Agriculture and Human Values

, Volume 31, Issue 3, pp 455–468 | Cite as

Depoliticizing land and water “grabs” in Colombia: the limits of Bonsucro certification for enhancing sustainable biofuel practices



As concerns heighten over links between biomass production and land grabs in the global south, attention is turning to understanding the role of governance of biofuels systems, whereby decision-making and conduct are not solely determined through government regulations but increasingly shaped by non-state actors, including multi-stakeholder initiatives (MSI). Launched in 2005, Bonsucro is the principal MSI that focuses on sustainability standards for sugar and sugarcane ethanol production. Bonsucro claims that because it is free from government interference and draws on scientific metrics, their standards transcend localized, political–economic contexts. In this paper, we illustrate how the local context shapes the prospects for Bonsucro sustainably certified biofuel production in relation to land and water grabs. To accomplish this, our case focuses on Colombia, which has used a range of national policy mandates to establish itself as one of the larger producers of agrofuels in Latin America. We draw on interviews with stakeholders in the sugar and ethanol industries, paired with an examination of Bonsucro principles on land rights and water use, to illustrate how the sugar industry is framing their participation in Bonsucro, and the effects of the increasing intensification of sugarcane for ethanol production on land and water access for communities. We find that within the context of Colombia, efforts such as Bonsucro provide a veil of legitimacy and authority to a system that is premised on deeply entrenched historical patterns of inequitable land ownership patterns and access to natural resources.


Multi-stakeholder initiatives Land grabs Bonsucro Certification 



Colombian Sugarcane Growers Association


Cauca Valley Corporation


European Union


Multi-stakeholder initiatives


Colombian Association of Sugarcane Cultivators and Suppliers


Renewable Energy Directive


Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials


Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil


Roundtable on Responsible Soy


The past half-decade has witnessed a dramatic increase in the production of biomass in the global south to meet the demand for renewable energy in the global north. This expansion has led to concerns about the effects of agrofuels1 on social and environmental issues, such as food security and greenhouse gas emissions (Grain 2008; Fargione et al. 2008; McMichael 2010). Critics also argue that the shift to agrofuel production is driving “land grabs,” or large scale land acquisitions by foreign investors to secure land for the production of food or biofuels (Borras and Franco 2010; Cotula 2012; White et al. 2012; Margulis et al. 2013). More recently, critics have pointed out that land grabs are also closely associated with “water grabs,” that is efforts to secure existing surface and ground water resources (Mehta et al. 2012).

Within this context, attention is turning to understanding the role of governance of biofuels systems, whereby decision-making and conduct are not solely determined through government regulations but increasingly shaped by non-state actors, including multi-stakeholder initiatives (MSI) (Ponte et al. 2011; Bailis and Baka 2011; German et al. 2011). In the biofuels sector, MSIs, such as Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials (RSB, formerly Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels), the Roundtable on Responsible Soy (RTRS), the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), and Bonsucro, are largely comprised of environmental organizations, non-governmental organizations, corporations, and in some cases governments (Chao et al. 2012). Most of these MSIs are actively engaged in developing standards designed to measure environmental sustainability, such as reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions, together with a range of social and economic issues, such as land, labor and water rights and food security (Djama et al. 2011; Levidow 2013). Companies who participate in a MSI standard are expected to demonstrate compliance by gaining certification with an independent auditor.

The establishment of the European Union’s (EU) Renewable Energy Directive (RED) in 2009 has given impetus to many of these initiatives. The RED includes several environmental sustainability criteria (Bailis and Baka 2011) but its main focus is its mandate that 20 % of all energy and 10 % of transportation fuels will come from renewable sources by 2020, and requires that an initial 35 % greenhouse gas reduction will increase to 60 % for new biofuel installations by 2017 (Levidow 2013). A number of voluntary standards and certification schemes have been created to ensure that biofuels sold within the EU meet the RED sustainability rules. In 2013, fourteen such schemes were approved by member states, including those developed and implemented by RTRS, RSB and Bonsucro (EU 2013).

Bonsucro (2013) is the principal MSI that focuses on sustainability standards for sugar and sugarcane ethanol production. Launched in 2005, the brand Bonsucro was not established until 2010 and certification began in 2011. Its standard focuses on legal compliance, biodiversity and ecosystem impacts, human rights, production and processing, and continuous improvements. Its objectives are ambitious, asserting that Bonsucro will ensure “that a farmer sees better yields, human rights are respected, the planet benefits from better stewardship, the miller becomes more efficient, the trader gains more visibility, the end user greater transparency of origin, and we all, as consumers of sugar, benefit from knowing that Bonsucro certified means ‘sustainable’” (Bonsucro 2013).

Bonsucro seeks to enhance its legitimacy and support through a discourse that emphasizes broad stakeholder participation, political independence from governments, and scientific objectivity. Bonsucro claims its legitimacy derives from the broad participation in its standard where membership includes non-governmental organizations (e.g. World Wildlife Fund and Solidaridad), sugarcane producers and ethanol production companies, as well as end-user companies, such as BP, Shell and Greenergy. Similar to most other MSIs, Bonsucro does not include national governments as members (Ponte 2008; Cheyns 2011). Bonsucro argues that including major oil and biofuel companies is important because their financial support ensures its “continuing independence from government or other institutional sponsorship.” In addition, Bonsucro claims it was the first to develop a “global metric standard” to measure the sustainability of sugarcane and that its “set of metric measurements …allows for aggregation, and a clearer demonstration of impact” (Bonsucro 2013).

MSIs such as Bonsucro presume that, free from government interference and drawing on scientific metrics, their standards will rise above localized, political–economic contexts for the good of the “global commons” (Ponte 2008). Yet research on MSI in the agrifood and forestry sectors has shown that efforts to transcend local and national power relationships and socio-economic and environmental conflicts are largely a myth. While many stakeholders are often involved in constructing global standards which are intended to be objective, science-based and value neutral, in practice local politics and power relations do play a role in how these standards are enacted on the ground. Our paper builds on this research and emerging literature that examines how MSI and sustainability standards are translated into local environments, and the challenges to their operationalization in the field (Klooster 2011; Cheyns 2011; Silva-Castenada 2012; Köhne 2014). We expand this work by focusing on how the local context shapes the prospects for Bonsucro sustainably certified biofuel production in relation to land and water grabs.

