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Nicaragua & Bonsucro Setting examples in sustainable sugarcane

Nicaragua, set in the heart of Central America, is a lush, tropical country, with rich volcanic soil that is well suited to agriculture. The country predominantly exports sugar, molasses, and rum to the USA, Canada, and the EU. Within the manufacturing of these exported products there are sustainability challenges and opportunities that the industry is proactively addressing. Bonsucro provides access to key networks and tools that its producer members in Nicaragua have been using to improve their sustainability performance. The following details some of the key challenges, as well as how the industry is working with stakeholders to improve.

Nicaragua is nation that has a 500 year history of sugarcane cultivation. Sugar exports started at the end of the 18th century, and the first modern sugarcane mill to be established was San Antonio in 1892, followed by Monte Rosa mill in 1948.

Today Nicaragua cultivates more than 70,000 hectares of sugarcane, which is produced by more than 800 sugarcane growers and four sugarcane mills:

  • San Antonio (part of the Pellas Group)
  • Ingenio Monte Rosa (part of the Pantaléon Group)
  • Casur (part of the Mayaguez group), and
  • Montelimar.

The four mills are all located near to the Pacific Coast. Together, they comprise the Comite Nacional de Productores de Azúcar Nicaragua (CNPA) - the Nicaraguan Sugar Producers' Association.

Around half of the land under sugarcane in Nicaragua is owned and operated by the mills, and the other half by independent producers who sell their cane to the mills for crushing. The CNPA's figures state that in 2005 there were 650 independent sugarcane producers.

According to the CNPA, in the 2016-2017 harvest, sugar production reached approximately 708,000 MT and around 645 GWh of energy were generated, 60% of the total sugar production was exported and 40% is consumed locally by the industry and final consumer. The CNPA states that Nicaragua's sugarcane industry is a source of more than 35,200 direct jobs and more than 135,000 indirect jobs. According to the CNPA, the Nicaraguan sugar industry is highly competitive due to "its good agronomic practices, its lands, its climate and its industrial yields".

"The Nicaraguan sugar industry has as an objective that by 2018, 100% of Nicaraguan sugar mills will be Bonsucro certified, being convinced that this is the best way to competitively differentiate in international markets." - Mario Amador, General Manager, CNPA

Within the manufacturing of its exported sugarcane-derived products there are sustainability challenges and opportunities that the industry is proactively addressing. Bonsucro provides access to key networks and tools that its producer members in Nicaragua have been using to improve their sustainability performance.

Sustainability Challenges

Chronic Kidney Disease of an Unknown Origin (CKDu)

Cane cutter in fields near Chichigalpa. Photo: Joe Woodruff / Bonsucro

Chronic kidney disease of an unknown origin (CKDu) presents an important sustainability risk in the international sugarcane sector. In Mesoamerica this fatal disease predominantly affects agricultural workers in sugarcane producing communities. It is unique compared to traditional kidney failure, which is caused by high blood pressure or diabetes, as it is unclear what causes CKDu. The disease affects usually working age men from differing age groups and usually from poor agricultural communities. While research into the causes of CKDu is ongoing, it is currently thought to be the result of heat stress and dehydration due to excessive workload that causes a gradual loss of kidney function. Other aspects such as environmental toxins are also being investigated.

Sugarcane in Nicaragua. Photo: Joe Woodruff / Bonsucro

The non-profit La Isla Network, is a Bonsucro member that investigates the causes of chronic kidney disease within agricultural communities. They estimate that in the last decade, at least 20,000 people have died from the disease in Central America alone. Using their extensive research, La Isla, together with governments and sugar companies, develops interventions to address the risk factors associated with CKDu and evaluates the efficacy of those interventions.

What the Bonsucro Production Standard says: Operators are required to provide a safe and healthy working environment in work place operations, which applies to both mill and farm premises. They must assess the main health and safety risks and ensure measures for mitigation of risk are implemented in a management plant. This includes risks such as:

  • Intense or sustained physical and mental efforts, work-related stress and inadequate working postures;
  • Extreme temperatures;
  • Solar ultraviolet radiation

The Standard specifies that all workers present on the field and/or mill must have access to drinking water in sufficient quantity. This applies to all mill and farms workers included in the unit of certification, irrespective of their contractual status. The drinking water provided must comply with the microbiological, physical and chemical parameters and other characteristics established in applicable country legislation or in their absence, by critical parameters defined by the World Health Organization.

