WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
14 Jul 2009 | News

Colombia’s Sugarcane Sector and its Social and Environmental Effects

President Uribe met with President Obama recently to primarily promote the trade agreement between the United States and Colombia. As the 111th Congress debates the agreement, they should take into consideration the structure of the sugarcane industry in Colombia which is of particular concern from a human rights and environmental perspective.

Please click here to read the translation of a document produced by researchers from the Universidad del Valle and Grupo Semillas entitled "Social and Environmental Debt from the Sugarcane Business in Colombia," as well as a letter from WOLA to foreign policy aides with specific recommendations that would promote a culture of respect for labor rights in Colombia.

Summary of Study by Universidad del Valle and Grupo Semillas

This study analyzes the conflict between sugarcane cutters and entrepreneurs of the industry. Partly because it backs Colombia's national biofuel production (the second largest in the world), and due to its significant political power and access to both regional and national government authorities, the sugarcane industry is one Colombia's leading sectors. In addition, the national government has provided substantial incentives through tax breaks and subsidies to encourage the use of biofuels. Government policies favorable to the sugar industry have allowed Colombia's biofuel industry to grow from producing 29 million liters in 2005 to 275 million liters in 2007.

The environmental costs such as the contamination of hydrological resources and the air pollution from the burning of cane as well as the social costs of the industry have not been taken into account. Labor conditions continue to be deplorable and neither workers' real wage increases nor better social security benefits have been achieved.  One particular concern is the contracting of labor by the sugarcane firms through Associative Cooperatives or labor intermediaries between workers and the employer. Associative Cooperatives ostensibly reduce overall production costs and increase the industry's competitiveness; however this model ruptures the direct labor relationship between the worker and the employer. Associative Cooperatives, designed to fit the guidelines