Bitter, Bitter Sweet
issue 225 - November 1991
Bitter, bitter sweet
Cane sugar was transplanted into South American soil from South-East Asia,
and people were uprooted from Africa to tend it. Slavery may have ended but,
as Manuel José Santana tells Alex Shankland in Brazil, sugar-cane
workers remain among the most exploited people on this earth.
Manuel José Santana, known as ‘Neco’, is a brave man. Sitting bare-chested in the front of his house, he looks out over the small reservoir nearby and tells how he stood up to the pistoleiro (hired gun) sent by the boss to stop the estate workers fishing.
‘With our miserable wages, we have to fish to get enough to eat. So when the pistoleiro came and tried to confiscate the fishing rod from one of my kids, I really gave him a piece of my mind. I told him that the boss had no right to stop us, that it wasn’t him who made the reservoir, it was here before he ever arrived.’
Insisting on the right to fish may not sound like revolutionary subversion, but people have been killed for less on the sugar estates of Pernambuco in north-east Brazil.
In the streets of the nearby town, Vitória, and in the clusters of tied cottages on the estates, the faces are prematurely aged and the bodies permanently stooped under the weight of hunger and overwork. They bear witness to the power of an unjust system to create misery out of natural plenty – and all in the cause of satisfying the world’s craving for sweetness.
The sugar-cane area is known as the Zona da Mata after the great tropical forest, the Mata Atlântica, which once covered it. In the seventeenth century the first sugar barons started to clear the forest with the slave labour of the Tupi indians whose hunting-ground it had been. Deforestation continues today. The job is nearly complete; the cane fields now cover almost everything.
‘When I was a boy there was still a lot of forest,’ Neco remembers. He has lived and worked at Campo Alegre (‘Happy Field’) for 33 of his 45 years.
‘Now they’ve wiped it all out, covered it with cane, but in the forest there used to be a lot of game.’ He reels off names of animals that once boosted workers’ protein intake, and his eyes mist over as he remembers how delicious tatu (armadillo) used to taste.
‘Nowadays there aren’t even any fish in the rivers, but my father told me that when he was a young man he could catch enough fish in two weeks to pay off all his debts at the barracão’ (the estate store which sells basic goods at extortionate prices).
Today, even plump and tasty pilapes fish from the reservoir in front of Neco’s house are getting hard to come by; some time ago they began to turn up dead on the shore. The fact that a stream flowing into the reservoir was used to wash out barrels of herbicide may have something to do with it.
In the absence of fish, the family’s diet is simple and repetitious: farinha (the ubiquitous manioc or cassava flour) and charque, dried strips of meat of dubious origin – usually horsemeat. Many people here suffer from intestinal desiccation and haemorrhoids as a result of eating almost nothing but farinha. But the most common ‘disease’ of all among the plantation workers, responsible for 95 per cent of hospital admissions, is the one that should be easiest to cure in this fertile land – hunger.
Neco confirms this. ‘A worker I knew just dropped down in a dead faint. When they got him to hospital all they could find wrong was that he hadn’t eaten for days. But then what do you expect? My wages can only buy food to last us up to Thursday of each week, and there are families where come Wednesday there’s nothing left.’
He is better off than some, because the Campo Alegre estate – unlike many others – allows workers to plant their own crops. Neco has banana, orange, breadfruit, jackfruit and mango trees around his house, and about half a hectare of ground to plant manioc, from which he makes his own farinha.
Neco’s wages amount to 4,000 cruzeiros ($11) per week. If he goes by bus into Vitória in search of cheaper goods than those at the barracão (estate shop), he will spend 400 cruzeiros, a tenth of his salary, just on the fare. In the market in town, a kilo of the worst-quality charque is 800, the cheapest rice is 150 a kilo, beans are 350 a kilo… and he even has to fork out 125 cruzeiros for a kilo of sugar produced from the cane he has planted, tended and cut.