To accomplish this, our case focuses on Colombia, which has used a range of national policy mandates to establish itself as one of the larger producers of agrofuels in Latin America, producing both sugarcane ethanol and oil palm biodiesel. The Colombian state has promoted biofuels with a narrative of reducing carbon emissions, achieving energy self-sufficiency, boosting agricultural and industrial diversification, and reducing the poverty of peasants and indigenous communities through rural development.

The next section describes the theoretical starting point that informs our investigation of the emergence of Colombian agrofuels. Following that, we describe the historical development of agriculture in the Valle del Cauca region in Colombia, and how the sugarcane ethanol industry fits in this context. We then draw on data from interviews, paired with a presentation of particular Bonsucro principles on land rights and water use, to illustrate how the sugar industry is framing their participation in Bonsucro, and the effects of the increasing intensification of sugarcane for ethanol production on land and water access for communities. We conclude that Bonsucro’s ahistorical and apolitical emphasis will make the process of land concentration and certain kinds of resource grabs—especially those that are legal—invisible.

Biofuels, land and water grabs: prospects for governance

The dramatic expansion in biofuel production around the globe has led to intense debates within the scientific and policy-making communities regarding the degree to which the production of biomass for ethanol produces net carbon benefits and thereby reduces greenhouse gas emissions (Searchinger et al. 2008; Fargione et al. 2008; van der Horst and Evans 2010). Less attention has been paid to the potential local level socio-economic and environmental impacts from the production of biomass for biofuels, especially in relation to water quality and quantity, as well as land use change and its concomitant effects on biodiversity, food security and property rights (Mol 2007, 2010; Scarlat and Dallemand 2011; Gillon 2010; Bain and Selfa 2013).

In this paper we aim to illustrate how the local context shapes prospects for governance of sustainable biofuel production, drawing on Ribot and Peluso’s (2003) theory of access. While traditional views of power focus on property, Ribot and Peluso argue that power is also derived from the ability to access things, such as natural resources. In other words, while property is concerned with the right to benefit from something, access is concerned about the ability to benefit from something. Rather than focusing on the state as the sole locus of power, this framework recognizes that an actor’s ability to gain, control and maintain access to resources is embodied in a range of “structural and relational mechanisms” or “bundle of powers” (p. 164). These mechanisms can include government policies and regulations but also institutions, material objects such as technology, social and economic relations, market access, discursive strategies, and symbols. In particular, the theory is concerned with investigating the material, cultural, political or economic strands of powers that are not always readily apparent, such as corruption or theft, and are deployed to gain access. In sum, this framework is a tool for identifying the range of mechanisms that can affect the distribution of resources, which has important implications for well-being, justice, equity and sustainability.

Using this theory, our objective is to illustrate how Bonsucro certification legitimates the expansion of biofuels production in Colombia. The expansion of biofuels in Colombia has to be situated in a context whereby access and use of resources necessary for the industry, especially land, water and labor, are rooted in historical agrarian structures, social arrangements, contractual arrangements, and national policies that privilege certain interests, and are reinforced by illegal mechanisms such as the use of violence (Marin et al. 2011). State laws and policies intended to expand the biofuel industry are a key mechanism that has facilitated the ability of the sugarcane industry to continue to access these resources at the expense of peasants, indigenous and Afro-Colombians (Marin et al. 2011).

We also extend the work of Marin et al. (2011) by considering the means through which large-scale sugarcane plantation and mill owners are benefiting from new biofuels incentives to expand their access to land, solidify control over water resources and technologies, intensify conventional agricultural systems, and gain entry to foreign markets. We argue that Bonsucro certification strengthens the ability of elites to benefit from biofuels by providing them with the institutional mechanism—EU RED approved certification—necessary to gain entrance into the valuable EU market. In addition, the institutional, discursive and symbolic value of sustainability certification provides legitimacy to a process of intensified sugarcane production, a finding highlighted by Schouten and Glasbergen (2011) in their research analyzing how large-scale industrial palm plantations were included in RSPO certification. Certification also legitimizes land and water grabs by elites, in effect depoliticising the plunder and “dispossess[ion] of rural communities in the global south” (Levidow 2013, p. 211). Considering how Bonsucro certification plays out within the specific political economy of Colombia is therefore important for understanding its relevance in terms of addressing issues of land and water rights, food security, and community benefits.

Our paper also contributes to other recent literature that examines how global standards are translated into local environments. Recent scholarship on standards has shown how MSIs attempt to achieve legitimacy through stakeholder representativeness and trustworthiness, but that standards often reflect unequal balances of power of stakeholders (Partzsch 2011; Elgert 2012). Using a “regimes of engagement” approach, Cheyns (2011) argues that Roundtables depoliticize standards by focusing on ‘strategic engagement’ thereby stifling, for example, the ability of local communities to debate questions of justice. Djama et al. (2011) applies a governmentality approach to understand how the political basis of standards and other multi-stakeholder devices are rooted in ideas, discourse, institutions and technologies. They describe how standards such as RSPO are designed more to fulfill managerial criteria (i.e. auditing for third party certification) than to effectively promote sustainability. Silva-Castenada (2012) found that the techno-legal language used in third party auditing for the RSPO certification often discredits the ‘forms of proof’ that communities provide about land rights, and as a result, reinforces existing power relations. Bain and Hatanaka (2010) also argued that techno-scientific values and discourse embedded in third party certification often excludes many stakeholders who cannot conform to these discourses. Overall this research suggests that standards setting processes often privilege powerful actors, conventional production systems and existing resource distribution, and that the emphasis on technical and legal issues leads to depoliticization and sidelining of concerns about justice and equity.