Effects of Cane Burning on Respiratory Health & GHG Emissions

Cane after burning. Photo: Joe Woodruff / Bonsucro

Prior to harvesting sugarcane, the crop is often burnt to remove the 'trash' from the field - the dry and green leaves, straw and tops of the sugarcane. Burning the field can make it easier to harvest sugarcane by hand and to control pests. This does however, create air pollution due to the organic and particulate matter released into the air. Some communities in Nicaraguan sugar regions have reported that the air quality is adversely affected by the smoke and ash from burning, which in turn creates respiratory health problems. Cane burning can also increase greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions into the atmosphere.

What the Bonsucro Production Standard says: Under the Standard, potential public health risks from sugarcane burning must also be assessed and addressed through a management plan.

The environmental effects of cane burning also falls under Principle 4 of the Standard. Operators must create an Environmental Impact & Management Plan (EIMP), aimed at identifying the impact of activities on the environment and to propose and manage a set of actions aimed at mitigating the negative impacts and managing natural resources. The consequences of cane burning, such as fallout from fire or dust, must be assessed and addressed as part of an EIMP, along with nine other key environmental issue.

Through Bonsucro Connect, operators must calculate the net GHG emissions per tonne of cane, calculated from a variety of sources, such as fertiliser use, land use change, and sugarcane burning. The Standard sets a limit of <40kg CO2 eq/t cane.

Working Hours

Photo: Joe Woodruff / Bonsucro

The length of working shifts is a sustainability concern in the Nicaraguan sugar sector. The Nicaraguan labour code stipulates that working hours should not exceed 48 hours per week, however labourers frequently work for long hours with few rest breaks, and for 7 days per week. One source of this is the payment system for cane cutters, which might pay per tonne of cane cut. These systems of payment often create an incentive to stay in the field longer.

What the Bonsucro Production Standard says: The Production Standard sets a maximum number of hours worked (normal and overtime). If there is no legal requirement framing the maximum numbers of hours worked, the total number of working hours must not exceed 60 hours per week. Operators are required to keep records of number of hours worked and ensure that any overtime is voluntary.

One of the stated objectives of the Standard is to ensure that employees (including migrant, seasonal and other contract labour) are provided with at least the applicable minimum legal wage. Workers paid at piece-rate shall receive the required minimum wage within working the number of normal legal hours of work.

Water contamination

Pesticide spraying. Photo: Joe Woodruff / Bonsucro

Nicaragua's sugar producing region has had reported issues with contaminated local water supplies resulting from sugarcane production and the use of agrochemicals. The proximity of the mills and farms to the ocean also leads to concerns over agricultural run-off and chemicals from the milling process entering the sea.

What the Bonsucro Production Standard says: The amount of agrochemicals (including pesticides, herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, nematicides, and ripeners) applied to the land are limited by the Standard, with one of the aims being to minimise air, soil and water contamination. The effect of sugarcane production and processing on water must also be assessed and addressed in an EIMP.

On top of this Bonsucro has issued a list of banned agrochemicals that operators can use in the production of cane. This is to protect workers' health and the environment from the most harmful substances. To facilitate compliance with the Standard, Bonsucro has joined the IPM Coalition to provide easily-accessible information on agrochemicals and their alternatives.

Manual cane cutting in the fields at SER San Antonio. Photos: Joe Woodruff/Bonsucro

Continuous Improvement: SER San Antonio - The first certified mill in Nicaragua

San Antonio Mill in Chichigalpa. Photo: SER San Antonio

SER San Antonio is Nicaragua's oldest modern sugarcane mill. It is found in Chichigalpa, Chinandega, 30km from Puerto de Corinto on the Pacific coast, and 120km northwest of the Nicaraguan capital - Managua. The mill is operated by Nicaragua Sugar Estates Limited (NSEL), part of Grupo Pellas, whose corporate offices are in Managua. SER San Antonio produces three types of sugar - standard, crude and refined. The mill can produce ethanol from sugarcane but is not currently doing so. Flor de Caña, the premium rum, is produced by a plant adjacent to the mill by a sister company to NSEL.

