Colombia, Sugar Cane and Oil Palm. Biofuels and relations of domination

Colombia, Sugar Cane and Oil Palm. Biofuels and relations of domination

By Héctor Hernán Mondragón Báez

From any point of view you look at, the success of biofuels depends on the obligation to use them, on state exemptions and subsidies, on the overpricing of consumers, on the ignorance of workers' rights and on a thousand ways to take away rural communities use their land.

1. Sugarcane in Colombia

Slavery: from the Jesuits to the Gamonales

Since the Spanish conquest of the country, mills were established for the production of cane sugar, in such a way that the main beneficiaries of the land awards used slave labor, initially indigenous, supplied through the so-called "encomiendas" or worker quotas. they imposed on the communities and finally with slaves of African origin. Small farmers also planted sugarcane. In addition to the sugar, the brandy and increasingly more panela (rapadura, papelón, piloncillo or chancaca) were obtained.

During the rule of the Habsburg dynasty (or Austrias), the estates were awarded to the Jesuits. Its production was largely destined for the gold mines, where African slaves were also exploited.

The Bourbons modified the scheme, especially after the expulsion of the Jesuits and the confiscation of their assets in 1767, they finished off their estates, such as Japio, Mataredonda (Findji and Rojas 1985, p. 36) and Agua Clara, later called Manuelita and others, in benefit of ranchers, slave traders or miners, who would later become absolute local powers, gamonales that controlled the land, the economy and politics.

Families such as the Holguín, Mosquera or Arboleda family controlled farms in Valle and Cauca and slave mines in Chocó, Cauca and Nariño. The colonial state also profited in such a way that it established the liquor store that tried to monopolize the marketing of the product and collected the tithe on cane honey (Bermúdez, 1997).

The slave regime continued until 1851. The landowners-miners wavered between supporting Spain or Independence and finally all went over to the patriotic forces after Bolívar's victory in Boyacá in 1819 and his arrival in Cauca in 1821, agreeing with the new state that only the children of the slaves would be free, thereby circumventing abolition. In 1851 after being defeated in the civil war in which they tried to annul the law of abolition of slavery, they tried to convert their farms to the regime called in the West Terrazje and in the Caribbean region registration, a lease paid with servile labor, which allowed them to at the same time obtaining cane and work to grind it.

The United States Consul

In 1854 a revolution was defeated that tried to oppose free trade in order to protect artisanal production and develop national industry. The troops of the landowners of the different regions managed to defeat the artisans and the national army, thanks to the material support of the United States, England, France and Prussia (Vargas 1972).

As a result of this conflict, the industrialization of the country was delayed for half a century and the landowners were left masters of the field, so that they imposed economic relations, leaving the production of sugarcane to servile labor.

A few sugar producers have tried, since the abolition of slavery, to replace the sugar mills moved by mules or horses with machines. In 1855 steam engines were used at the San Pedro Alejandrino sugar factory, near Ciénaga (Magdalena) in the Caribbean. In 1867, the United States consul in Palmira, Santiago Eder established the first sugar mill that survives to this day, Manuelita: he acquired an iron mill powered by hydraulic energy, which he replaced in 1901 with steam machinery. In 1892 the Berasqui sugar mill in Ciénaga de Oro (Córdoba) produced centrifuged sugar (Cenicaña).

These first industrial attempts were limited by the market, since thousands of peasants had their own sugar mills and made up more than 80 percent of the population, so they neither needed to buy sugar nor sell their work. The Ferrería de Pacho was more successful, since 1883 sold iron mills, adapted to the productive needs of the landholdings and matriculations and to the more prosperous peasants and small producers.

From oligopoly to violence and from violence to oligopoly.

During the first decades of the 20th century, the industrialization of the country began, protected by protectionist regulations, by the international market crises and world wars. The sudden expansion of the sugar market allowed the founding of more industrial mills, this time by the families of landowners and merchants, in Cundinamarca, Nariño and Tolima, but it was in Valle del Cauca where the sugar companies registered the greatest success, given the comparative advantages of their farms, especially those provided by the quality of the soils. At that time the Riopaila de los Caicedo, Providencia de los Cabal and Mayagüez de los Hurtado Holguín sugar mills emerged, which continue to be among the main producers to this day.

