Machete or Machine?

Originally published June 6, 2016.

The valley of the Cauca river in south-western Colombia is full of impressive views. It is in the cradle of two imposing ridges of the Andes mountains; dotted with bamboo groves and giant saman trees, the overwhelming feature are the endless sugarcane fields that stretch from the southern most point climbing up into the foothills, all the way to the northern tip.

THE SUGAR CANE CUTTERS

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Green sugar cane grows throughout the valley of the Cauca River.

Traditionally, when the sugarcane reaches maturity is set on fire to burn away the leaves, whose cerrated edges can cut skin, and to kill of any pests that have infested the crop. After the burn, the stalks of cane need to be harvested. Enter the sugar cane cutter, who armed with a large machete, called a katana or bamba in Colombian Spanish, is assigned a plot to clear and leave the cane prepared for later processing.

It’s a difficult job: early rising to get to the fields as soon after the sun comes up as possible. A massive breakfast and lunch to keep the energy levels up, constant hydration beneath the equatorial sun, and hack, cut the cane, hack hack, cut the tip and size it, toss to one side for collection. What’s more is the days are all the same: enter the burned out field, hack, bend, hack hack, toss. They never plant the cane, or watch it grow. Their job is to get it off the ground and into a truck.

They are long hours of physical labor, but according to Aldemar, a veteran with 27 years in the sugar cane industry, a diligent worker can make between two and three times the minimum wage for Colombia. For a population that has very low levels of education, and is often times migrant, this salary means the possibility to keep their children in school, and with some discipline, possibly buy a house.

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Photos by Satomi Yabe

THE MACHINES

In US folklore, there is a character named John Henry. He was a worker building the railroads, and his job was to drive the spikes that attached the rails to the ties. The story goes that when they brought in a steam drill, a machine that did the same job as John Henry, the two competed, and John Henry beat it until his heart exploded from over-exertion. Not exactly a story of hope and beauty, but person vs machine is rarely beautiful. Enter the sugarcane harvester.

Cane cutting is obviously labor intensive. The sugarcane harvester makes it much less so. These machines can do the work of 120 men. They can work 24 hours a day. They don’t require that the cane be burned before cutting – something that is important for the sugar mills since the issue of atmospheric pollution has become important.

The process of industrializing the sugarcane industry in Colombia has been slow. Often people do jobs here that machines would do in a more efficient, cheaper way, because there are simply so many people who need work. It is almost like a sense of social responsibility on the part of the businesses to keep people employed despite the inefficiency, and the sugar mills were no different.

WHAT HAS CHANGED?

It is difficult to pinpoint any one factor that has caused the great decline in sugarcane cutters. Aldemar pointed out, “There aren’t any cane cutters who have only been working for five years. The sugar mills simply aren’t hiring new cutters.”

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The Cauca River Valley is primarily fields of sugar cane dotted with trees and bamboo groves.

Hildefonso Rincón, from the Center for Intercultural Studies in the Javeriana University, explained that there are 5 main strategies that the sugar mills have employed to cut back the number of cane cutters. “First, they have tried to return the migrant cutters to their place of origin, which is the Pacific coast of Colombia. Second they have provided compensation to people who willingly give up their position to try to start a business or other activity. Third, they have moved cutters to other posts within the companies. Fourth, they promote cutters up the ladder to higher positions. Fifth, they wait for the cutter to retire, and they never replace him.”

None of these strategies are particularly aggressive on the part of the sugar mills, and seem to indicate a respect for the population that currently earns its living from this livelihood. What is clear is that the land use dedicated to growing sugarcane is increasing, and the number of cane cutters is clearly decreasing. According to Claudia Calero, the director of Environmental Management for the Association of Sugarcane Growers (ASOCAÑA), there are a total of 205,000 hectares (2,050 square kilometers or 791 square miles) that are dedicated solely to sugar cane production in this region. Needless to say, harvesting is a major ordeal.

Calero also made the point that the sugar mills are reaching the point at which they cannot use more machines to harvest the sugar cane. There are three limiting factors that necessitate the existence of machete swinging cane cutters: a machine cannot be used on land that is sloping to a certain degree; they cannot be used in properties whose soil is too soft as they compact it and make the cultivation impossible; if there are too many rocks in the field, a machine cannot be employed for the harvest as it will end up being damaged. “At the moment, the land that has been adapted for the use of sugar cane harvesters is 50%, and currently we use machines to harvest in 42% of the area.”

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One of the sugar mills where the cane ends up, regardless of whether is was harvested by machete or machine.

Is it wrong for an industry to replace people with machines? Evidently not, since technology has benefited production processes for centuries. Is it wrong to phase out a job that is back-breaking and hazardous? Obviously not. The question is, will the sugar mills continue to respect the rights of the men and women who work as cane cutters, and will there be new opportunities for the communities in this region that have depended on this source of labor for decades? As this job slowly declines into non-existence, it can only be hoped that the answer to both of those questions is yes.

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