A sugar cane cutter seen at work on a plantation near Florida, Valle del Cauca, Colombia. A sugar cane cutter seen at work on a plantation near Florida, Valle del Cauca, Colombia.
A sugar cane cutter works with a machete in a field near Florida, Valle del Cauca, Colombia. A sugar cane cutter works with a machete in a field near Florida, Valle del Cauca, Colombia.
A sugar cane cutter seen at work on a plantation near Florida, Valle del Cauca, Colombia. A sugar cane cutter seen at work on a plantation near Florida, Valle del Cauca, Colombia.
A sugar cane cutter holds his machete while working on a plantation near Florida, Valle del Cauca, Colombia. A sugar cane cutter holds his machete while working on a plantation near Florida, Valle del Cauca, Colombia.
A sugar cane cutter works on a plantation near Florida, Valle del Cauca, Colombia. A sugar cane cutter works on a plantation near Florida, Valle del Cauca, Colombia.
A sugar cane cutter eats breakfast before a shift in a field near Florida, Valle del Cauca, Colombia. A sugar cane cutter eats breakfast before a shift in a field near Florida, Valle del Cauca, Colombia.
A sugar cane cutter works in a field near Florida, Valle del Cauca, Colombia. A sugar cane cutter works in a field near Florida, Valle del Cauca, Colombia.
A sugar cane cutter sharpens his machete in a field near Florida, Valle del Cauca, Colombia. A sugar cane cutter sharpens his machete in a field near Florida, Valle del Cauca, Colombia.
A burning sugar cane field, causing air pollution, seen near Florida, Valle del Cauca, Colombia. A burning sugar cane field, causing air pollution, seen near Florida, Valle del Cauca, Colombia.
Sugar cane cutters sit on a bus while going to work on a plantation near Florida, Valle del Cauca, Colombia. Sugar cane cutters sit on a bus while going to work on a plantation near Florida, Valle del Cauca, Colombia.
A worker carries sugar cane stalks in a field near Florida, Valle del Cauca, Colombia. A worker carries sugar cane stalks in a field near Florida, Valle del Cauca, Colombia.
A sugar cane cutter seen in his house in Florida, Valle del Cauca, Colombia. A sugar cane cutter seen in his house in Florida, Valle del Cauca, Colombia.
A sugar cane cutter sharpens his machete on a plantation near Florida, Valle del Cauca, Colombia. A sugar cane cutter sharpens his machete on a plantation near Florida, Valle del Cauca, Colombia.
A sugar cane cutter seen at work in a field near Florida, Valle del Cauca, Colombia. A sugar cane cutter seen at work in a field near Florida, Valle del Cauca, Colombia.
A worker carries sugar cane stalks on a plantation near Florida, Valle del Cauca, Colombia. A worker carries sugar cane stalks on a plantation near Florida, Valle del Cauca, Colombia.
A worker cuts rotten stubs of sugar cane stalks on a harvested plantation near Florida, Valle del Cauca, Colombia. A worker cuts rotten stubs of sugar cane stalks on a harvested plantation near Florida, Valle del Cauca, Colombia.

Sugar cane cutters

Valle del Cauca, Colombia, 2012

Colombia has been growing sugar cane since the 16th century, forcing the African slaves to work on plantations because they were able to withstand the harsh working conditions. Nowadays, the Cauca River valley is the booming centre of agriculture and sugar cane cultivation. Although the main part of the crop is still refined into a sugar, the global demand of biofuel and ethanol has intensified the sugar cane production in the last years. However, the profits generated by the expanding sugar cane industry have not brought any major improvement of the working conditions nor living standards of the cutters and their families.

85 percent of Colombia's cane crop is still harvested the old-fashioned manual way, employing approximately 30,000 workers, mostly of Afro-Colombian origin. Working six days a week, large hours under a strong equatorial sun, breathing the ashes from the burned cane leaves, the sugar cane cutters earn $4 for every ton of cane they cut. Nearly all older cutters suffer chronic pain of musculoskeletal system caused by backbreaking labour. As the majority of the cutters are outsourced, working under intermediary contractors and cooperatives, they have no access to social benefits and they are often persecuted for organizing to defend their labor rights.

Photography by Jan Sochor
Music by Víctor Jara – “El arado”, Geografía (1966)