However, the great leap forward taken by the Valle del Cauca sugar mills that consolidated their oligopoly over the Colombian sugar market occurred in the heat of La Violencia, a period between 1946 and 1958, during which two million people were forcibly displaced and lost 350 thousand farms. Valle del Cauca was the department with the highest number of displaced people, about half a million people who lost 98,400 farms (Lemoin, cited by Oquist 1978, 323). More than from the lands abandoned by the displaced, the mills benefited from the avalanche of cheap labor that La Violencia unleashed. Not only were the Manuelita, Riopaila, Providencia and Mayagüez mills strengthened, but those created after 1940, such as the Meléndez mill of the Garcés family, Pichichí de los Cabal, Sancarlos de los Sarmiento or Castilla y El Porvenir de los Caicedo and those founded after 1950 as Cauca and La Cabaña de los Eder. These families were linked to the traditional parties, especially the conservative party, of which the Caicedo, the Garcés and the Holguín were leaders, for example.

Between 1950 and 1958, industrial sugar production increased from one and a half million tons to two and a half million tons (Kalmanovitz 1978, p. 305). La Violencia had left both the workers available, as well as a mass of urban dwellers dispossessed of the sugar mills and in need of sugar and panela.
On February 12, 1959, the sugar mills founded the Association of Sugarcane Growers (Asocaña), which although effectively grouped together several sugarcane producers, was basically controlled from its foundation by the mills.

The sugar mills in the Valley took over the sugar market, while the panela was left for the small and medium-sized cane producers that still subsisted and that today reach 70 thousand families.

The blockade of Cuba meant for the mills the possibility of exporting to the United States, which together with the country's urban and industrial growth, further expanded the sugar market, so that between 1950 and 1974 production increased by 275% (Bejarano 1985, p. 246) and from 1975 it exceeded 10 million tons (Kalmanovitz, cit.).

In 1977, 12 mills belonging to 4 families controlled 76.3 percent of the sugar market: Caicedo (30%), Eder (24%), Cabal (17.8%) and Garcés (4.5%) (Silva 1977, p. 34). For the rest, the marital ties between these families were and are multiple.

The mills maintained a control of the workers, by means of the influence on the unions, in spite of which great strikes were presented. During one of them, on January 21, 1966, 250 workers from the El Arado sugar mill took over the facilities and kept them operating under their responsibility, to demonstrate that the company could make large profits despite accepting their requests, which they achieved (CIM 1967; Caicedo 1982, p. 144). Three large-scale strikes carried out at the Riopaila sugar mill between 1974 and 1976, the first was victorious for the workers, but then the agreements were unknown (Caicedo 1982 p.p. 233-235).

An equally unbalanced relationship established the sugar mills with Colombian consumers by lowering international sugar prices, in such a way that they subsidized their exports with the premium on sales in Colombia. Thus, while in the international market the price is 12 cents per pound in the national market, it has ranged between 30 and 50 cents. It is the latest application of a kind of bureaucratic capitalism to which sugar producers are accustomed since the time they received concessions to produce brandy and alcohol from the departments.

Ardila Lülle: big capital conquers sugar.

The Ardila Lülle conglomerate is one of the largest in Colombia. It originated in the soft drink industry that came to monopolize so that at present it only competes with Coca Cola, since the Pepsi franchise is in its hands. It owns textile companies and the RCN radio and television network, one of the two that controls the Colombian media.

Ardila Lülle's interest in sugar was born from his plan to control the entire production chain of soft drinks, for which he acquired the factory of bottles step, the one of caps La Libertad, Papeles y Cartones Papelsa and Cchos y Plásticos, for example. Beverages account for 20% of sugar consumption, so it decided to acquire 15% of Manuelita (Silva 1977, p.35) and today Ardila Lülle, who prides himself on being "the world's largest individual sugar producer. ", controls more than 33 percent of production and the market (Silva 2004, pp 208-218). He owns Ingenio Cauca, owns 52% of Providencia and at least 35% of the Risaralda sugar mill, founded in 1979 with investment from the Federation of Coffee Growers, the state, and the Western Financial Corporation dominated by Citibank.