Brazilians, like Westerners, are notorious for their addiction to sugar. Neco’s eyes light up as he lists the sugary delights of the local cuisine. ‘Rapadura, cocada, bola…I really love sweet things – but then doesn’t everybody?’ He makes a face as he tries to imagine how anyone could possibly enjoy drinking coffee without sugar.
There is nothing sweet, however, about the raw cane spirit which looms large in the lives of the estate workers. Known variously as aguardente, pinga or cachaça, it is solace for exploited Brazilian workers from the sugar plantations of the north-east to the rubber forests of the Amazon to the building sites of São Paulo.
Neco himself says he no longer drinks aguardente, that he’s getting too old for it. ‘Ah, but when I used to drink, at Carnival time, then you’d see a bottle go down in four gulps!’ It is common for workers to drink a whole bottle on Saturday and another on Sunday. They buy it from the barracão, where a bottle costs 250 cruzeiros (70 cents).
Aguardente is almost the only escape for Campo Alegre workers. Their houses have no electricity, so they have no access to that other great Brazilian addiction, television. ‘At night, TV for me is listening to the frogs croaking in the reservoir,’ says Neco.
Nowadays, alcohol is the main product of the cane from Campo Alegre – aguardente for people and fuel alcohol (ethanol) for cars. The local sugar refinery, like many others, has been scaling down its output. The subsidies for ethanol production available under the Brazilian government’s alternative fuel programme are tempting, as is the chance to escape the vagaries of the sugar export market.
But it is not only what cane is processed into that is changing. The way it is grown is also being transformed – to the cost of Neco and his fellow workers. Through profligacy and corruption, and through the Government’s mishandling of the subsidy programme, refinery owners have sunk deep into debt. And although a federal bailout has been authorised by President Collor (who is from a north-eastern sugar-growing state, Alagoas), the owners are looking to cut costs. Despite the starvation wages paid on the estates, labour is now deemed too expensive and mechanization is under way.
Neco describes the cycle of work in the cane fields, which he learnt with his father but which will not be the same for his children. ‘First, you clear away the brush, then you take your hoe and dig out the holes for sowing. You cut the pieces of seed-cane, sow them, put down fertilizer and cover them with earth. Ninety days later you have to clear out the brush that has grown back, and after a year the cane’s ready for cutting.
‘You cut it with the sickle, stack up and tie the bundles and carry them to the truck that will take them to the refinery. Then you burn off the stubble. Without the fertilizer you get feeble cane and the most you’ll get out of it is three harvests. But if the cane’s treated well there’ll be much more. See the cane over on that hill?’ he says, pointing, ‘Well, that was planted in 1978. For 13 years it’s been harvested, and each time it’s grown back.’
At harvest time the estate workers are paid by the volume of work they do, rather than a fixed wage. It is now that they can boost their income – but it is here that mechanization has begun to make its impact.
‘Those machines that collect up the bundles of cane can do the work of a hundred men in a day,’ Neco says, shifting uneasily on his seat at the thought. ‘The cambiteiros – the men who used to load the bundles onto their donkeys and take them to the refinery – they have gone. So have the men who used to gather and tie up the bundles.’
September, harvest month, is traditionally the time when the estate workers strike for better pay. But the dwindling of jobs on the plantations has led to a growth in the numbers of people living on the fringes of the rural towns. Desperate for work, these people can be brought in by the bosses at piece-rates that amount to virtually nothing.
Many of these rootless seasonal workers, the bóias frias, are women who were thrown out of their plantation jobs after 1988 when Brazil’s new Constitution established rights such as paid maternity leave. Ironically this made them ‘too expensive’ in the eyes of the estate owners.
Reduced to piece-workers and accessories of men, the lot of the plantation’s women is not easy. They complain of constant abuse and violence. Neco himself is no exception to the machista rule; his two most recent wives left him after he beat them for alleged adultery.
Neco has seven children between the ages of 3 and 21. Teenage pregnancy is almost the rule. On the sugar estates children mostly have to take care of themselves. They become part of the workforce at an early age; often it is they who spray on the pesticides without the benefit of any protective equipment.
