For more than 100 years, the history of Valle del Cauca has been linked to the production of sugar cane, a source of pride and a fundamental part of the lives of its inhabitants. This plant was brought from abroad and here it found the perfect habitat to grow along the Cauca River valley, where it took root. Its roots and influence consolidated the sugarcane agro-industrial sector, a cluster with unique characteristics in the country that is concentrated in five departments (Valle, Cauca, Risaralda, Caldas and Quindío) and encompasses more than 50 municipalities in the region.
From the beginning, the cane needed specialists in its processing and generated qualified employment among the inhabitants, who soon learned and acquired the strengths that have been part of the DNA of these lands ever since. Currently, according to Asocaña, this agribusiness concentrates an area of 244,000 hectares planted with cane, in which more than 4,500 growers work; there are 14 sugar-producing plants (Cabaña, Carmelita, Manuelita, María Luisa, Mayagüez, Pichichí, Risaralda, Sancarlos, Riopaila-Castilla, Incauca, Providencia, Lucerna and Occidente), and six mills with attached distilleries for the production of bioethanol, such as gasoline oxygenating agent (Incauca, Manuelita, Providencia, Mayagüez, Risaralda and Riopaila). It also has an international marketer, four support institutions for the sector (Cenicaña, Asocaña, Procaña and Tecnicaña), and more than 50 specialized providers (transportation, packaging and agricultural services, among others).
“On average, the sector annually produces 23.2 million tons of cane, 2.2 million tons of sugar, 412 million liters of bioethanol from cane, 173,000 tons of final molasses, 6.3 million tons of sugarcane bagasse, and 1,731 GWh of energy cogenerated from sugarcane bagasse (57 percent for own consumption and 43 percent goes to the national electrical interconnection system SIN), enough to supply a city of one million inhabitants”, they specified from the union.
Sugar reaches more than 60 destinations around the world, with exports of 679,000 tons per year, on average, they represent for the country and, in particular for the economy of the region, 321 million dollars each year. For this reason, the local sugarcane sector is considered the fourth largest agro-industrial generator of Colombian foreign currency, after coffee, flowers, bananas and palm oil.
According to Fedesarrollo, for every peso invested in sugarcane production, 9.20 pesos more are generated in the rest of the economy, due to indirect and induced effects; and likewise, for the industrial phase, for each peso for the production of sugar, bioethanol, energy and others, an extra effect of 4.21 pesos is generated in the economy.
Despite the pandemic, 286,000 direct and indirect jobs were maintained in the sector, which is essential for regional stability, considering that six out of ten families are economically linked to sugarcane. “In addition, belonging and being part of a productive cluster, which is focused on our region due to agroecological conditions, but also due to all the adaptations that have been made to roads and infrastructure, makes us a factor of development. For example, from cane and sugar are derived the cluster of many companies that produce sweets or blancmangeamong other products, that not only serve the national market, but also occupy an important line in local exports,” said Martha Betancourt, executive director of Procaña, the association of sugar cane producers and suppliers.
An advanced sector
The agroclimatic conditions of the Cauca river valley, the research work of the Cenicaña center (more than 1 percent of the sector’s income is invested in research, technological development or innovation) and the implementation of cutting-edge technologies and practices by growers and mills, have led Colombia to be a leader in agricultural and factory productivity worldwide. The country, in fact, currently exceeds the sugar production per hectare of large producers such as Brazil, Australia, the United States, Mexico, India and the European Union.
“This is an advanced sector, which has always been at the forefront of development. It is not in vain that it has been able to adapt to changes and technology, thanks to the fact that it has many properties. Nothing is lost from the cane and everything is used: as animal feed, as molasses for panela or for sugar production, to make ethanol, produce electricity, glycolic acid and citric acid, yeasts and driers for concrete, or for products biodegradable disposables, among many others. It is the same sugar cane with which panela is produced, a staple food that is used to make ‘aguadepanela’, a delicious and important drink in the diet of many Colombians,” added Betancourt.
For this reason, the natural sophistication in the processing of this plant continues to be a factor of permanent improvement, which induces producers to research in search of improving their practices in the economic, technical, environmental and social aspects. “The idea is to be more productive per hectare and, of course, contribute to the fight against climate change through practices such as the incorporation of harvest residues, the use of alternative fertilizers and the opportunity to generate energy, as well as the establishment of biological corridors to conserve biodiversity”, concluded the Procaña director, who highlighted the commitment of the sector around this cause.
made in the valley
The incidence of sugar cane cultivation in the economy of the region is enormous. An example of this is the Valle del Cauca family business Alguimar/Balsora, which the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) highlighted as a case study of ‘Transformation of a family farm to sustainable agroecology’.
“Cane for us means life; It is the best environmental, social, and economic alternative that exists,” said Guido Mauricio López, a cane grower who owns it, with his mother and brothers, for more than 30 years. His company Alguimar/Balsora has since completed the four stages of development that allowed the transition from conventional to organic-sustainable agriculture, “until we became an EU, USA (NOP) and Colombian NM certified organic farm, that is, farmers certified sustainable cane,” added López about this organization, which the IDB report defines as “a pioneer in the implementation of new developments focused on continuous improvement, increasing productivity and profitability, and, in parallel, minimizing environmental and social impacts. ”.