Ardila Lülle is the main promoter of projects for the production of ethanol or fuel alcohol. Its Cauca, Providencia and Risaralda mills produce 65% of Colombian ethanol from sugar, while Manuelita produces 20% (it also owns the Laredo company in Peru) and Mayagüez 15%.

This production of fuel alcohol is the result of the broad maneuverability of bureaucratic capitalism in Colombia. Law 693 of September 19, 2001 ordered that as of September 2006 gasoline in Colombian cities with more than 500,000 inhabitants must contain ethanol. This tax, supported by supposed ecological and social motivations, is decisive since the cost of producing ethanol is higher than that of gasoline, but the tax also allows Ardila Lülle to sell a gallon of ethanol at US $ 2.40 while gasoline is sold. by Ecopetrol at US $ 1.26 (Serrano 2007). To complete this, Law 788 of 2002 exempted ethanol from the VAT value added tax and from taxes and surcharges on fuels, exemptions that cost the state 100 million dollars per year (Suárez 2006).

The mills pay the sugarcane producing entrepreneurs 50 thousand Colombian pesos per ton "if it is for sugar" and 30 thousand pesos "if it is for ethanol." This arbitrarily fixed price using its monopsony status, as well as the growing divergences of interests between the sugar mills and the cane-producing businessmen caused them to leave Asocaña and the founding of the Association of producers and suppliers of Caña Procaña, as well as de Azucari that groups together the suppliers of the Risaralda Mill.

Thirteen sugar mills support 30,000 workers without labor contracts, under conditions of savage capitalism. The formerly strong industrial unions have been reduced to a minimum and hiring is done with so-called "cooperatives", created to hide the labor relationship and pay the piece rate and without any social benefits. However, the "cooperatives" of cane cutters have begun to carry out strikes since 2003 when 1,600 workers stopped the La Cabaña mill and more recently since May 2005 when 2,700 cutters from the Cauca mill stopped work, followed by another 7 thousand from Mayagüez, Manuelita and other devices. The ignorance of the labor relationship prevented declaring the strikes illegal and the invention of the "cooperatives" turned against their inventors. But the working conditions of the sugarcane workers are still very bad, Edison Arturo Sánchez, leader of the strike in Castilla, was assassinated and, in addition, all the agreements with the workers have been unknown at the La Cabaña sugar mill and the strikers have been fired. Faced with the impossibility of disciplining the labor force and the need to increase productivity, the mills now plan the mechanization of cutting, with which the supposed effects of ethanol production on employment would be reversed.

The program of "oxygenated gasoline" with 10% ethanol began in November 2005 in the Southwest and in the coffee zone, and in February 2006 in Bogotá, and it is extremely useful for the producing monopolies. They earn about 100% of the cost of production: US $ 2.40 - US $ 1.21 (Suárez 2006).

Why can Ardila Lülle and other sugar oligopolists bureaucratically impose these mega profits?

Because they control the state. Ardila Lülle has supported the election of Presidents Pastrana and Uribe, of the congressmen who support their governments. Ardila Lülle controls the information from the RCN chain, which in recent years has dedicated itself to apologizing for the paramilitaries, who have assassinated almost 4 thousand trade unionists and keep vast areas of the country under their political-military control, preventing the growth of the protest.

The decisive thing: the United States wants the production of ethanol and other biofuels to grow to solve its energy crisis and specifically in the case of Colombia it requires that the oil be exported, so that it is convenient for it that in Colombia more biofuel is consumed at a cost of production greater than that of gasoline, leaving more free for the United States.

The bureaucratic gain obtained through the domestic price premium on sugar to subsidize exports is repeated in the case of ethanol and will be more scandalous as the oil price cycle imposes lower international prices than the current ones.

The degree of control of the government and the state by the sugar oligopoly was also demonstrated in the negotiation of the FTA Free Trade Agreement with the United States, during which the only point of intense debate that prolonged the negotiations was the elevation of 50 thousand tons of the Colombian sugar quota in the United States. The Uribe government sacrificed Colombian producers of corn, rice, potatoes, beans, pork, and poultry. But his shirt was torn by Ardila Lülle.

