They toil beneath the burning sun in the expanse of sugarcane fields of the Valle de Cauca department. Protecting their faces from splinters and insects as their machetes slash through the thick undergrowth of the towering cane stalks, the ‘corteros’ are Colombia’s cane-cutters, men and women employed by the many sugar mills which dot the landscape, and an essential part of this lucrative industry.
From the plantations of the Caribbean to the eastern most plains of Brazil, ‘corteros’ work in teams creating tidy bundles which are then picked up by industrial harvesting equipment. On any given day, a cane cutter can collect up to four tons of matter.
Colombian photojournalist Sergio Bartelsman has been documenting the hard work of the cane cutters in the fields of Valle. His images are stark and journalistic. Faces of migrant workers, many of whom hail from the Pacific litoral, and small communities with names such as Guapi, Timbiqui, Puerto Tejada.
Sugar arrived in Colombia, when it was first planted in Santa María La Antigua del Darién in 1510. Although it was introduced to the Americas by Christopher Columbus on his second voyage in 1493, cane didn’t prosper. In 1501, more cane came from Africa and the island of Santo Domingo became populated with plantations, pirates and slave traders.
Today, Colombia ranks among the world’s leading sugar producing nations. The rainfall patterns near the Pacific Ocean is ideal for the crop to be harvested all year round. But given the hemmed-in topography of the Valle de Cauca, there’s not much room for expansion. Increasingly, the fibrous bagasse that remains after the stalks are crushed for sugar, are being burned to produce steam that drives turbines for electricity. Commercial facilities for converting sugarcane juice into fuel-grade ethanol are being built by several mills in the Cauca valley.
In as much as internal consumption of all-things sweet grows, the daily grind of the ‘corteros’ is both grueling and compelling. Workers often live precariously, hired according to the growth of a harvest, and sharing rooms with others, to make their wages go further.
Bartelsman’s portraits recall America’s cotton pickers working the fields of the infamous ‘Belt’ which extended across much of the southern United States. Although times have changed and large-scale farming techniques has translated into a better quality of life for many ‘corteros’, when it comes to bracing the elements and putting blade to grass, the challenge remains the same: it’s all about slashing cane.