Three years ago Solidaridad joined the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in Belize to assist thousands of sugarcane producers in Central America, with their field operations towards Bonsucro certification.
Belize relies on the sugar industry both for economic and social support as it provides much needed foreign exchange earnings and employment to 15 percent of the population. Concerned by the impact of sugarcane production on catchments of the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor reef, the WWF designed a project to assist the Belize Sugarcane Farmer Association (BSCFA) – a network of independent producers to reduce effluent pollution and excess of agrochemicals, while increasing their incomes and improving life conditions.
The Mesoamerican Biological Corridor Project (MBC) is a sustainable development initiative started by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in the late 1990’s that combines goals of biodiversity conservation with economic growth and rural development from southern Mexico to Panama. About 45 percent of Belize’s territory is inside the MBC and more than one-third of its total land mass is dedicated to nature reserves. These areas co-exist with sugarcane fields, which is the number one export commodity in the country.
Solidaridad joined WWF in 2010 to assist the BSCFA in their field operations towards Bonsucro certification. The project covers 25,000 ha in Orange Walk and Corozal districts, with Freshwater Creek and Forest Reserve to the north and Rio Bravo conservation area to the west, and 6,000 smallholders and 10,000 seasonal workers.
As part of its vision for change with an impact, Solidaridad invested in enterprising farmers by putting emphasis on the improvement of responsible land use, in order to increase production while at the same time reducing negative consequences to people and the environment.
Enhancing sustainability for producers
Most of the sugarcane producers involved carry a rich cultural heritage but suffered from low mechanization methods and limited knowledge on soil, agrochemical and water management. Sugarcane harvesting is done manually in Belize and under hot tropical conditions.
Growers were both exposed to agrochemicals, injuries and burns during the burning of fields prior and after harvest. The agro-ecosystem combination offered remarkable opportunities to enhance sustainability and profitability by means of:
- Improving yields,
- Reducing environmental impact, and
- Improving labour conditions.
In 2010, the European Union cut preferential prices for Belize. The European Union then funded – with additional financial support from Fair Trade International, the Fair Trade label umbrella organization, the empowerment of the Sugar Industry Research and Development Institute (SIRDI). The organization then supported the BSCFA technical and environmental department, to compensate for the price cuts by improving sugar quality and reducing farming costs.
Mauricio Mejía, a WWF Technician, explains: “In the past to fertilize meant going to a store and buying bags of chemicals to throw by hand on the fields. As a result, part of it would be lost in the water and evaporation. As for pests, only once the plant was dry from attacks would farmers buy and apply something.”
Now, better management practices and investment in fertilizing machinery have increased productivity and the returns for quality produce have also improved. The 2013 harvest has been, in fact, one of the most successful in years and the amount of sugar cane needed to produce a sugar ton has decreased from 9.34 ton in 2012 to 9.11 tons.
With regards to environmental protection, biological pest control is already deeply rooted and producers have already raised half of the funds needed to set up a national laboratory to be self-sufficient with regards to nutrition and plague needs.