2. Sad history and sad future of the oil palm business

2.1 Dispossession and super-exploitation

Oil palm arrived in Colombia in the hands of large landowners who took advantage of the accumulated land in regions such as Magdalena Medio, after the great displacement of peasants that caused the violence from 1946 to 1958.

The palm companies, the main one being Industrial Agraria La Palma, Indupalma, of the Gutt family, imposed the super-exploitation of the workers. The unions managed to give the first fights for their rights and the response was repression, the outlawing of strikes and court martial against the leaders. Thus, in September 1971, when a chief of staff of the Indupalma company was assassinated, the responsibility of the crime was adjudged to the union leaders who remained in jail for 4 years until they were able to fully demonstrate their innocence (Caicedo 1985, p. 196). The strike in Indupalma in 1977 was surrounded by dramatic circumstances by the interference of the guerrilla group M19 that kidnapped the manager and demanded the signing of the collective agreement with the workers, disclosed on September 14, the day of the general strike that was called in Colombia "Paro Cívico Nacional "(Caicedo 1985, p. 245).

The first stage of the African palm in the country culminated with the end of the productive cycle of the first plantations: the companies then declared fictitious bankruptcies to disregard the economic rights of the workers and destroy the unions. When some workers wanted to receive the land from the companies as payment for salaries and benefits that they stopped paying, they realized that clearing a land with tall and old palms is more expensive than buying other land and leaves permanent damage to the soil.

2.2 In the land of others

As a result of 30 years of experience, companies around the world now prefer to cultivate on foreign lands, or rather damage foreign lands, which also allows them to evade property taxes and establish supposed "strategic alliances" or "productive associations" with the peasants and indigenous people who give up the land, so that in addition to giving them their lands, they give them their labor without a work contract, as supposed "partners."

On the other hand, the defeat of the workers was expressed organizationally and most of them left the unions and had to form "associated work cooperatives", established as in the case of sugar, to ignore the labor contract, pretending a contract between the company and cooperative. The company no longer pays the social security of the workers, who must seek it in the public systems of assistance to the poor population such as the Sisbén of Colombia and are left without unemployment or retirements.

As stated by the Peasant Association of the Cimitarra River Valley. (ACVC), these plantations are "a sad example of the cocktail of latifundismo with aspirations of efficiency or modernity that by pretending to be productive does not renounce, but on the contrary reaffirms its exclusive and monopolistic origin of land use." The ACVC adds: "This system is about increasing the monetary yields per hectare without altering the land tenure structure at all. The new feudal lords propose productive alliances that are nothing more than sharecropping in makeup. Alliances They are the legal remedy to avoid the obligations with the dispossessed agrarian workers. By making the worker a partner, the landowner saves in wages and eliminates overtime and social benefits. The owner class considers that the administration of the alliances should be kept by them 'given your experience. '

In other cases, the neolatifundistas propose partnerships to small and even medium-sized owners and producers, inducing them to associate themselves with monoculture projects, through a debt system with the sophistry of the "peasant palm economy." In reality, it is about having a permanent supply of raw materials without having any labor relationship between the large landowners who control the production and marketing processes and the impoverished peasants "(WRM 2001).

The companies achieved an exceptional situation by avoiding the cost of land and taxes, substantially reducing wages and eliminating the payment of social benefits. At the same time, society assumes the environmental cost of palm exploitation, while companies pocket the benefits.

The transnational marketers and consumers of vegetable oil, such as Unilever, decided to become the main beneficiaries of this business by promoting the plantation of oil palm throughout the tropical world: they began in Malaysia and Indonesia and then they have managed to spread the plantations to Cameroon , Nigeria and other countries in Africa, to Central and South America, which led to a downward trend in international oil prices, which benefited these transnationals.

Ecological disasters were great in the jungles, especially in Malaysia and Indonesia. The most serious situation arose in 1998 when a cloud of smoke covered these countries, product of the burning of the forests. Meanwhile, indigenous peoples, especially on the island of Borneo, were the direct victims of this destruction and the dispossession of their territories.

Now, when the palm business was in decline, the extraordinary rise in oil prices has given oil palm planters a new boost. It is expected to multiply the plantations to produce biodiesel. The business looks like the most
extraordinary of history and even is assured that it will have magnificent ecological effects.