San Antonio operates 17,000 hectares of owned or rented cane farms. An additional 6,000 hectares is owned by third parties who supply cane to the mill. In 2016 about 20% of the harvesting was carried out by manual cane cutters, the remainder of the harvest is mechanised.

Drinking water supplied to cane cutters at in the fields near SER San Antonio. Photo: Joe Woodruff / Bonsucro

The mill has a cogeneration plant with an installed generation capacity of 79.3 MW comprised of four turbogenerators and three medium pressure boilers. These use sugarcane bagasse as fuel in the harvest season and eucalyptus chips out of season. The plant produces clean energy, which is used for production processes, both in the form of steam and electrical energy to help power Nicaragua with a low carbon footprint.

In 2016 SER San Antonio became the first sugarcane mill in Nicaragua to achieve Bonsucro certification. According to Carlos Pellas, Chairman of the SER Holding Co, owner of Nicaragua Sugar Estates, the decision to pursue Bonsucro certification was a natural choice for the company, which has continuously aimed to be forerunners of innovation and efficiency. He explains that "In its 125 years of operations as a leading company in Central America, NSEL has always had the culture and commitment to implement best practices and available technologies in the sugar industry, and has always been committed to the development of the social, economic and environmental sustainability of its region of influence. Notwithstanding, we wanted to have an external sustainability assessment of our production system."

SER San Antonio mobile clinic in the sugarcane fields. Photo: Joe Woodruff / Bonsucro

Cross-functional collaboration across the business enabled the company to rally to achieve certification: "The involvement of the internal organisation of the company in all its different areas was very important", said Noel Sacasa, Agroindustrial Director. "We would especially like to thank Mr. Carlos Pellas, who in a continuous way motivates us to improve our processes, particularly in the area of sustainability, social responsibility and innovation."

San Antonio used tools such as the Bonsucro Calculator and the Production Standard to improve the performance of the mill and its supplying farms.

“The Bonsucro Calculator gave us a methodology based on a metric system that facilitates a measurable and manageable way to obtain continuous improvements and the sustainable development of the company.” - Gustavo Robleto, Agricultural Researcher, SER San Antonio
Cane cutters and support workers in the fields surrounding San Antonio mill. Photo: Joe Woodruff/Bonsucro

Bonsucro certification forms part of NSEL's organisation-wide drive to examine business processes and find ways to improve: "This certification represents an ongoing challenge for the organisation as a whole. In this case, all of our business areas have been certified, as a way to ensure systematic processes of continuous improvement throughout the company" explains Alvaro Bermudez, Administrative Director.

SER San Antonio sugarcane cutters during a rest period. Photo: Joe Woodruff / Bonsucro

NSEL and Ingenio San Antonio have indicated that they are not only committed to continuous improvement, but to demonstrate leadership for others to follow. The Executive Director, Ricardo Barrios, stated that the group "would like to maintain the standards obtained through Bonsucro certification and to find new ways to improve them. [They] would like to share experiences and examples of best practices with other organisations in order to strengthen the continuous improvement of our company and the sugar industry."

Ingenio Monte Rosa

Pantaleon's Monte Rosa mill. Photo: Joe Woodruff / Bonsucro

Monte Rosa, located near to Chinandega, obtained Bonsucro certification in January 2018. It was the second mill in Nicaragua to do so. The mill has been owned by Grupo Pantaléon, a Guatemala-based group, since 1998.

Mechanised sugarcane planting in fields near Monte Rosa mill. Photo: Joe Woodruff / Bonsucro

Ernesto López, Head of Business Management at Monte Rosa, explains that pursuing Bonsucro certification was a natural progression: "For several years Monte Rosa has been promoting the management of the different sustainability components, which is why certifying with the Bonsucro was a natural process that allows us to demonstrate that our products meet standards requested by our customers".

