DINOSAR and its field study in Colombia

Posted on June 24, 2024

The sugar cane industry in numbers

The sugar industry in Colombia (IAC) is concentrated in the western region of the country, in an inter-Andean valley located at an altitude of 1.000 meters above sea level. It covers an area of 244,000 hectares, with 2.750 sugarcane growers and 12 sugar mills. It has 6 distilleries to produce bioethanol, 15 cogeneration plants, and a globally recognized research center. In 2023, it provided employment for 286,000 people, achieved a production of 428 million liters of bioethanol, generated 1,607.812 MWh, produced 2.2 million tons of sugar, and 6.4 million tons of bagasse destined for cogeneration and paper production.

The IAC has a tradition of over 100 years during which it has established itself as one of the country’s main productive clusters where all the necessary factors for the formation of an agricultural cluster come together: crops, factories, marketing organizations, sugar processing industries, metal-mechanical industry that supports and meets the region’s needs, a research center, and universities that train technicians in various disciplines demanded by the sugar industry. This cluster represents 2.5% of Colombia’s agricultural GDP and 0.6% of the total.

Overview of the impacts of the IAC on the territory

Throughout its long evolutionary history, the IAC has been characterized by generating development and well-being in the different subregions where it is located; this has allowed the direct and indirect influence zones (regions within the same geographical area but not cultivating sugarcane) to have a superior social and economic development compared to other agricultural regions in Colombia.

In collaboration with the environmental authority of the region (CVC), for over 30 years, adjustments have been made to both crop management and factory processes to achieve a more environmentally friendly production process. All factories have strict controls for air emissions, effluent control, and low water consumption in the manufacturing processes. Similarly, field practices focus on soil and water conservation. Improvements are being made for the efficient use of irrigation water, increasing the cultivation area using highly efficient water application systems each year; this has led to a reduction in water consumption by over 1.000 m3 per irrigation event. Additionally, there is ongoing support for the conservation of the watersheds that supply water to the IAC.

The management of agro-industrial production has been refined under the concepts of circular economy, aiming to achieve zero waste. Mills with distilleries efficiently use vinasse by composting it with filter cake to later apply it to the fields, maintaining soil fertility and reducing the use of chemical fertilizers. Those without distilleries apply filter cake to the soil to return the nutrients removed from the fields. For several years, the use of burning for sugarcane harvesting has been restricted, and currently, between 70-80% is harvested green, facilitated by the increase in mechanical harvesting; over 70% of sugarcane is harvested by machines. This significant evolution has allowed a large amount of organic residues to be left in the fields, which, after decomposition, contribute to soil conservation and fertility recovery.

Using DINOSAR algorithm to better understand the crops’ needs

Considering the geographical location of the IAC, being in a tropical zone, the environmental conditions are highly conducive to sugarcane growth; throughout the year, temperatures, radiation, and humidity, combined with soil fertility, allow for a high biomass accumulation during the crop cycle. This condition makes the IAC have the highest productivity of both millable cane and sugar per hectare in the world. Expanding the scope of characterizing the IAC’s productivity concludes that this region has the highest biomass accumulation rate, highlighting the strategic importance of measuring it accurately. Current optical satellite monitoring methods based on vegetation indices are limited in quantifying crop growth, especially in a high-cloud cover area that does not provide continuous and quality information. The combination of information from optical and radar satellites is a suitable alternative to measure crop biomass behavior. The biomass accumulation under the IAC’s influence reaches up to 65 tons of dry matter over a 12-month crop cycle, equivalent to over 200 tons per hectare in fresh material. Of this material, between 30 and 50 tons are residues deposited in the soil with a high carbon content, leading to a high CO2 fixation rate.

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