However, for producing countries and regions the effects can be very negative. In the first place, they will suffer the destruction of the forest and native vegetation, reducing biodiversity; secondly, the soils would suffer as soon as each palm plantation completes its productive cycle and the trunks must be removed by chemical methods; and if the plantations were to expand as intended, they would do so to the detriment of the security and food sovereignty of local populations, because farmers would stop producing food crops for the population and instead concentrate on producing "clean fuels" for United States and Europe. (Bravo and Mae-Wan Ho 2006).

It must be said that a large part of plant production is being redirected to produce biofuels. As is well known, in Brazil and Argentina it is expected to multiply soybean production for the same purpose.The soybean production in Argentina would increase to 100 million tons, which implies an enormous environmental and social cost for the Argentine people, such as the displacement of rural populations, increasing deforestation and desertification of the soils and therefore more hunger and social injustice. In the Philippines, India, Madagascar and Ghana, jatropha, a fast-growing oil tree that can compete with palm, is being mass planted. China plans to dedicate 13 million hectares to jatropha plantations. To the biodiesel production megaprojects we must add those already mentioned for the production of fuel ethanol from sugar cane and in addition to cassava, beet and corn, taking into account that Europe has surplus sugar beet and the United States generously subsidizes the production of ethanol from corn and is already exporting it to Colombia to produce ethanol.

2.3 Oil palm and paramilitarism

In Colombia, oil palm megaprojects, like others, have been strictly associated with the expansion of paramilitarism. The rapid concentration of land ownership between 1981 and 2006 has had speculative objectives, as the large landowners do not cultivate most of the land they dominate. But the palm has offered them the right pretext and business to seize the lands of peasants and especially of Afro-Colombians.

The Colombian paramilitaries have followed the model of the Calabrian mafia called ‘ndrangheta, which in Italy consists of these three aspects: Mafia expropriation, Armed coercion for small owners to sell land in areas that are going to be valued,
Appropriation of subsidies from the European community, especially those given to olive and olive oil producers. Appropriation of areas for illegal crops or illegal crops (Furet 2004). The convergence between the AUC and the Calabrian mafia is no accident. Objectives and methods coincide. But what in Italy is a traditional mafia relegated to illegality by capitalist development that can use it, but does not recognize it as its own, in Colombia it is an essential part of the land tenure system that has been in force since the Spanish conquest and that violently displaces time and again the peasant to the jungles, turning him into a colonist and occupier of indigenous territories.

In the agricultural model of the Calabrian mafia, to the dispossession of valuable land is added the seizure of agricultural subsidies from the European Union and especially those destined for olive groves. In this case also what in Italy is the mafia here develops as a virtue in the form of bureaucratic capitalism. They receive credits from the World Bank, state subsidies, tax exemptions. "for the development of productive projects in entrepreneurial production systems", subordinating small producers to these projects if they want to receive the subsidy: 'Ndrangheta, the subsidy apparently given to the small ones, will actually flow for entrepreneurial projects, from "the efficient businessmen from San Alberto "of which President Uribe spoke in the electoral campaign.

The Colombian patent for this bureaucratic capitalist procedure is held by the tropical olive tree, the African palm. The business for the "employer" is ideal: he has no labor obligations because the workers are partners; Even if the peasant workers have received land or if they have given up their land, neither will the employer have to pay property tax; And to complete, as the international price of oil has a downward trend, the peasant "partner" bears the losses, including the serious deterioration of the soil, is the experience of Malaysia. Finally the little one loses a land that will no longer be worth for agriculture or for him, but for the non-agricultural investment projects of the larger partners.

In the Colombian situation, the profitability of palm plantations takes on a different meaning, insofar as in several regions the expansion of palm is linked to the cocaine economy and the initial investment in nurseries and years of waiting to produce is possible thanks to the pre-existence of large capital accumulated in drug trafficking or small savings resulting from coca production. In this sense, the expansion of the palm has been a way of efficiently laundering money and also under the protection and promotion of the state and international. If at least this were aimed at definitively replacing the cocaine economy, it would have at least that positive effect, but the dominance of both businesses by paramilitarism what has done is to articulate both businesses in one and link them to the dispossession of the lands of Afro-Colombians and other rural communities. However, this machine continues to be promoted by the Colombian state and the "international community."