In her research, Raynolds (2012) has developed a “social regulation” approach to illustrate how systems of certification are embedded within economies shaped by social, political and economic institutions. Moreover, the local context can produce both anticipated and unanticipated effects (Bartley 2010). For example, Ponte (2008) shows how Marine Stewardship Certification in South Africa was appropriated by white-owned fishing groups to maintain market control and exclude black-owned companies. Klooster (2011) illustrates how standards and certification, specifically Forestry Stewardship Certification, have been deployed instrumentally by Mexican indigenous communities to foster organizational networking, conservation and economic benefits for local communities. Therefore, certification never occurs within a political–economic void but is influenced and reshaped by configurations of power and political–economic interests at various scales (Manning et al. 2012; Bartley 2010; Ponte 2008; Raynolds 2012).

The paper draws on in-depth exploratory interviews with 14 stakeholders in the sugarcane and ethanol industry in the Valle del Cauca region in southwest Colombia between June and August 2012. Stakeholders were selected in order to reflect a diversity of perspectives on the sugarcane industry and included farmers, union activists, local government officials, officials from sugar industry associations (producers and refineries), sugar refineries, and research agronomists. The interviews focused on understanding the role of sugar and ethanol industries in the Valle del Cauca, impacts of these industries on social and environmental conditions, motivations for implementing Bonsucro, and the prospects and limitations for multi-stakeholder governance initiatives like Bonsucro to mitigate impacts. Drawing on the lens of access theory, our interviews also sought to understand how key mechanisms, such as government policies, laws, network relationships, markets for biofuels, and Bonsucro certification, may enhance the ability of large-scale sugarcane producers to access resources, such as land and water.

Our interviews reveal that public policy, and shared norms and conventions between local government officials and landowners, are strengthening the ability of large-scale sugarcane producers to intensify and extend their control over land and water resources and benefit from biofuels development. We find that large-scale sugar mills and processors are turning to Bonsucro certification to deepen this control while providing public assurances that their actions are socially and environmentally responsible. We conclude that with Bonsucro, the intensification of inequitable land distribution and access to water is being accomplished under the discursive and symbolic guise of sustainability certification.

Expanding biofuels in Colombia

The Colombian government has played a central role in the development of the agrofuels sector. Government support for agrofuels began with the Uribe administration (2002–2010) that defined agrofuel production as one of the major strategies for rural development. The goal was to establish a biofuel industry by extending and adapting the existing sugar and palm oil industries. Government incentives included mandatory blends, tax exemptions, access to land and special loans. A 2012 national government decree (#4892) declared a 10 % biofuels blend level required for vehicles, with a range of 8–13 % for ethanol and 10 % for biodiesel (Pinzon 2012).

The expansion of biofuels was assisted by international cooperation and funding, mainly from the US, with support for palm planting as a strategy to consolidate territorial control and to replace illicit crops as well as to promote alternative development projects. In the regions of Bolivar, Meta and Sucre, biofuel projects aim to employ demobilized members of paramilitary groups as well as people displaced by violence. Colombia has emerged as the largest producer of both palm oil and palm biodiesel in Latin America and the second largest producer of ethanol, after Brazil (Minminas 2012).2

Despite this expansion, Colombia has not yet met its national blend mandates, let alone its goal of becoming an ethanol and biodiesel exporter. In response to the shortfalls, the government modified production targets downward for both ethanol and biodiesel (Pinzon 2012). Efforts are being made to increase production levels by expanding the area under cultivation, improving competitiveness by reducing costs, and orienting its business model towards international markets, which includes adopting international sustainability standards.

The context for the growth of Colombian biofuels makes this case study particularly interesting in relation to other studies on biofuels and landgrabs. Some studies have examined biofuels in regions similar to Colombia that have entrenched unequal land distribution patterns (see for example, Silva-Castenada 2012). But Colombia is unusual because these patterns occur within a context of armed conflict where biofuels are promoted as an alternative rural development strategy. In addition, few studies have focused on land grabbing in Latin America, which Borras et al. (2011) argue has distinctive features, including that domestic elites, together with inter-regional companies, are key investors and that much of the land is transacted privately. Furthermore, many Latin American countries do not have “‘fragile’ or ‘weak’ state[s]” as is the case in other regions (Borras et al. 2011: 5). Together these factors provide a unique local context that potentially complicates efforts to implement sustainable biofuel standards and certification.

Enacting Bonsucro certification in Colombia

Within this context, the Colombian sugarcane industry recognizes that to access international markets, especially the EU, it must adopt standards that assure buyers that biofuels are being produced in a sustainable manner. The participation of the Colombian Sugarcane Growers Association (Asocaña)3 in Bonsucro was perceived by the sugar industry in Colombia as a unique opportunity to standardize the industry’s sustainability practices. Our interviewees explained that Bonsucro certification will allow the sugar industry to accomplish important international and national objectives: to access European markets and to demonstrate “social responsibility” to local communities near biofuel production. As one industry participant explained:

Our intention [with certification] goes beyond opening new markets; it is more about social responsibility through a standard that allows us to have a better produced cane. [Certification] makes it easy for us to show that the sugar sector is actually committed to sustainability.

The first steps toward certification were taken in 2009 when Asocaña took the initiative to become informed about Bonsucro. In 2010, pre-audits were carried out in eight sugar mills, and in 2011, Asocaña trained 40 internal auditors to facilitate the certification process, with the goal of 40 % of the total area planted with sugar cane to be certified by 2013. According to our interviews, Asocaña believes that the industry is now complying with most of Bonsucro’s requirements.

Asocaña directly manages over 45–50 % of the area planted with sugar cane, while the other 50 % is managed by private growers who supply the industry. One of the problems identified by an industry participant is the challenge of getting sugar cane suppliers to make changes in their land and water management practices to meet the standard. To help them implement these changes, Asocaña decided to affiliate with the Colombian Association of Sugarcane Cultivators and Suppliers (Procaña).4

Since 2008, Procaña began to have regular meetings about Bonsucro. In an interview, one of Procaña’s spokespersons explained that Bonsucro offers a mechanism to implement more environmentally friendly practices, which is especially urgent in order to prevent future conflicts with local communities, international organizations and business partners, especially related to water shortages and community health impacts from water contamination and sugarcane burning. However, Procaña representatives explained to us that one of the main difficulties they face is a cultural one: “To break those structures of 50 years of doing the same process with the same technological package is not easy.” To date, Procaña has not undertaken any pre-audits as it is still in the first phase, working to devise a long-term permanent training process with the farmers.

Land grabs and Bonsucro certification

To benefit from government incentives for biofuels and new market opportunities for exports, access to land is critical. But who gets to access land is at the heart of concerns related to poverty, inequality and sustainable development. A World Bank (2004) study on land policy in Colombia found that much of the land is highly ‘underutilized’ for agricultural purposes due to the unfair concentration of land ownership (Smith and Vivekananda 2008). Today, half the land (52 %) is owned by just 1.15 % of the population, while half of all rural families (1.3 million people) have no land at all (Smith and Vivekananda 2008). The result is a country of extreme inequality whereby 33 % of Colombians live in poverty and 10 % live in extreme poverty. In the rural areas, 47 % live in poverty and 23 % live in extreme poverty (DANE 2012).

Inequitable land distribution is the product of government policies and fiscal incentives that have favored large-scale agribusiness and plantation agriculture, and policies in relation to biofuel production have the potential to deepen land inequities in two ways. First, demand for ethanol is reinforcing existing patterns of land ownership and concentration by large scale agribusiness producers and landowners who can take advantage of their preferential access to capital, technology, agricultural inputs, and systems of irrigation and drainage (Mejía 2011). Second, efforts by the Colombian government to expand the agricultural frontier and facilitate land transfers for “flex” crops (i.e. crops that can be for food or fuel) privileges the agro-industrial model and access by agribusiness and large-scale landowners and while weakening access for small-scale and indigenous farmers, peasants, Afro-Colombians (Mejía 2011).

Sugarcane production is concentrated in the Valle del Cauca, located in the southwestern part of the country, where it has been produced for more than 140 years (see Fig. 1). In this region, just 5.1 % of the registered landowners are in possession of 60.9 % of the land (Marin et al. 2011). Here, we find that biofuel policies are reinforcing the inequitable distribution of land by favoring the entrenched large-scale capitalist agriculture over small-scale agriculture (Marin et al. 2011). Between 2001 and 2011, land planted with sugarcane in the Valle del Cauca grew by 20 % (Marin et al. 2011 and Fedecombustibles 2012). In just a 1 year period (2008–2009), the area planted with other food and cash crops, such as cotton, rice, beans, corn, soy, decreased 11.62 %, largely replaced by sugar cane (Gobernacion del Valle del Cauca 2011). This concentration was reflected in comments by interviewees. When we asked one small farmer if he was making any changes to his production practices in order to gain Bonsucro certification for his sugar, he commented:
Fig. 1

Main sugarcane-growing region in Colombia. Source Toasa (2009)

No, because maybe they are implementing those practices with big growers. … basically the sugar cane business is one of big landowners, there are people who have a lot of hectares.

There are limited opportunities to expand sugarcane production in the Valle del Cauca and any hope of meeting ethanol mandates and rising export demand will require sugarcane producers and agribusiness to establish new production centers elsewhere in the country (Mejía 2011). Borras et al. (2011) argue that states play a crucial role in “land grab” initiatives by identifying, defining, reclassifying and quantifying land as available, thus facilitating investment in lands. In Colombia, studies carried out by the Ministry of Mines and Energy have identified around 4 million hectares and 4.9 million hectares for the possible expansion of palm oil and sugarcane, respectively (Minminas 2012). Similarly to narratives used to justify land grabs elsewhere (Mehta et al. 2012), the primary narrative among proponents of expansion of sugarcane production for ethanol is that the targeted land is “underutilized”, “marginal”, or “unoccupied.”

According to Asocaña and the Colombian Sugarcane Research Center, which was founded by Asocaña, the sugarcane industry should expand into the Northwest and East where unused or unproductive pasture land is being used for low-density livestock production (Toasa 2009; Recorder Report 2012). Jorge Bendeck, executive president of FedeBiocombustibles, argues “There are 43 million hectares (106 million acres) being used for ranching, this could be reduced by half by increasing the number of cattle per hectare” to allow for the expansion of sugarcane production (Recorder Report 2012). The Ministry of Agriculture claims that efficiencies in cattle ranching could be achieved through land consolidation and the introduction of feedlots (Gronewold 2011). The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Juan Camilo Restrepo, explained that one of his strategic priorities is to provide the technology and scientific knowledge necessary to transform this vast Colombian territory (known as “Media Colombia” because it occupies half the country) into a productive agricultural region, just as Brazil has done with its Cerrados region. Proponents argue that this expansion will not be at the expense of crop production and will not affect food security (Toasa 2009), thereby making it politically palatable.

Several major Colombian petroleum and agro-industrial firms are already pursing this expansion. For example, the state owned Ecopetrol has planted 6,000 hectares of sugarcane in the eastern part of the country (Meta and Los Llanos) for bioenergy (El País 2012). In 2012, the Valle del Cauca based agribusiness company, Rio Paila-Castilla, planted 2,000 hectares of palm oil in the municipality of Santa Rosalia in the eastern part of the country (El País 2011).

Within this context, it is important to consider the role that Bonsucro certification is likely to play in facilitating or limiting land grabs by large-scale sugarcane producers and processors to produce biofuels. Bonsucro’s aim is a certification system based on a set of standards that are measurable, value-neutral, and objective, and which can be universally applied. To address the problem of disputed land claims, producers are required to abide by laws intended to safeguard land rights or by international conventions in situations where national statutes are weak or absent. Bonsucro has one key principle related to land: “Principle 1: Obey the law”. Under this principle there are two criteria or standards that apply to both ethanol and sugarcane producers and must be independently verified. First, producers must comply with all national laws and international conventions “governing land tenure and land-use rights”. The relevant international convention listed is the ILO Convention 169 on indigenous and tribal peoples (Article 13–19), which states “Respect and safeguard rights to lands and natural resources traditionally occupied and used; respect for customs of inheritance; no forced removals; compensation for loss and industry”. Second, producers must demonstrate that they hold clear title to their land “in accordance with national practice and law” and that their right to own, lease or use the land is “not legitimately contested by local communities with demonstrable rights”.5

Bonsucro’s requirements seem particularly naïve in a country where human rights groups argue that the issue of land ownership is extremely problematic. The expansion of biofuels in Colombia—and therefore any standards measuring its sustainability—must be situated within the country’s long history of armed conflict, illicit drug production, and narco-trafficking that has led to the violent expulsion of hundreds of thousands of peasants, indigenous, and Afro-Colombians from their land by government security forces, drug traffickers, guerrilla groups, and large-scale farmers (Witte-Lebhar 2011). The violent expulsion of peasants from the land is possible in many rural areas because land title and customary land use rights are often unclear and cadastral records are inadequate or outdated. In addition, state institutions and the rule of law are weak or absent (Smith and Vivekananda 2008; Semillas 2009). Within this context, it is difficult for peasants to demonstrate or claim customary or legal rights to land without facing the threat or actual use of violence.

A major concern among peasant advocates is that the expansion of biomass production for biofuels will increase land conflicts by continuing to privilege land access by agribusiness and large-scale landowners, hindering land reform and land restitution efforts by the government, leading to further displacement of marginalized populations (Mejía 2011; Witte-Lebhar 2011). For example, the forced displacement of peasants has been reported as drug interests have turned to using agricultural lands for sugarcane and oil palm production to launder money (Semillas 2009). In the Choco region, Afro-Colombian communities have sued companies they allege are illegally occupying their land to grow palm oil (Semillas 2009). In the Cauca region, the government had agreed to compensate indigenous communities for the land and lives they lost in a 1991 massacre perpetuated by paramilitaries in an effort to expand livestock production. Human rights groups have reported that rather than return this land the government has leased it to large-scale producers to expand sugarcane production for ethanol (Marin et al. 2011).

Our interviews suggest that near absolute control over land has enabled the sugar industry to exert a great deal of influence over local and national politics, increasing its ability to benefit from national biofuels policies while limiting the ability of peasant organizations to propose alternative development patterns. One interviewee explained:

The sugar industry is an established power and they can exert their pressure as they need to. They are pairs, the Valle del Cauca’s oligarchs and the Bogota’s oligarchs, and through these relationships they get representation of their interests.

Another interviewee reiterated this theme:

There is a lot of capital from very powerful people who invest in order to gain prestige, who are willing to pay more using laundered money.

In sum, Bonsucro certification is ahistorical and apolitical; the stated objective is a universalist set of standards that are measurable and value-neutral. In terms of land issues, the metric is whether a producer is complying or not complying with national laws and international conventions and whether he or she can demonstrate that they hold clear title to their land.6 Clear-cut, value-neutral, objective standards that can be universally applied are nominally highly valued by the industry. However, the discussion above demonstrates that the process—and likely outcomes—of biofuel expansion in Colombia is neither apolitical nor value-neutral. Bonsucro’s legalistic focus ignores the Colombian state’s complicity in perpetuating, through its laws and policies, a system where most of the land is controlled by a small elite and the majority of rural families have no access to land. In disregarding the debate concerning the unequal access to land, Bonsucro standards provide discursive and symbolic legitimacy to this system, which will be certified as legal, valid and sustainable.

Furthermore, Bonsucro’s standards seem unlikely to limit the sugarcane industry’s ability to expand their agricultural frontier. In regions such as Los Lanos, most of these land transactions are voluntary agreements between buyers and sellers and have occurred legally, a process that is occurring in much of Latin America (Borras et al. 2011; German et al. 2011). Therefore, Bonsucro’s call to “obey the law” would seem redundant. Yet, legal does not imply that these transactions are either just or equitable and therefore it is important that this process be scrutinized in terms of its social, economic and environmental implications. For example, the process of biofuel expansion into low-density cattle ranching areas will most likely lead to the replacement of cattle barons with large-scale plantation owners and agri-businesses.7 Unfortunately, perpetuating this inequitable land distribution is neither socially nor environmentally inconsequential. Without legal access to land, poor and landless farmers have contributed to environmental degradation by moving into marginal lands and cutting down rainforest in national parks to cultivate food crops (Smith and Vivekananda 2008). Yet these consequences are unlikely to be identified or addressed through certification since Bonsucro standards do not address indirect land use change.8

Water grabs and Bonsucro certification

In the Valle del Cauca, sugar mills have appropriated water from rivers and underground reservoirs, and it is estimated that more than 3,000 km3 of potable water are used per year from more than 600 underground wells to irrigate cane plantations (Corpodice 2000). Currently the valley has salinization and drainage problems, and water contamination related to agriculture is a serious problem (Perez et al. 2011). The municipalities of Palmira, Candelaria and Cerrito are the three main areas planted with sugar cane in the Valle del Cauca, and also the places with the highest rates of environmental conflict, related in part to water shortages and water contamination for small scale producers and household use (Cortés 2010).

The Cauca Valley Corporation (CVC) is the agency in the region tasked with environmental management including water management. The CVC was founded in the 1950s as a regional development authority with the objective of promoting regional economic development through large infrastructure projects, such as irrigation, drainage and hydroelectric projects, that would prevent flooding and facilitate large scale agriculture in the Valle del Cauca. It was initially created by initiative of elites in the region with the support of financing from the World Bank and technical assistance from the US. In 1993, Law 99 passed, which altered the mandate of the CVC to become a regional environmental authority with functions of natural resource and environmental management (CVC 2012). This change opened the door for local politicians to take control of administrative positions within the entity, dovetailing with neoliberal policy changes throughout Colombia in the mid 1990s, during which much of the environmental legislation was weakened to preference private interests (Londono 2008).

A recent study conducted on the use of water by sugarcane and ethanol industries in Valle del Cauca provides an overview of the water quality and quantity problems in the region (Perez et al. 2011). Five critical issues related to water use by sugarcane and ethanol producers were identified in the study: (1) An increase of 23 % in the amount of water used by agriculture in the Valle del Cauca during the period 1980–2009, most of which is attributed to the increase in sugarcane production. (2) The unequal distribution of water concessions in the Valle del Cauca in 2009, as sugarcane production had the majority of surface water and underground water concessions, relative to household, other agricultural or industrial users. Specifically, the sugar industry had 64 % of the concessions for surface water compared to 26 % for household uses, 7 % for other agriculture, 2 % for industry and 1 % for other users. Even more striking are unequal water concessions for underground water: 88 % are used by the sugar industry, compared to 2 % for household use, 2 % for other agriculture, 6 % for industry and 2 % for other uses. (3) The sugarcane industry paid lower rates for surface water relative to all other users, with the exception of household uses. (4) The sugar and ethanol industries are responsible for high rates of water contamination, especially by pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers.9 (5) The overall level of pollution of the Cauca river with nutrients, especially nitrogen and phosphorous, is quite high. Estimates of the contribution of pesticides, nitrogen and phosphorous from municipal versus sugarcane sources show that 76 % are coming from sugarcane with 24 % from municipal sources. A 2009 study of the contaminants in the Cauca River showed concentration of herbicides, insecticides, and heavy metal levels well above safe limits (cited in Perez et al. 2011). At present water from the aquifer is of good quality, although a recent study conducted by the CVC identified the municipalities of Palmira, Candelaria, Florida, Pradera, Cerrito, Guacarí and Tulúa, where sugar cane plantations are located, being highly vulnerable to underground water contamination due to the use of agro-chemicals in the sugar industry (CVC 2011). While sugarcane production has been contributing to most of these water quality and quantity problems for decades, the shift into ethanol production, stimulated by government policies and facilitated by CVC, has led to a dramatic increase in water use and contamination since 2006.

Environmental issues related to sugarcane production and processing are addressed in three Bonsucro principles, but we specifically analyze “Principle 5: Continuously improve key areas of business.”10 The criteria for “continuous improvement” include a number of environmental components, such as continuously improving soil and water resources, reducing emissions and effluents, and energy efficiency in production of sugarcane ethanol. The standard does not address the sugar industry’s legacy in the Valle del Cauca of disproportionate water concessions, lower water prices and high rates of contamination, as discussed above, and like the land case, these historical factors are invisible in Bonsucro.

The Bonsucro standard for water quality relies on measuring the amount of nitrogen and phosphorous applied on the field but not does require sampling in downstream water to assess contamination, which is clearly a problem given the water contamination data reported in Perez et al. (2011). This indirect measure of water contamination relies on producers to accurately measure and report on the quantity of fertilizer applied, rather than requiring action from the mills. In addition, it does not account for the fact that water contamination is caused by more than just quantity of inputs applied, but on other factors such as soil type, slope, weather, and proximity to water bodies.

Additionally we examine how the use of water resources is to be measured through specific indicators in Bonsucro, namely: net water consumed per unit of product, defined as water captured or borrowed for use in irrigation and in processing, that is, the amount of water used less water returned from mill to water source.11

The Bonsucro standards for water use are designed to be applied to all parts of the commodity chain, from field to sugar to ethanol and to be applied equally across producing nations. But in interviews with producers and representatives from industry associations we heard repeatedly that the limits for water use are problematic for Colombian sugarcane and ethanol producers and that they are looking for ways to modify the standard to better fit their own situation. In addition, interviewees also commented on how the development of technology for water use efficiency for large producers has been a key area where the Colombian state has invested for their benefit, which has also reinforced the large scale industrial agriculture model in the Valle del Cauca.

A representative from Asocaña explained some of the challenges the Colombia sugar industry faces related to Bonsucro certification with respect to water use. He argued that the sugar industry is very diverse globally in terms of environmental endowments, which makes it challenging for Colombia to conform to requirements of Bonsucro. He explained:

…the world sugar industry is very diverse. It is not the same; the conditions in India, Brazil or Colombia. The water requirements are different. Different from others we (in Colombia) produce during the whole year, and the standard falls short in accounting for those differences. This is one of the difficulties we have had in relation to the maximum limits that the standard establishes for some variables…. We have had a hard time trying to adapt to this.

In response, Asocaña decided to appeal to Bonsucro for modification of the water standard, arguing that because Colombia needs to irrigate sugarcane and because they produce all year, the allocation of allowable water needs to be increased.12

Having Bonsucro certification suggests that the sugarcane growers in Valle del Cauca are adhering to standards for environmentally sustainable production, but powerful actors are trying to intervene and modify the global standard to suit local demands for expanded disproportionate access to water, which contradicts the whole purpose of a global standard. In addition, although the sugar industry already holds the majority of surface and underground water concessions in the Valle del Cauca, interviews revealed ways they are trying to expand water access in order to irrigate and produce more sugarcane. In an interview, a farmer explained some of the agronomic challenges faced and the new water-intensive varieties the industry is promoting:

Right now, there is a problem here in the valley with a sugar cane variety “CC8592”… This cane is having problems because the leaves are getting ¨burned¨. … So now, to replace CC8592, which is a really good variety, they have CC 934418, which is also really good, but needs more water. It is very delicate. If you don’t water it correctly, it will grow scarce. However, it produces 50 million more tons per hectare than CC8592, so the refineries are trying to make everyone grow that sugar cane variety.

Other interviews highlighted how the industry is attempting to change the status of ground water in the Valle del Cauca to be non-potable so that it is not available for household uses anymore and can instead become available for the sugar industry. A recent study done by CVC found that the groundwater quality is currently very high and suggested that groundwater should be protected from further contamination and overuse (Paéz 2007). However, because the industry wants access to underground water for irrigating sugarcane, they are trying to argue that it is not suitable for household use.

An interview an Asocaña representative revealed the industry’s strategy for accessing additional irrigation water:

We use surface water from rivers and underground water from wells. The wells are only for dry seasons, they are like our water bank just in case something happens but we always use surface waters, the water from wells is for use especially in El Niño years or when droughts happen. In this region we have one of the richest aquifers in Colombia, our underground waters are among the most abundant and best quality in Colombia… I have talked to people at the CVC and they say that this water is suitable for drinking. However, we fight for this water not to be considered potable because these are the local regulations that we have to comply with, we have to abide by the regulation that states that we cannot spill anything that can contaminate potable waters and this is raw water that should not be considered potable.13 The position of the CVC is that this water is potable, but the truth is that if a chemical test is conducted it will show that is not potable.

In interviews, industry association representatives relied on techno-scientific discourse to explain how the Colombian sugar industry had been directly assisted by the state environmental authority, the CVC, to manage water resources most efficiently for the industry. Several interviewees stressed how expert knowledge and substantial government investment have facilitated the sugar sector’s access to water and efforts to apply it in a precise, efficient manner. As the industry representative explained:

…we monitor all the time and we have data to demonstrate that we are complying. …What happens is that as a sugar industry we have a very good management of the water resource because we are intense in the use of the resource. We invest a lot of money in taking care of watersheds and water tables…. Our business is in the water, if we run out of water, everything will get complicated for us, our business would get ruined. … We also have a Roundtable of Water which convenes all the experts and the heads of the water management areas of all the sugar mills to create guidelines and strategies to better use the resource.

While it may appear that the industry is being water efficient for environmental reasons, it is important to point out that they are not interested in sharing water resources but in applying it efficiently to increase production. The techno-scientific discourse and reliance on expert knowledge for water monitoring gives an impression of concern with sustainability that distracts from the collusion between the CVC and the sugar sector which has facilitated disproportionate use of water by the industry and downplayed the contamination of water, a public good, by large landowners.

In contrast, an interview with an agricultural researcher who was critical of the sugarcane industry and land tenure arrangements provided a completely opposite analysis of the social and environmental profile of the sugar industry. He was critical of excessive water use by the industry and of resulting water pollution that affected potable water for surrounding communities. He indicated that while there are nominally restrictions on water use, they are not enforced by CVC.

The municipalities that depend on underground water suffer in the dry seasons from shortages in the water supply because the water is being robbed by the sugar industry, and with license of CVC. Candelaria, Pradera, many towns are affected by the lack of water during El Niño. The wells are very expensive to pump, so they prefer to use surface waters, but there is not enough water for them and for the surrounding populations. 2004 and 2008 were very serious years in terms of lack of water. …There are [restrictions on water use] but … all the water management in Valle del Cauca is corrupt, CVC is co-opted by the sugar mills, nobody knows what is happening.

The agricultural researcher criticized the CVC for their lack of transparency about water use, and argued that expansion of ethanol production was being used by the sugar industry as a justification for their increased water mining. The production of ethanol is claimed as a justification for costly increased water extraction, because the Colombian state has incentivized ethanol as both a “value added” product made from sugar and a measure for combating climate change. In addition to these justifications, Bonsucro certification for sugar production may provide further legitimacy for the expansion of legal ‘water grabs’. He said:

I have the impression that ethanol was necessary to justify the pumping because it is very expensive. In Brazil 95 % of sugar cane is produced using rainwater not irrigation.

We also interviewed other residents in rural communities in Valle del Cauca who were driven out of small scale farming by the expansion of the sugar industry and concomitant land concentration. They described the difficulties they now face in accessing water for household use, and how they are forced to buy water for household use. They suggested that as the sugarcane growers have taken advantage of irrigation systems to maximize efficiency of water use, they have also diverted water away from other community users.

Clearly, the case of sugarcane and ethanol production in the Valle del Cauca provides some challenges for the application of Bonsucro as an effort to improve sustainability. We find that the state has facilitated the sugar industry’s interests to the detriment of other water users. Like the standard for land discussed above, Bonsucro’s principle of “improving soil and water resources” appears positive in terms of environmental implications, but its application ignores entrenched resource inequalities which have allowed the sugar industry disproportionate access to water, and by nominally adhering to the standard, will likely provide legitimacy to the industry for increased water access. In addition, while the Colombian sugar industry wants the Bonsucro label to access the EU market, it is actively attempting to modify the standard to suit local political and environmental interests.

The examples above illustrate that large-scale sugarcane producers hold privileged access to land and water resources in Colombia, marginalizing access by peasants, rural and indigenous communities. Using the lens of access theory, our case study demonstrates that efforts to expand biofuel production, including production that is Bonsucro certified, are likely to reinforce and extend these historical patterns. As outlined above, access theory is concerned with understanding the range of institutional, discursive, political and economic mechanisms that certain actors can utilize to access things that are of value to them, such as land and water resources. In Colombia, access to land and water by a minority of elites is rooted in historical political–economic processes that allow elites to shape government laws and policies to their advantage. These practices include the close ties between the oligarchs in Bogota and the Valle del Cauca, elite involvement in the CVC, and the use of state sanctioned violence and armed force to kill and expel hundreds of thousands of peasants from the land.

Our findings suggest that Bonsucro certification may simply become another mechanism for large-scale landowners to retain their privileged access to natural resources. This is being accomplished by providing producers with access to new, international markets while reassuring their customers and local communities that they are transparent, socially responsible and “committed to sustainability.” In focusing on requiring sugarcane producers to “obey the law” in relation to land and natural resources, Bonsucro makes invisible the political economic power relations embodied in these laws. Consequently, Bonsucro reinforces existing land ownership patterns and privileged access to cheap water concessions, and is helping to facilitate the expansion of the agro-industrial model of sugarcane production into new agricultural frontiers.


