Towards a more sustainable sugar cane production in Bolivia

Child labor in sugarcane harvest is illegal in Bolivia. It is classified by the Ministry of Labor in Bolivia as a hazardous occupation prohibited for children and adolescents. But with one-third of the population under the age of 15 and three in five families living in poverty, there over 300,000 children and adolescents working in Bolivia to help support their families. This is a reality in several regions of the country and traditional in the sugarcane fields. But this is consistently changing in the last years. In accordance to Unicef´s office in Bolivia, over the past decade, the number of underage workers in the sugar cane harvest has dropped from 8,000 to less than 1,000 thanks to several initiatives to promote children’s rights in the country.

Solidaridad has been an active actor in this reality shift. Since 2009 the Regional Expertise Centre (REC) South America is working with the sugar cane industry in Santa Cruz Province to improve labor conditions and specially to eradicate child labor in the sector. We joined forces with Instituto Boliviano de Comercio Exterior (IBCE), Union de Cañeros Guabirá, Guabirá Mill, the Prefecture, UNICEF, Child Defence and other organizations in this effort.

The project “Towards a sustainable sugarcane production in Santa Cruz, Bolivia”, locally implemented by IBCE and Guabirá, has focused in raising awareness and promoting progressive eradication of child work among the federation of harvesters, sugar cane producers, mills, civil society and authorities.

In 2011, due to these actions, 483 sugar cane producers from Santa Cruz department received a ‘child labour free’ certificate. The certificate is part of “Triple Sello” Standards, a norm developed by IBCE together with the private sector and labor and civil society organizations in Bolivia. The Triple Sello accounts for “no child labor, no discrimination and no bonded labor”. Around 80% of these certified farmers are suppliers of Guabira Mill, our partner in the project. Their target is to certify all their farmers.

Towards a better social and environmental situation

The main objective of the project in Bolivia is to improve the social and environmental situation in the sugar cane production in Santa Cruz, although the priority in the first phase was create a new awareness related to working conditions.

Annually, Bolivia produces over 6 million tons of cane. Until 2005, Bolivia directed the cane only for sugar production, but since then the country started to produce ethanol as well. There are six mills in the country, five of them in Santa Cruz, and one in Tarija. Another private mill is under construction in Santa Cruz. And Bolivian government announced investments in two sugar and ethanol agro industrial complexes in La Paz and Tarija.

But currently, the big majority of sugarcane production is located throughout in Santa Cruz, where 3,000 sugarcane producers make a life on the culture and whose properties are classified as small (up to 20 hectares); medium (from 20 to 50 hectares); and large (more than 50 hectares). The small and medium properties represent 80% of total lands, and the large properties account for 20% of this area.

The small producers use familiar labor and hire mostly migrant workers to the harvest. Estimates appoint that 26,000 people work in the sugar cane fields in Santa Cruz. Around 40% of the harvest is now mechanized. Most of the heavy harvesting work is still done manually, using old slash-and-burn technique. About 60% of the sugar cane harvesters are temporary migrants from Bolivia's poorest areas. They live in very bad conditions, mostly in shacks, with no hygiene and no privacy.

With the project, 300 farmers and 1,700 workers were trained in good labor practices, health conditions and maternity control. The work conditions are finally improving in the region, with suppliers from Guabirá starting to provide health insurance and proper transport to migrant workers.

Bonsucro training

REC South America is working closely with the Guabirá Mill, the biggest in Bolivia, and with the Union de Cañeros Guabira, tha association which represents more than 1.400 sugarcane producers, shareholders of Guabirá. More recently two mills, Unagro and Aguaí, joined the project. Both are committed to the implementation of sustainable practices (social, economic and environmental) based on the Bonsucro standard with focus on improving the livelihoods of small farmers and workers in Santa Cruz.

The Union de Cañeros Guabirá is already a member of Bonsucro round table and has been working to achieve the certification. On October 2011, REC South America and Bonsucro organized an implementer training in Bolivia. The training aimed to help extension workers and internal auditors interpret the Bonsucro production standard and how to prepare for certification. The training was given at the Guabirá Mill.

Josefina Eisele, programme manager responsible for the project, points out that there are big challenges ahead. Despite of all advances, the sector has still a long way to change the scenario of poor working conditions, including cases of forced or bonded labor, badly paid migrant labor, illegal recruitments by middlemen and health & safety issues. On the other hand, mechanization is increasing. While it is a good measure against massive leaf burning, it creates large numbers of job expulsions.

Thirdly, rapid expansion of the crop due to growing national and international demand for carbon efficient biofuels may create land rights issues on community levels, as well as jeopardize rich ecosystems. “All these elements are particularly at present in the north-west Bolivian sugarcane belt”, says Josefina. “But the commitment of part of the sugar cane sector to the CRS initiatives shows that the reality is changing”.

A multidisciplinary tri-national sugarcane platform

The project in Bolivia is in close liaison with a multidisciplinary tri-national sugarcane platform created by REC South America for Bolivia, Argentina and Paraguay. The proposal is exchange experiences for better practices, connecting partners that are implementing a range of interrelated activities.

The objective of this co-ordination project is to create a multidisciplinary sugarcane support platform to promote socially just, environmentally sound and economically viable practices for 6 sugarcane mills, 2.600 cane cutters and 600 smallholder cane farmers in sugarcane areas in Paraguay, Bolivia and Argentina. Besides Instituto Boliviano de Comercio Exterior (Bolivia), another partner of the project is Fundación Moises Bertoni (Paraguay) and Fundación Pro Yungas (Argentina).

Solidaridad has expressed a multi annual commitment to the sector promoting and implementing sustainability projects with involved stakeholders. Our goals in the region are:

  • to further implement the Bonsucro Standard with multiple stakeholders;
  • to expand the support base for Bonsucro in producer countries through strengthening and stimulating the participation of civil society organizations;
  • to improve the position of labourers and the business management and the productivity of small-scale producers;
  • to develop better farm management systems with growers, and the strengthening of high conservation value reserves and environmental protection areas;
  • to develop certified sustainable supply chains; 
  • to raise awareness among consumers.

Contact Josefina Eisele for more information about our sugarcane programme in South America.