Legislation in favor of oil palm and other plantations abounds, they are exempt from income tax according to Law 939 of 2004 and Decree 1970 of 2005; According to Law 939, biodiesel is exempt from sales tax and diesel fuel tax. Plan Colombia and the World Bank have established programs to promote oil palm. Bills currently in progress provide for subsidies and state investments.

2.3.1 Pastrana Plan

Former Colombian President Andrés Pastrana offered on March 1, 2001, in Malaysia, 3 million hectares to cultivate African palm in Colombia to produce oil. According to the press agency of the Presidency, the project that the President presented to Malaysian businessmen gathered at the Conference organized by the Asian Strategy Leadership Institute (Asli), sought to be developed with investment from the Asian country.

"The extension of oil palm cultivation has become a true national purpose, so that, with it, progress, investment and social development can reach large areas of Colombia that today are ready to join the cultivation and processing of this primary good, "he said.

The development of these macro-projects, to which the Malaysian investors offered to link, would be done with production centers of at least 20 thousand hectares, each with a beneficiation plant to extract the oil. The investment for each nucleus was estimated at 70 million dollars to be executed mainly through the Promotora de Proyectos de Siembra de Palma de Aceite, Propalma S.A., in which 43 businessmen from the sector, Proexport and Coinvertir participate.

Pastrana negotiated with the World Bank a loan to promote oil palm plantations, and of the eight areas selected for the program, five were under the domain of paramilitary groups (Urabá, Córdoba-Sucre, Cesar, Magdalena Medio and north-central Meta; and an area where there was open expansion of these groups (east of Caldas-north of Tolima-northwestern Cundinamarca).

The truth is that in Colombia there were 145 thousand hectares planted with palm in 1998 and currently there are more than 300 thousand, which means a growth of more than 100%. Despite the policy of the processing companies not to be the owners of the plantation lands, this is a highly owned crop and in fact one third is on farms of more than 2000 hectares and another third on farms of between 500 and 2000 hectares. Paramilitary control and political repression have managed to avoid the differentiated organization of processing companies and suppliers, and they are all grouped together in Fefepalma.

2.3.2 Gaviotas 2 Project

El Proyecto Gaviotas 2 que tanto ha promocionado Uribe, se relaciona en realidad con megaproyectos de origen japonés, previstos hace 30 años y que incluyen la privatización del río Meta y la apropiación de extensos territorios de Meta, Casanare y Vichada. Una etapa preparatoria de 30 años la cumplieron "masetos", "carranceros" o "paracos" que concentraron la propiedad en unas pocas personas aunque aun tienen el obstáculo de los resguardos indígenas a los que proponen entregarles 600 mil hectáreas.

Este megaproyecto cubriría 3 millones de hectáreas con palma aceitera y pino caribe. Su impacto ecológico sería enorme. Desgraciadamente empresarios españoles y de la Unión Europea se han ligado a este plan.

El gobierno espera además ligar este proyecto con la reinserción de los paramilitares y convertirlos en fuerza de doble papel: mano de obra barata y disciplinada y control político- militar de la frontera con Venezuela.

Cuando el precio del biodiesel caiga, la ecología que permite la vida indígena habrá sido rota, pero la región quedará en manos de los de siempre.

2.3.3 Resistencia

Tres son las fuentes de resistencia contra estos proyectos: Una, la resistencia de los trabajadores, tanto la reducida vanguardia que con gran sacrificio y lucha han mantenido sus organizaciones sindicales, como aquellos que se han visto obligados a constituir “cooperativas" y que, como se demostró en enero de 2005 en Cesar, también pueden hacer huelgas exitosas y voltear contra los empresarios la ficción de la ausencia de contrato de trabajo, pues sus huelgas no pueden ser declaradas ilegales. Dos, la resistencia de indígenas, afro colombianos y campesinos que defienden sus territorios y derechos fundamentales. Tres, el movimiento ambientalista internacional que en todo el mundo está denunciando los nefastos impactos ecológicos de la fiebre del biodiesel y la palma africana.

