issue 189 - November 1988
Sweetness and plight
Slavery on sugar plantations is a thing of the
past. Or is it? Peter Cox investigates.
'We suffered all kinds of punishment,' one witness told the Brazilian Justice Ministry. 'We were hit with rifle butts, kicked and punched. I tried to escape, so did my uncle. He was shot and killed by farm gunslingers1.'
The word is peonage - a vicious system of forced labour, common in many parts of Latin America, Asia and even in the southern US. A recruiter entices the poor and the homeless with promises of employment, good wages, food and shelter. Then they are trucked long distances to toil on remote plantations where they are held prisoner and compelled to work at gunpoint. The victims aren't paid cash - they receive notional 'credits', which are offset by extortionate charges for the tools they use and the hammocks they sleep in.
'Life for these people is worse now than it was under slavery,' says Wilson Furtado, of the agriculture federation in Bahia state, Brazil. 'Then the owners had some capital tied up in their slaves so it cost them if one died, but now they lose nothing.' No matter how hard the victims work - cutting sugar cane or felling trees - they can never break even. A loaded rifle keeps them in line, but it's debt that keeps them working.
This modern-day slavery also exists in the Dominican Republic where thousands of Haitians are bought or rounded up by the military to work in appalling conditions on sugar-cane plantations. Confronted by overwhelming evidence assembled by the International Labour Organization and the Anti-Slavery Society, the Dominican Republic Government defended itself thus:
'We consider that anti-slavery associations could (try) seeking fairer prices and access to the markets of the developed countries for the products on which the living and working conditions of millions of workers throughout the world depend. One of the worst forms of slavery today is practised by the developed countries when they keep down the prices of basic products by subsidizing and dumping products and so competing with those that are vital for the countries of the Third World.2'
The plight of non-Western nations whose economies are dependent on cash crops such as sugar, is identical to the position of the victims of peonage. Both are held to economic ransom by a system that ensures they can never free themselves of debt - no matter how hard they try. The more they produce, the more indebted they become. In 1981 the Dominican Republic earned $513 million from its sugar exports, yet by 1993 its income had dropped almost by half - to $263 million, despite increasing its production by 84,000 tonnes. This disastrous decline in income saw the Dominican Republic's debt swell from $600 million in 1973 to a staggering $2,400 million in l983 And not only sugar producers are crippled: plummeting prices for commodities in general have impoverished many Third World economies, leading to widespread starvation.
'At the height of the Ethiopian famine in 1985 Oxfam was alerted to the plight of several million people who faced starvation, on the sugar-producing island of Negros, in the Philippines', writes Oxfam worker Belinda Coote. 'Unlike the barren, drought-stricken images of Ethiopia during the famine, Negros, with its green fields fringed by tall coconut palms gives every appearance of being lush and fertile4.'
How could one of the richest islands of the Philippines become the setting for another Ethiopia, where an estimated 85,000 children under six were suffering from moderate or severe malnutrition? Well, partly because the corrupt Marcos regime mismanaged the industry. Also the US market for Philippine sugar disappeared (being replaced by corn syrup), throwing a quarter of a million sugar workers out of their jobs. And the land - rich and fertile - was exclusively used for sugar cane which prevented self-sufficiency in food production. A disaster was waiting to happen.
Like so many cash crops, sugar is not a genuinely useful product - it has no nutritional value and is of no benefit in times of hardship. Although there is no dietary requirement whatsoever for it (indeed, considerable scientific evidence shows that increasing sugar consumption correlates with greater risk of diabetes and several other common Western diseases5) it does possess one very special characteristic. It is addictive.
Like other primates, humans crave sweet things - the tip of our tongue is specially equipped with thousands of tiny taste buds which react strongly to sweetness. This feature usefully serves other primates, which consume considerable amounts of ripe fruit: rich in vitamins, minerals and fibre. Humans however, have learnt to isolate sugar from the rest of the plant. And the result is an effective biological addiction for many people - as any would-be dieter will confirm.
From the producers' point of view, the powerfully addictive quality of sugar became an important asset, resulting in an almost infinitely elastic demand. When first introduced into Europe in the 14th century, sugar was reverently referred to as 'white gold', and commanded a market price equal to that of silver. By the early 1 800s it had even become a staple food, with annual consumption running at about 10 kilos per person in Britain. But today, Western consumption has peaked at about 50 kilos per person annually6, and worldwide over-production has brought acute problems to producer nations.
For centuries European colonies grew sugar to satisfy the Northern market: Europe was a major purchaser of sugar on the world market until 1975. Now it is one of the largest exporters in the world - exports jumped by 514 per cent in the decade between 1975 and 1985~. How could this happen? Basically through agricultural subsidies. Last year, sugar was traded on the world market at five cents a pound. Yet within the European Community, farmers received 18 cents a pound to produce it!5 No wonder Third World sugar producers feel discriminated against. In fact the US Agriculture Undersecretary believes that European sugar policies cost less-developed nations about two-billion-dollars a year in lost export earnings9.
Why don't producer nations simply switch crops and either become more self-sufficient in food, or produce a different cash crop? This course of action is difficult for a number of reasons. Firstly, many countries have management arrangements with Western corporations whose main concern is making a profit. They are not concerned with particular local food requirements and they usually control the most fertile land for cash cropping. Also, a Third World country which depends on an export crop for foreign exchange simply cannot change crops in times of recession - it takes several years and many dollars to restructure an industry and to plant new crops. In fact in times of recession, sugar producers tend to produce more sugar, in the hope of earning more currency. This of course, simply depresses world prices further, making matters worse for them.
Just as the colonial nations developed sugar from beet when they were threatened with disruptions to their cane sugar supply in the 19th century, so modern chemistry is developing sweeteners in the laboratory that rely even less upon raw materials. Corn syrup (isoglucose) can be made from milling maize or wheat - and is presently threatening both cane and beet producers. Other sugar substitutes like saccharin, cyclamate and aspartame, are all targetted at dieters, combining a sweet taste with no calories (although each one of them has faced questions concerning safety). As more and more economically attractive sources of sweetness are developed, so the importance of the Third World producers declines, as does their ability to command fair prices on the world market. Like an overworked slave, their usefulness has been exhausted. Only the debt remains.
Peter Cox specializes in writing about food and is currently co-writing a book with Linda McCartney.
1 UPI Database, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil 8 May 1988.
2 ILO Governing Body, 1983 (our italics).
3 Sugar and Modern Slavery, by Roger Plant, Zed Books.
4 The Hunger Crop, Belinda Coote, Oxfam.
5 See for example Pure White and Deadly, by Prof. John Yudkin, Penguin Books.
6 The Hunger Crop, Belinda Coote, Oxfam.
7 The Washington Post, 13 July 1986 Farm Subsidies Have Global Impact.
8 World Bank figures.
9 The Washington Post, 13 July 1986 Farm Subsidies Have Global Impact.