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Bolivia: sugarcane production in Santa Cruz


10 / 2007

The information presented in this text have been obtained from research done in the state of Santa Cruz, Bolivia. The subjects of this study were children and adolescents between the ages of 9 and 18 years old.

Bolivia has lands totaling 1,098,581 km2, and a population of close to 9 million people. There are nine departments in the country: one of them is Santa Cruz, which is composed of 370 thousand km2 of land and more than 2 million inhabitants. The population younger than 18 years old is close to 3 million, of which one million live in the department of Santa Cruz.

Cultivation, production and consumption

Industrial sugarcane activity began in Bolivia in 1941, when in the department of Santa Cruz close to 3,000 hectares of sugarcane fields were cultivated. In addition to local production, sugarcane was also imported. In the 1960s, Bolivia became self-sufficient in its supply of sugarcane and an export period began. In the following decades, import only occurred in exceptional cases due to weather conditions or low prices on the international market.

Currently, sugarcane production in Santa Cruz is located in nine municipalities: Andrés Ibáñez, La Guardia, El Tomo, Cotoca, Warnes, Portachuelo, Montero, Mineros, and General Saavedra. This zone is comprised of close to 100 thousand hectares of cultivation. Throughout this extensive land, properties are classified as small (up to 20 hectares); medium (from 20 to 50 hectares); and large (more than 50 hectares). The small and medium properties represent 35% of total lands, and the large properties account for 65% of this area.

Santa Cruz contains four plantations for sugarcane production: San Aurélio, La Bélgica, Guabirá, and Unagro, which together produce more than one million tons of sugarcane per harvest.

Production of alcohol has always been for domestic use, pharmaceuticals, and for alcoholic beverages. In July 2005, the government approved a law which allowed fuel producers to add ethanol in a proportion of between 10% and 25% within five years. There is no official data regarding the quantity of ethanol currently produced in Santa Cruz.


The growth of the sugarcane industry has had repercussions in the use of harvest machinery. However, despite technological growth, the industry continues to require manual labor.

During the period between May and October, which corresponds to the harvest time in Santa Cruz, close to 30,000 people, generally organized in families, migrate to the region. In both direct and indirect ways, 7,000 children and adolescents younger than 18 years old participate in the work; 27% migrate on their own.

Half of the manual labor in Santa Cruz, and the remaining labor force in sugarcane production come principally from the states of Chuquisaca and Potosí. In this situation, radical changes in habitat represent the first challenge that migrants must face, since they migrate from zones of high altitude that are cold and dry. These families are unprepared for high temperatures, humidity, and extreme changes in climate that characterize tropical regions. Children are usually the most affected by these conditions.

While individuals and families become temporary migrants who seek to alleviate their extreme poverty, once the harvest period ends, many migrants do not return to their place of origin. They prefer to stay, offering their labor in other types of plantations, or looking for work in nearby urban communities, or in the city of Santa Cruz.

One effect of migration during and after the harvest— for those who stay— is culture shock, which is principally manifest in language and communication differences, as well as different lifestyle, such as dress and diet. Many migrants suffer discrimination, insults, and humiliation by the contractors, as well as other workers and local people.

Working and living conditions for children younger than 18 years old

While children younger than nine years old who migrate with their families are perhaps the most negatively affected during the harvest period, we will analyze only the group between nine and 18 years old who, in one way or another, participate in the harvest work. The statistics and analyses presented here are based on testimonies and field research.

The contract between workers and sugarcane producers is generally verbal, and is made with an adult (man or woman). Therefore, the labor of adolescents younger than 18 years old is hidden and unprotected, since they are not formally contracted. The bosses say that children work as “helpers.”

Younger children usually take responsibility for “housework” activities (cooking, washing, caring for infants, etc.), and their support in the harvest is principally in the storage of sugarcane. By and large, adolescents participate in the cutting of sugarcane. Their work schedule is up to 12 hours per day. Payment is received per ton of cut sugarcane. They spend money principally on food and clothing, leaving little to save. 25% of working children receive no payment at all.

The greatest risks children face—young boys as much as young girls— are cuts and snake bites. In particular, young girls are exposed to skin burns. Young boys expressed that the most negative aspect of harvest season is the hard work, and for young girls, cooking. Climactic conditions are also difficult, as well as the lack of sleep, filthy conditions, physical altercations, and leaving their homelands (they miss their families and the communities they belong to).

Medical attention is deficient, as only 9% declare having received care in the encampment in which they live during the harvest. Children and women especially suffer from a lack of healthcare. They do not receive any kind of social or company insurance. Children and adolescents live in precariously constructed encampments, together with other workers.


canne à sucre, agrocarburant, production agricole, conditions de travail

, Bolivie


Agroénergie : mythes et impacts en Amérique latine


This file « Agroenergy: Myths and Impacts in Latin America » is the result of a seminar about the expansion of sugar cane plantations in Latin America, which took place in São Paulo, Brazil, from February 26-28, 2007.

This file is also available in french, spanish and portuguese.


Gerardo Burgos Lino, Seminario Sobre la Industria de la Caña de Azúcar en América Latina, São Paulo- Brasil, del 26 al 28 de febrero de 2007.

Trabajo infantil en la zafra de la caña de azúcar: Una evaluación rápida. Burgos Lino Gerardoand others, ILO, 2002

Diario El Deber.

Instituto Nacional de Estadísticas.

Information from UNICEF.

Information from ILO.

Information from ABI (Agencia Boliviana de Noticias).

Personal interview with sugarcane producer.

Personal interview with adult harvester and young harvester.

Personal interview with departmental worker authority.

Proyecto nichos de mercado para el azúcar boliviana. Fundación Bosque Húmedo. 2005

El campamento cañero como escenario de encuentro intercultural, Fernando Rivero. Revista NUMERO UNO, mayo 2005

Documento institucional DNI-Bolivia. 2004

Comissão Pastoral da Terra - Rua Esperanto, 490 - Recife, BRASIL - Tel. / Fax: 55-81-3231-4445 - Brésil - - cptpe (@)

Rede Social de Justiça e Direitos Humanos - Rua Castro Alves, 945 - São Paulo, SP, BRAZIL - Tel.: 011 3271 1237/3275 4789 - Fax.: 011 3271 4878 - Brésil - - rede (@)

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