpetuate the precarious working conditions in which cutters have lived. The so-called outsourcing or labor flexibilization has been established in the country in all sectors of the economy - mining, industry, the production of consumer goods, transportation, financial, communications activities, etc. - and the sugar industry has not been immune to these measures that have brought serious damage because when intermediaries appear in the hiring, the quality of work is impaired, remuneration for labor is reduced, income is lost and consequently the welfare of workers' families. Joblessness also leads to the end of social security and in practice workers lose the right to collective bargaining, union organization and association.

The ethanol business

The promotion of biofuels as a government policy makes the interest in expanding the hectares of crops enormous, with the main argument that in Colombia the agricultural frontier can be expanded, the President publicly maintains that his goal is 7 million hectares for biofuels.

The expansion of the business of ethanol extracted from sugar cane implies the implementation of the cultivation in other regions of the country and therefore of the forms of labor exploitation. The Etanol Consortiun Board SA firm has planned the planting of 15 thousand hectares between Mahates and Maria la Baja, in a strip between the Canal del Dique and the foothills of the Montes de María, between the departments of Bolívar and Sucre. The idea is to link peasants to this initiative, through the lease of land to plant the crop (as in Valle del Cauca since colonial times) or the purchase of shares in the new plant in which only 3% will be traded. of the company's shares. This company has announced an agro-industrial project for this area that includes the creation of three plants for ethanol.

The first of these plants will be built in the vicinity of Sincerín and El Vizo (Bolívar), the other two in Momil (Córdoba) and San Onofre (Sucre) that would come into operation in 2010 and 2011 respectively. The programmed investment is 343 million dollars and the plans are for each plant to produce 300 thousand liters of ethanol. The production of these plants will be 85% for export, especially to Europe, and 15% for the local market and is presented as one of the job-generating projects in the region.

It is worth noting that these investments are framed within the Colombian Caribbean Ethanol Project, an initiative that is supported by the Etanol Consortium Board SA (ECB SA), the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the High Council for Reintegration and the International Agency of the United States for Development (USAID) with the objective of incorporating part of the 45,000 reinserted from the paramilitary groups through a program called employability.

For its part, Asocaña has led the ethanol project in the sugar sector for several years and has influenced regulatory changes, technical aspects and the selection of technologies. As a result of this influence, they achieved technical and environmental regulation and dialogue with the different actors on the subject, a clear example of this is the recognition that Ricardo Villaveces (President of Asocaña for 20 years) makes to the former Minister of Mines and Energy Luís Ernesto Mejía, in which he points out that “he has been an indisputable leader, he can feel very satisfied that he has been a determining element for Colombia to have entered the promising world of biofuels on the right foot” [6].

Similarly, Asocaña participated in the founding of the Agrocombustibles Federation [7], an entity in charge of the spokesperson for several of the issues related to this activity and promoter of new developments in various parts of the country. Asocaña was in charge of directly managing and processing the environmental licenses for ethanol production: DG license No. 415/04, 416/04, and 432/04, issued by the Valle del Cauca Regional Autonomous Corporation, CVC. They were also the ones who convened the Afro-Colombian communities in the respective areas of influence, through public hearings to approve the project.

Since 2005, the production of fuel alcohol or ethanol began with the start-up of the Incauca distilleries and the Ingenio Providencia. In February 2006, the Risaralda, Mayagüez and Manuelita mills joined. Currently there are five mills that produce more than one million liters per day and the Government has been increasing the percentage of alcohol mixtures in gasoline, which started with 10% and by 2015 it is expected to reach 25%, this is expected It has been applied in the southwest of the country since the end of 2005 and since 2006 in Bogotá and Santanderes.

This business is presented as a business with environmental "benefits". In the 2006–2007 Asocaña Report it is stated that under the Kyoto protocol, sugarcane cultivation reduces the greenhouse effect, since the use of biomass energy reduces the CO2 in the atmosphere. But as Elizabeth Bravo disputes, what this type of speech does not say is that a mechanized monoculture is promoted that requires agrochemicals and machinery, a production model that is based on the consumption of polluting oil, which ultimately increases emissions of CO2. As carbon-sequestering forests are cleared to make way for crops for agrofuels, CO2 emissions will increase rather than decrease.

The production of agrofuels in the countries of the South, destined for exportation, will increase the use of fossil fuels and gas emissions in the transport of vegetable biomass converted to liquid fuel, thus increasing the greenhouse effect (Pimentel and Patzek 2005). [8]

Some final considerations

Currently the National Government subsidizes with more than 1500 million dollars a year to five mills for the production of ethanol, as part of the policy promoted by the Ministry of Agriculture, through decrees and resolutions that exempt the sector from taxes and they create incentives for the production of both ethanol and agrodiesel. The general subsidy they have been receiving from all Colombians makes the ethanol business a round business, since, as Aurelio Suárez points out, in one year the price that consumers in the areas that mix ethanol with gasoline by 10%, has grown by a scandalous 84%; just between August and September of this year it rose 7%. The liter is worth $ 1,533; therefore, the price of a gallon to the public, at the current exchange rate of the dollar, is 2.5 dollars, while the cost of production of the mills is 1.21 dollars.

