For centuries, cultivation of sugarcane has been associated with misery. Precious natural habitats in the New World were converted into endless seas of cane, communities with a deep sense of belonging to their land were brutally dispelled of it, slaves and indentured laborers suffered the harsh work conditions in the fields and factories, and were stripped of their human dignity.
Credit: Piet den Blanken
At the dawn of this century, much of this has changed. We now know how to grow and mill cane taking into account the interests of nature, surrounding communities and their workforce. Yet, at the same time there are still places where the past lingers on, and where the practices of the past persist. This should be cause for anger for anyone with a stake in this industry.
In his newest book, Alain de Botton notes that “Though anger seems a pessimistic response to a situation, it is at root a symptom of hope: the hope that the world can be better than it is.” So many farmers and millers demonstrate that this hope is based on solid evidence rather than unfounded optimism. Simply denouncing cane sugar and bio-ethanol in anger over malpractices does not do justice to these farmers, who lead the charge in improving their impact and who deliver real jobs and value to our society – including new products like bioplastics that make us less reliant on dwindling fossil reserves.
The question really is: how do we channel our anger and our hopes productively in order to realize the change that we want to see? I believe that it starts with the recognition that the most severe issues have no quick fix, and that they are the outcome of complex social arrangements that cannot be changed overnight. Social rearrangement requires actors to interact and formulate a new consensus that they feel comfortable with. This cannot be imposed - it has to emerge from the community of actors.
I believe that this is the fundamental reason that Bonsucro came into existence, now almost seven years ago. Bonsucro is committed to foster the sustainability of the sugarcane sector. Bonsucro has a broad and growing membership base, representing interests throughout the sugarcane supply chain with member organizations in 27 countries.
Bonsucro as a community provides the space for those actors who want to engage in a process of continuous improvement, and who understand that this cannot be achieved unilaterally. The process of formulating a consensus around the aspiration to fulfill the full social, environmental and economic potential of sugarcane is best symbolized by Bonsucro’s Production standard. This sets out the principles of better cultivation and milling, and since 2011 3,66% of land under cane has been certified against this standard. This is a huge achievement and holds great promise for the future.
Still, I believe the biggest value of Bonsucro lies in its ability to bring together stakeholders with widely varying knowledge bases, skill sets, and value systems. There is a huge need to put these assets to work so we can decrease the prevalence of child labor, incident rates, water stress and conflict situations as well as to drive positive innovation and celebrate moral leadership.
This can be done – as history has proven. Together, we can change the world with sugarcane.
Sven Sielhorst is the international manager for the sugarcane programme at Solidaridad. Solidaridad, along with The Coca-Cola Company, is one of the founding members of Bonsucro. Sven is also on the Board of Directors of Bonsucro. Cane sugar is a priority ingredient for Coca-Cola in our 2020 Sustainable Agriculture commitments.