One of Neco’s sons has already left Campo Alegre in search of a job in town. Relatives have migrated to Recife or São Paulo, the industrial metropolis 2,000 kilometres to the South. Others will follow, though Neco himself plans to stay. ‘My father was born and died on the cane fields; his father before him planted cane too, but he had his own piece of land.’
Neco’s dream is to have what his grandfather had – a little land to call his own. ‘Then I wouldn’t be living as a hireling, working sickle in hand to produce more profit for the boss. I’d plant plantains, bananas and sweet potatoes. Oh yes, that would be better than going out with my hoe at dawn every day for six days to earn a salary that’s all gone by the time I’ve bought four things in the market.’
Neco’s father told him about slavery. ‘He said there was a time when people worked in exchange for food, when one boss could buy a good worker from another boss, which was wrong, because it’s animals that you can buy and sell – a worker has to be a free man.’
His father did not tell him, however, about the African ancestors who have left their mark in the classic ‘Brazilian mixture’ of Neco’s features. Little more than a century ago the docks at Recife were still witnessing the arrival of ships bringing slaves from Africa to work the sugar plantations.
‘Slavery hasn’t ended here in the cane fields. Earning this miserable salary, we’re condemned to the worst slavery of all – we are enslaved by hunger.’
Alex Shankland is a journalist and activist based in São Paulo. He would like to thank for their help: Rosemary Nery of FITPAS in Pernambuco; Peter Williams of Oxfam Recife; Severino and José Carlos; and Socorro of the Centro das Mulheres.
Samson, the lion and a swarm of bees
Why do Tate and Lyle syrup tins carry a picture of a lion with bees? Because bees mean honey. A biblical story in which Samson ate honey from bees nesting in a dead lion was used by the sugar firm to link their sugar-syrup with honey. For before cane sugar, honey was the world’s main sweetener.
But gathering honey – from wild bees – was a painstaking (and often painful) process. Regular bee-keeping was not common, except in some religious institutions where they made beeswax candles and sold honey. In Europe, this production fell in the sixteenth century after the Reformation and dissolution of the bee-keeping honey-producing monasteries.
Sugar cane from Southeast Asia spread to China, India and the Arab empire. When it reached Europe in the thirteenth century it already had a bitter history, with the first recorded sugar plantation revolt in the ninth century, among East African slaves on Arab plantations in Iraq.
This slavery was a taste of things to come. The Portuguese took sugar cane to north-east Brazil in the 1520s and led the way in transporting slaves from Africa to work the canefields.
At first, ‘white gold’ was an expensive luxury in Europe. Then came the new beverages of coffee, chocolate and tea which married happily with it and boosted the consumption of all of them. After 1700 as tea-drinking became increasingly popular, yet more sugar was stirred into cups, mugs and glasses. The temperance movement partly fuelled this rise as it attempted to combat the devastating effects of alcohol among poor people. In trying to obliterate one addictive substance it inadvertently substituted another.
With the 1870s development of jams, bread and jam with tea and sugar became staple fare for millions. This cheap ‘food’ kept labourers and their families alive and working, dulling hunger pangs but giving little nutrition.
Why is sugar so seductive? It seems humans have a natural desire for sweetness, in common with other mammals. Perhaps this evolved as a survival mechanism enabling us to distinguish the ripest fruits and berries.
Sugar (sucrose) is different from naturally occurring sweeteners. Glucose (from honey), lactose (from mammalian milk) and fructose (from fruit) still require some work by our digestive system before being absorbed.
Not so sucrose. It has already been ‘digested’ by the refining process, so it goes straight into the blood stream powering a surge of energy. The digestive system then switches off, failing to absorb essential foods. Consumption of sugar becomes ever more addictive because the addict’s blood sugar level rises and falls very rapidly, producing a feast-famine swing and a craving for more.
Today we mostly consume sugar as processed foods, soft drinks and alcohol. By the 1980s the UK was using 80 lbs per head each year and the US 126 lbs.