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El Desierto Verde - The Green Desert (sugar cane in Colombia)

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  • Rachel
    http://bristol.indymedia.org/article/690742 *El Desierto Verde - The Green Desert* A Bristolian s account of taking part in an international mission of
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 1, 2009

      *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

      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:
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