(Translation by Deryn Collins, a CSN volunteer translator)
Written by  Berenice Celeyta A., Nomadesc.

They are men tanned by the sun, strong, seasoned, who work in the countryside, sowing, watering, cleaning, cutting and collecting the cane; others work in the factories producing sugar, ethanol, and industrial alcohol and where their principal labour is working with chemicals. We are talking about at least 14,000 workers in the Sugar Cane Industry of the Valle de Cauca, who have worked in slave conditions since the thirties. They come from Cauca, Choco, Patia and other zones of Narino, looking for the opportunity to work in face of increasing unemployment in the region, others come from closer – from Pradera, Amaime, El Placer, Guacari and El Cerrito.
They are the workers of the 13 sugar plantations that are located along the valley of the River Cauca. The majority can show you their calloused hands that wield the machetes with which they cut the cane and their pronounced muscles from working between 12 to 14 hours daily.  For decades they have generated the wealth for 5 families and four of the top economic groups in the country. They have been to the Permanent Assembly (Asamblea Permanente) to show the country and the World that worker’s rights are gained with an iron will to change the inhuman conditions under which they actually live.
They have been exploited work wise since the factories arrived, but maintain that in the past things were better. One of the cane cutters of Ingenio Providencia, says slowly, calmly but forcefully: “in 1977 I had a direct contract, I could count on a salary, bonuses, holidays, a pension and Sunday especial payments. The work was hard, we had to work in difficult conditions but the wages were enough to live. On Sundays every one wanted to work because we would be paid the extra hours as dictated by law. Then the companies did not want to contract us directly anymore and made us work through contactors – we got lower salaries; weekly between 300.000 y 350.000. We had to pay the costs of the social security, but all this has  ended since we began the  “asociativas” (he is referring to the Work Associated Cooperatives – Cooperativas de Trabajo Asociado) and it has been a headache for everyone, as we receive less than half, and some fortnights we receive 200.000 a  280.000 and that is for   “he who does not waste time”; and from this the deductions are made to pay for healthcare and pensions, these deductions sometimes reach between $ 180.000 and $ 200.000 pesos; so monthly you end up receiving between $ 220.000 a $ 360.000 when things go well and you tell me how anyone can live on this.”.
The nuclear family, on average consists of no less than 6 people, who live on less than the legal minimum wage: 461.500 pesos, 220 dollars; which goes on rent, public services, and schooling for the children, food, transport and health. The cutter´s wages fluctuate depending on production. It is piecework, there are days when cutting the cane is called “raspa raspa”, (literally scrape scrape) which is when they are cutting green cane from which organic sugar is extracted. This is, in their own words, the most thankless task because you cut and cut but the weight does not increase. The ´burnt cane´, which is used to make ethanol, is denser and at least weighs a little more. For the workers the weight is important because it affects their salaries, each load is weighed and from this the wages are calculated. The equation is very simple, as well as cruel, a cutter is paid $5,700 per ton and to cut 3 tonnes he must work at least 12 hours daily.

These hardworking men, have made enormous efforts to make the government and the Sugar Cane industries that are associated in ASOCANA, understand that for any human being to continue working, dignified conditions of work are needed. They have used the Right to Petition, trusteeships, meetings with Congress, and public hearings –  such as that of the 14th of June in the municipal of Pradera; a hearing to which the industry and the government were invited but did not attend. Here in the pouring rain, the problems were denounced and a petition was presented, which was sent to ASOCANA.  
It was not easy to take the decision to strike on the 15th September, because it is playing with their livelihood, but more than 40 cutters have suffered serious injury due to the riotous action of the war lords. They put their lives on the line because they are dying of hunger and because the poor salaries are not enough to feed the family, let alone cover health care or the children’s studies.  They put their lives on the line because the Social State of Rights (Estado Social de Derecho), which applies today in Colombia, does not allow workers in this country, nor any organised social sector, to speak out against the devastating economic policies that the reign of terror imposes. This is the side of the workers, a face that looks forward, that does not hide in either treaties, nor lies but put its face to the wind, the gases, bullets and pellets that come from the other face of this conflict.   


It is difficult to describe them; they appear and disappear from political, economic and military scenes of the country. They are like “The Miracle of the Holy Trinity”, three distinct persons and only one true god. They are part of the political caste that for the last decade has written and approved the most backward reforms of any labour system in the world, which daily suffocate the rights of the Colombian workers.  They are the ones who designed Law 780 of 2002 and the Decree 4588 of the 27th December 2006. It is the side of those who have given passage too one of the most infamous forms of contract that has existed in the history of Colombia: The Cooperatives of the Associated Worker. (Las Cooperativas de Trabajo Asociado).  
This face of the conflict is represented by Diego Palacio, Minister of Social Protection, a controversial man involved in the Yidispolitica case where the serious violations of human rights committed by this government are actually being investigated. It is represented by the President of the Association of Sugar Cane Growers, Luis Fernando Londono Capurro, who, in the past,  has held the jobs of  Councillor of Cali, Governor of Valle, Minister of Agriculture, Senator of the Republic, President of the  Congress of the Republic and Director of the Liberal Party; and finally, represented by the  Public Forces (Army, Police, Organisms for State Security) these  constitutional institutions created to safeguard life, honour and the goods of the citizens but which repeatedly play the role of the aggressors of the workers and the organised sectors that fight  for the workers rights. The Public Forces have unleashed a military movement without precedent, they have converted the plantations into a theatre of war, carrying guns, grenades, artillery tanks, tanks with cannons that are used in regular wars, never in a social or labor conflict such as we are in.
This face is represented by the descendents of Sebastián de Belalcazar, who according to history, between 1536 and 1537 during his stay in Yumbo, planted the first sugar canes. This crop extended all over the River Cauca valley and in 1930 there were three plantations: Manuelita, Providencia and Ríopaila. In the region today are 13 plantations, that produce around 90.000 tonnes daily, and are owned by 4 of the country’s economic groups: Grupo Ardila Lule, Grupo Risaralda, Grupo Federacion de Cafeteros, Grupo Corporacion Financiera del Valle. All of whom are found in the 20 most powerful economic groups in the country.