De la manera como sepamos unir estas tres fuentes y convertir sus propuestas en un movimiento nacional y mundial, depende que las personas, las culturas y los bosques no sean consumidas como biodiesel y podamos tener un futuro amable para la naturaleza, los indígenas, los afro colombianos y los trabajadores de Colombia.

3- Riesgos económicos para los biocombustibles en Colombia

Los precios del petróleo, como todos, son cíclicos. Aunque a largo plazo se registra una tendencia ascendente, la misma no elimina las oscilaciones cíclicas y en promedio, a siete u ocho años de alzas de precio sigue un período semejante de bajas. Con los precios muy altos del petróleo, no solamente varios países no afiliados a la OPEP multiplican la exploración y explotación de hidrocarburos, sino que en todo el mundo tropical se vive la fiebre del biodiesel y el etanol y se extienden los cultivos de jatropha, palma aceitera, ricino, caña de azúcar, remolacha, yuca, soya y maíz para alimentar las destilerías.

El comercio internacional de los biocombustibles depende como el de cualquier producto de la diferencia entre los precios internacionales y los costos de producción. Todos los biocombustibles tienen actualmente costos de producción superiores a los de la gasolina, pero como el precio internacional es muy alto pueden comercializarse por ahora. Sin embargo hay que tener en cuenta que los precios internacionales nunca en la historia se han mantenido arriba por muchos años.

Los costos de producción del etanol en Colombia son superiores a los de Brasil, lo cual resultará catastrófico a la hora de una baja de los precios internacionales y la crisis para las destilerías solamente podría compensarse con mayores precios internos.

En el caso del etanol en Colombia ya se está vendiendo al absurdo precio de US$ 101 el barril (Serrano 2006), lo cual significa un inmenso subsidio de los consumidores a los oligopolios productores, que producen cerca de un millón de litros diarios, mientras apenas hay dos destilerías pequeñas más en operación, una en el Meta que produce 30 mil litros diarios a partir de yuca y otra en Codazzi (Cesar) que produce etanol a partir de maíz importado. La importación de la materia prima, especialmente del maíz, crecerá debido al aumento de cuotas de importación de maíz estadounidense que permite el TLC, con lo cual los proyectos en curso a partir de yuca y caña panelera se verán inmensamente golpeados.

Proyectos en Santander, Boyacá y Cesar usando caña, remolacha y yuca, respectivamente y que aspiran a llegar a producir 700 mil litros diarios de etanol, solamente entrarán a operar en 2008 y probablemente no gozarán ya del pico de precios del combustible. También la planta de biodiesel de Ecopetrol en el Magdalena Medio entrará en producción sólo en el 2008.

Las plantaciones de palma aceitera estarán en plena producción cuando caiga el precio y serán una de las causas de su caída. Como todas las fiebres económicas tropicales, ésta se derrumbará en el momento en que la producción sea máxima y la superproducción de biodiesel a partir de aceites de palma, jatropha, algas marinas, soya, ricino y girasol, se desborde por el mundo. Entonces las pérdidas correrán por cuenta de los "aliados estratégicos" que suministraron sus tierras y de regiones enteras que sufrirán el daño ecológico.

Por otra parte, el consumo de etanol en ciudades de mayor altura sobre el nivel del mar se evapora causando daños en la cámara de combustión de los vehículos, oxidación y desgaste prematuro en componentes metálicos y deformación de los componentes de caucho del sistema de combustión, como lo ha demostrado las investigaciones de la Universidad Nacional, que también detectaron un efecto ambiental negativo cuando el tráfico es lento y se usa etanol (Acevedo 2005).

Desde cualquier punto de vista que se mire, el éxito de los biocombustibles depende de la obligación de usarlos, de las exenciones y subsidios del estado, del sobreprecio a los consumidores, del desconocimiento de los derechos de los trabajadores y de mil formas de arrebatar a las comunidades rurales el uso de sus tierras. Todas estas son condiciones que el régimen vigente en Colombia garantiza, régimen que espera verse sostenido por el etanol y el biodiesel pero, ¿hasta cuando?


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