*El Desierto Verde - The Green Desert*
A Bristolian's account of taking part in an international mission of verification about biofuels in Colombia 1st-11th July 2009 - a week in Valle de Cauca and the north of Cauca where sugar cane is grown extensively and processed into ethanol for use as a biofuel.
I had been to Valle de Cauca before, I'd even met with members of the trade union Sinaltrainal and El Movimiento de 14 de Junio representing the sugar cane cutters and heard first hand the stories of their mobilisation and strike in 2008, and the agreements forged from this time that still remain uncompleted. It is strange though, how I could sit staring out of the window of each bus, or car, or taxi and not really be looking at or seeing what was in front of me and difficult to miss.
Second time around, as part of an international mission returning to Valle de Cauca to verify the increasing monocultivation of sugar cane for biofuels, the "desierto verde" was more apparent than I could ever have imagined. With each day of visiting communities, sugar cane workers and their families, local environmentalists and small landowners trying to work their land for food, with each story and startling fact, with each realisation of just how damaging the growing governmental obsession with biofuel production is, the green desert around us became ever more apparent and increasingly claustrophobic. Lining roadside to roadside with nothing else to see for miles, literally encircling single smallholdings where people still attempt to live sustainably and grow organically, from riverbank to riverbank, within spitting distance of people's front doors (despite rules being in place, that are systematically ignored, determining minimum distances from both rivers and homes) and the constant showerings of ash and sickly sweet smell of sugar in the air from burnt sugar cane made the reality of the situation tangible and not merely words and stories.
The sugar cane cutters are some of the most affected by the monoculture industry as not only do they face a struggle regarding their exploitation and lack of labour rights, they also make up a large percentage of the families living with the health and pollution impacts of the growing, indiscriminate fumigations by aeroplane and burnings. Indeed, at points they have also been the target of criticisms from the local environmental groups (something now hopefully of the past, especially as the mission helped to bring these communities together to share their stories and experiences) as the false story is spread that the burning of sugar cane prior to it being cut down is merely to benefit the workers and to make the job easier. In reality, while it is true that the cane is easier to cut once it is burnt, the sugar cane companies require the burning to continue as it increases the amount of sugar that can be turned into ethanol as well as reducing the amount of money paid to the workers and for transportation costs. The value of the work by the sugar cane cutters is calculated by the tonne and not per hour, therefore as the weight is reduced with each burn, so is the income of each worker. This reduction in wages, and therefore costs to the companies, is also maintained by the lack of direct contracts for each worker. Instead they are formed into cooperatives that far from the European notion of this equating to autonomy in the work place and receiving a fair wage, really means that the companies do not have the responsibility of paying towards social security and other costs normally associated with employment. Each worker instead has these deductions taken from their own wage packet, forcing them into a level of barely subsistence poverty that they had not experienced in the same way previously.
We were told that the aerial fumigations occur once or twice a month and where they don't absolutely rid the area of non-sugar cane cultivations, including peoples produce on their own lands, they have the effect of causing fruit to drop before it is ripe and food to be grown that is now contaminated with a variety of chemicals. Any dream of food sovereignty now lies the other side of a steep struggle against monocultivations for biofuels, and if this process that currently sees 78% of Valle de Cauca planted with sugar cane increases unabated the future holds further economic displacement as it becomes impossible for people to cultivate and grow foods for personal use as well as trade. Once a self-sustaining food economy of fruit, vegetables and livestock, this region is now forced to import 90-95% of what is eaten, thus also tying people to working as cutters as without income there is no food.
As well as destroying water life and local ecosystems, the effects of these chemicals entering both the food and water systems can be seen in the increasing levels of medical problems experienced by those living in the shadow of the cane. In the region there are now increasing reports of respiratory infections, growing levels of stomach and other cancers, and a higher than the national average level of birth defects.
The facts, figures and tragic truths about sugar cane are numerous, and more than I could ever possibly cover here, but so too are the questions that we are posed with. The increasing legislation in Colombia (similar to the law in the UK last year requiring 2.5% of all petrol to be biofuels - although in Colombia they are looking to reach 85% in the next few years) requiring the use of biofuels in petrol and diesel is not only to line the pockets of the companies involved in this industry, but also to ensure that the higher global price of oil can be exploited by preserving and increasing levels of oil exportation. How then do we move forward with discourse and campaigns globally about biofuel production in Colombia and other countries (in one region of Indonesia you can drive for 8 hours and encounter nothing but african palm plantations for biofuel production) when the real story is about oil? And more importantly, what pressure can we put on Europe and North America as well as the Colombian government to reverse this situation, without making the position of the sugar cane cutters and the communities reliant on their incomes ever more precarious?
As groups such as Rising Tide join others in order to prepare to mobilise for the COP15 (United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen) meeting in December where a new Kyoto Protocol will be formalised and signed, we need to ensure that these false solutions are shown up to be just that. The energy crisis is not merely about carbon, or oil, or biofuels - it is about territory, land rights, worker rights, food sovereignty and social justice - and we need to ensure that the demands we make are framed within this perspective.
For more information on all five regions in Colombia visited as part of the international mission and preliminary conclusions (in Spanish) see:
For photo's and interviews from the Valle de Cauca region see: (in Spanish, and English versions of some of the interviews are also available)
For more information about mobilisations in December for COP15 see: