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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.

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Fig. 1


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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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


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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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Selfa, T., Bain, C. & Moreno, R. Depoliticizing land and water “grabs” in Colombia: the limits of Bonsucro certification for enhancing sustainable biofuel practices. Agric Hum Values 31, 455–468 (2014).

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  • Multi-stakeholder initiatives
  • Land grabs
  • Bonsucro
  • Certification