Examining efforts to set standards for sustainable biofuel production adds an important new dimension to the expanding literature on agrifood standards and certification. Most studies of private agrifood standards and certification have focused on their implications for governing buyer-driven global value chains. In contrast, the development of biofuels has largely been driven by government mandates and regulatory efforts, and certification efforts have to be understood within this context. Our concern here then is to understand how the historical and socio-political context of biofuels development within Colombia shapes the possibilities for Bonsucro certification to open or close spaces for advancing sustainable agriculture and local benefits.

Multi-stakeholder certification initiatives achieve their legitimacy and authority from their assumed ability to transcend localized political–economic–environmental contexts. Initiatives, such as Bonsucro, are framed as superior to government regulation because they are scientific, non-political, and value neutral. Bonsucro advances this narrative by emphasizing its metric based standards and excluding government participation in its standards development. Yet, the literature on sustainability standards demonstrates that standards—as with all norms, rules, and conventions—unfold within specific political economies and power relations (Bain and Hatanaka 2010; Klooster 2011; Ponte 2008).

In Colombia, large-scale landowners have long benefited from agrarian structures, government policies, and recent neoliberal market reforms that have privileged their interests by ensuring continued access to the land and water resources necessary for success. Within this context, the Colombian government’s efforts to develop biofuels are being framed as a way to accelerate rural development and help redress the poverty and marginalization faced by landless rural peasants, indigenous and Afro-Colombians.

Increased demand for agricultural commodities, such as sugarcane for biofuels, holds potential to provide important economic opportunities for many workers, farmers and rural communities. Yet, our study suggests that mandates by the Colombian state and by the EU for biofuels will act to reinforce inequitable systems of land ownership and land concentration and even accelerate this process. Within the Valle del Cauca, a new market for sugarcane favors the historical structure of agriculture within the region dominated by large-scale landowners and the intensive, monocropped, water intensive production of sugarcane. With no more land to access within the valley, the sugarcane industry is now seeking—with the aid of the Colombian state—to expand their sugarcane frontier into new “underutilized” regions of the country. The value from this expansion, however, only comes if the industry can access international markets, principally the EU, and to accomplish this it must implement Bonsucro certification. From the industry’s perspective, certification is necessary to ensure access to the valuable European market, while providing public reassurances that in Colombia production is taking place in a social and environmentally responsible manner.

Participating in Bonsucro has given legitimacy to the topic of sustainability within the sugarcane industry in Colombia and has required producers and processors to implement some changes to conform to more sustainable practices and discourses. Certification holds the possibility for modest reforms in terms of landowners complying with the law concerning land tenure and water use. However, consistent with Ribot and Peluso’s theory of access, the evidence suggests that rather than transcending socio-economic conflicts, power struggles, and governance failures, the prospects for Bonsucro standards in Colombia are deeply influenced by configurations of power and interests at the local, national, and transnational levels. Within the context of Colombia, efforts such as Bonsucro are revealed as deeply flawed. “Independent,” “multi-stakeholder,” “scientific” standards and certification systems provide a veil of legitimacy and authority to a system that is premised on deeply entrenched historical patterns of inequitable land ownership patterns and access to natural resources. Here, Bonsucro standards may simply act to reinforce the paradigm of commodity agrofuel production and its concomitant inequities rather than moving towards an alternative model of agrofuel production that would enhance agricultural sustainability and provide broader societal benefits in terms of poverty alleviation, food security and equitable access to natural resources.


  1. 1.

    In this paper, we use the terms agrofuels and biofuels interchangeably.

  2. 2.

    Nevertheless, it is important to point out that its production levels are dwarfed by Brazil in terms of ethanol in Brazil and soy biodiesel in Argentina.

  3. 3.

    Asocaña represents 14 sugar mills and 5 ethanol plants; its mission is to promote the development of the industry (Toasa 2009).

  4. 4.

    Procaña groups small scale sugarcane producers and its goal is to advise them in signing contracts to sell cane and in obtaining loans (Toasa 2009).

  5. 5.

    “Those rights can be related either to legal ownership or lease of the land or to customary rights” (Bonsucro 2013).

  6. 6.

    Validating whether land is being used legally and is not legitimately contested by local communities is beyond the bounds of this paper.

  7. 7.

    In addition, the EU Renewable Energy Directive requirement to reduce carbon emissions encourages producers to target areas with low carbon stock densities (German et al. 2011).

  8. 8.

    This is probably because unlike direct land use change “which is attributable to the biofuel producer, the outcomes associated with indirect land use change … cannot be linked to a specific set of actors” (Bailis and Baka 2011).

  9. 9.

    In interviews, Asocaña representatives stated that they no longer use herbicides.

  10. 10.

    The other Bonsucro principles which relate specifically to environmental issues are “Principle 3: Manage input, production and processing efficiencies to enhance sustainability,” which includes monitoring global warming emissions to minimize climate change impacts; and “Principle 4: Actively manage biodiversity and ecosystem services,” which focuses on impacts of sugarcane on biodiversity and ecosystems services (Bonsucro 2013).

  11. 11.

    The standard set is 20 kg of water per kg of sugar in the sugar mill, and for ethanol, 30 kg per kg of ethanol and for agriculture <130 kg per kg of cane (Bonsucro 2013).

  12. 12.

    At time of writing, we have not ascertained if Asocaña’s appeal was successful.

  13. 13.

    The pertinent local regulations are Decree 1541/78 and Agreement 042/2010.



This article is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation Grants OISE-PIRE 1243444: Sustainability, Ecosystem Services, and Bioenergy Development across the Americas and CBET-1140152 RCN-SEES: A Research Coordination Network on Pan American Biofuels and Bioenergy Sustainability. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. The authors would like to express their appreciation to all those who kindly agreed to participate in this research project. We also want to thank Laura Silva-Castenada, Michel Köhne, and the special issue editors for their most helpful comments on earlier versions of this article.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Environmental StudiesState University of New YorkSyracuseUSA
  2. 2.Department of SociologyIowa State UniversityAmesUSA

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