At the same time, this boost to agrofuels is accompanied by the idea of ​​job creation, which for the case that concerns us, that of ethanol, Asocaña affirms that with the current level of alcohol production the related jobs correspond to 40,600, a figure That would increase to 56,900 with a 10% mix nationwide and 138,300 for a 25% mix. In the case of the planted area, the union proposes that it would go from 37,000 hectares of sugarcane in 2006 to 72,000 in 2020. But what we question is how and what type of employment this new business will generate, if it will increase the differences between the workers linked by the mills of the cooperatives, since the tendency is to end the small direct hiring that the mills still have and rather to continue creating new CTAs that have dire consequences for the workers. But if the expectations are to expand hectares of crops and generate more liters of ethanol, this will lead to greater mechanization in the sector, which significantly reduces the possibilities of creating jobs around this business. These are some questions that arise and that have not been answered by businessmen, much less by government officials. The truth is that the figures provide clarity in this regard, in Brazil it is estimated that 100 hectares for family farming generate 35 jobs, while the same 100 hectares for the production of biofuels only create 10 jobs.

With the approval of new laws on agrarian matters, it is confirmed how the government has focused on the production of biofuels, mainly based on palm and sugar cane. With the Rural Statute, for example, a new institutional framework is founded to adapt the field to the agro-export plan of late-yield crops, support is granted, productive projects are financed and lands are awarded. These criteria are used to intervene in the planning of the territory and qualify rural property, in addition to adapting the lands that will later be delivered to those who present the best projects for land management, that is, to those who are developing agribusiness projects.

In addition, and added to the above, in a recent report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Colombia is the second country in Latin America with the highest malnutrition, with around 6 million people. This institution also suggests that a State policy should be designed to ensure the nutrition of citizens as a right, since in Latin America only some countries: Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador and Guatemala, ensure that in their constitutions and other national laws food as a right.

The fundamental discussion then lies in the intention of expanding the agricultural frontier for biofuels as proposed by the Government or for food as proposed by peasant organizations at a global level. With the policy of promoting agrofuels, food sovereignty is undermined, while the land for food production will now be reserved for the production of fuels. This causes negative impacts of all kinds: speculation in food prices, annihilation of the peasant economy, incorporation of peasants or inhabitants of these areas to plantations, abandoning their culture and way of relating to the countryside, as well as greater use of pesticides for these monocultures.

This competition for the use of land will also have an impact on the value of water and of course on its appropriation, since the use of water for this type of monoculture is of enormous proportions, not only of surface water in which transfers are made to The irrigation of plantations, but of groundwater and other types of aquifers, for example, in the case of the sugar cane monoculture in Valle del Cauca, 100 million cubic meters are required in a year to irrigate 200 thousand hectares. For this reason, we believe that it is probable that the Water Law Project that was pending in 2005 will be filed again in Congress, in which there was talk of long-term concessions and the focus was on the private appropriation of this good common.

Finally, what is stated in the Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food of the United Nations [9], in which it is stated that agrofuels will have hunger as a consequence, in addition it is recognized that there are no preliminary studies of the impacts that it will bring the use of food crops, in car fuel and the effects it will have on hunger in the world have not been examined. Hence, a global moratorium on the expansion of agrofuels is proposed until the social, environmental, and human rights effects are not examined. Because, as the Landless Movement of Brazil points out, the current model of agrofuel production is based on the appropriation of land, the concentration of property and the exploitation of the workforce [10].

* Paula Alvarez Roaes Political scientist and researcher at Grupo Semillas.


[1] Research Center of [1] Colombian Sugar Cane Research Center
[2] Human Development Report for Valle del Cauca. 2007
[3] To deepen on this topic see, The Biofuel and Sugarcane Businesses of Our Entrepreneurs and the National Government of Héctor Mondragón. May 2007
[4] MEJÍA, Eduardo, MONCAYO, Armando: “Origin and Formation…”, ob. cit., p. 100
[5] Association of sugarcane growers of Colombia
[6] Transformation times. Asocaña. Ricardo Villaveces Pardo.
[7] Fedeagrocombustibles
[8] The social and ecological tragedy of the production of agricultural agrofuels in America. By Elizabeth Bravo and Miguel Altieri
[9] General Report of the United Nations Assembly. 2007.
[10] MST Manifesto: Full tanks at the cost of empty bellies, the expansion of the sugarcane industry in Latin America

Video: Biofuels 101 (July 2021).