 Plantation            Founded          Owner       Daily Production in tonnes   Incauca                 1963             Ardila Lule                   15.000   
  La Cabaña               1944           Familia  Seinjet                5.200   
  Mayagüez               1937        Familia Hurtado Holguín          6.000   
  Central Tumaco        1963        Familia  Salcedo Borrero         2.500   
  Providencia             1926           Ardila Lule                     8.500   
  Manuelita               1964            Familia Eder                    9.000   
  Pichichi                 1941        Familia Cabal Galindo             3.500   
  María Luisa             1930          Harinera del Valle                  800   
  San Carlos             1945            Sarmiento Lora                 4.000   
  Carmelita              1950             Garrido Amezquita            2.500   
  Central Castilla       1930             Familia Caicedo González    7.000   
  Río Paila               1928            Familia Caicedo González     7.000   
  Risaralda               1.973                Ardila Lule                        800  
Table created using information from research : Recuperación de la Memoria Historica del Movimiento Sindical Valle del Cauca 1976-2006, (Recuperation of Historic Memory of the Sindícate of the Cauca Valley 1976-2006) CUT Valle,  Hector Emilio Castro, Jaime Montoya,  Ana Cristina Bermudez y Lenny Giraldo.

This is the face of those who own the ancestral community territories and today concentrate on the dominion and possession of the whole geographical valley of the River Cauca, from Santander de Quilichao, in the north of the State of Cauca, crossing the flat plains of the State of the Valle del Cauca, to La Virginia, in the State of Risaralda. The area of influence covers more than 30 municipalities of Cauca, Valle del Cauca and Risaralda.

The president, Alvaro Uribe Velez and the Minister for Social Protection, Diego Palacio,  in logical consequence with their policies of National Security, have created a new ruse in this social conflict, which deals with the story of  infiltration which even they themselves do not believe. They say themselves that social control of the whole country is in the hands of subversive organisations. It is possible that before the lack of arguments on the part of the government, before the lack of economic protection and before the devastating truth of parapolitics, the only excuse the governments has for not completing its obligations with the so-called Social State of Rights, is to argue that the legitimate and just social protests are infiltrated by the guerrillas. They have let the world know that the indigenous peoples reclaim the ancestral lands they own and for which there are treaties signed by the government and international demands such as those affected by the Interamerican Commission for Human Rights of the OEA (Comisión Interamericana de Derechos Humanos de la OEA), in the case of state responsibility on the massacre of the Nilo, to give just one example.

When the black Communities mobilized to stop the massacres and the irrational exploitation of the natural resources, curiously there was infiltration by insurgents. When the union members came out to call for their rights, they mobilised, using the internal and international norms of Union and Association and they did so because the guerrilla ordered them to. When the defenders of Human rights, carrying out investigations, denouncements, participate in judicial process where it is proven that the actual government is compromised with parapolitics, they are terrorists.
They say that the cutter’s strike is infiltrated by the insurgents, it puts into question the military control that the state has in the region and in the sugar plantations. How is it possible that in front of a military contingent of more than 1000 men, the guerrilla commanders can hold meetings with the sugar cane cutters? Could it be that the armed forces and you too are infiltrated by the guerrillas? How is it possible that before the claim for dignified salaries and lawful social benefits you illegitimize the workers with the repeated lie that they are already converted into an institutional monologue?

The Colombian people and the entire world are conscious of the lack of governability that exists today in Colombia, of the illegitimacy of its governors. During the debate in congress with Minister Diego Palacios, last Tuesday the 20th September, someone asked if in cabinet there was a minister too many and another that lacked. Minister Palacio was working as the Minister of Industry and not as the Minister for Social Protection,  who should fight for the rights of the workers.  
The institutional lie cannot silence the forceful truth of 14,000 sugar plantation workers, who are not asking for anything more than the minimum rights of the workers be complied with. Mr Minister for Social Protection Diego Palacio, Mr President of the Republic Álvaro Uribe Velez, Members of ASOCANA, slavery was abolished on the 1st January 1852. Therefore you will have to respond before national and international tribunals to answer for the treatment of the sugar cane workers. And in the case that negotiation is not ceded and that agreements guaranteeing the rights of the workers in the Sugar Cane Industry are not established, you will have to give to give account of the violation to the effective norms of the labor right to internal and international level.


Colombia Support Network
P.O. Box 1505
Madison, WI  53701-1505
phone:  (608) 257-8753
fax:  (608) 255-6621

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