Control systems in Monte Rosa mill. Photo: Joe Woodruff / Bonsucro
PPE equipment in use in the fields near Monte Rosa mill. Photo: Joe Woodruff / Bonsucro

VIdeo: Interview with Monte Rosa staff:

The Bonsucro Calculator, the tool used to assess compliance with the Bonsucro Production Standard, is a key benefit for mills working on improving their practices. "The management of the Bonsucro Calculator indicators implied a paradigm shift in our working teams, given that this type of mechanism/tool does not exist in other sustainability management systems", says Ernesto. "This was addressed through an induction to all our working teams that emphasised the importance of adequate monitoring of the indicators."

Edgar Montano, Head of Mechanical Harvesting for Monte Rosa, explained the work that the mill and its harvest team have been making in order to achieve Bonsucro certification. "Monte Rosa has been developing different strategies, some changes to our work, and some fundamental conditions to our employees in accordance with the Bonsucro certification." As part of their drive to improve conditions for harvest workers, the mill installed mobile cabins to provide workers with rest areas that is out of the intense sun. "This place, for example, is evidence of these changes that we have made in the organisation in order to provide better working conditions for the field workers and to recreate a suitable and pleasant environment during the time in which they are working in the fields."

One of the trucks transported to the harvest 'front' to provided water and other supplies to the field workers. Photo: Joe Woodruff / Bonsucro

The mill has not just focused on improving the availability of equipment, but worked on the human resource aspect as well. "One of the most important investments the firm has made this year was to create a new working team," said Edgar. "We added 52 people to the process in order to have more shifts, which allowed the staff to rest for more time compared to before."

Monte Rosa mill workers demonstrating irrigation management metrics. Photo: Joe Woodruff / Bonsucro

The mill have seen performance gains through focusing on improving efficiencies during the harvest: "We have been developing several changes and improvements in the [harvest] process, which allowed us to have greater efficiency in the mechanised cut," explains Edgar. "That efficiency improvement has allowed us to increase the efficiency of our harvesters and reduce the amount of harvesters in operation. What does this mean? It means that we are reducing the amount of CO2 emitted into the atmosphere and harvesting more cane at the same time with fewer harvesters."

Tackling CKDu through collaboration: The Adelante Initiative

Cane cutter at San Antonio. Photo: Joe Woodruff / Bonsucro

Bonsucro, as a multi-stakeholder platform, is in a uniquely position to convene a variety of actors to collaborate on specific issues related to sustainable sugarcane.

In August 2017, at San Antonio a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was signed between four organisations, Bonsucro, La Isla Network, SER San Antonio, and the CNPA. The MOU agreed to set up a new initiative – Adelante – which aims to examine and improve work practices within the country’s sugarcane industry and ensure those learnings are applied regionally and internationally in the sugarcane sector and beyond.

“The Adelante Initiative provides a platform to evaluate work practices and improve them with the best possible data. We will provide those learnings in a pre-competitive space via Bonsucro and other means so that all stakeholders may benefit regionally and globally. Our hope is we can support, and be supported by, all end users looking to ensure their sugarcane is sourced responsibly in line with their 2020 procurement goals and help to continuously improve the Bonsucro Standard.” - Jason Glaser, CEO of La Isla Network, Diane Stevenson, Chair, Bonsucro Members’ Council, and Erin Logan, Chair, Change Accelerator Group

In 2018-2020, the initiative aims to:

  • Create effective interventions that protect other workers at-risk in sugar industry such as irrigators.
  • Create effective interventions for other industries impacted by CKDu
  • Ensure scalability and understanding of logistical challenges and solutions
  • Continually improve the assessment of exposures
  • Work with development banks to assess working conditions and community relations for loan recipients and create solutions for gaps so that loans are given with greater confidence.
  • Ensure that learnings are incorporated into certifications and other standards used throughout affected supply chains.
  • Provide insights into the organizational management structures and systems that facilitate change on the ground.

Video: Improving Cane Cutting at San Antonio

As part of the work to improve the conditions for field workers, cane cutters are being provided with safe, more ergonomic equipment, as Jason Glaser from La Isla Network demonstrates in this video:

Want to know more?

If you are interested in knowing more about sustainable sugarcane in Nicaragua, the organisations in this article, or Bonsucro more generally, get in touch:

All images: © Joe Woodruff / Bonsucro

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