The Noorderlicht Foundation invited me to take part in The Sweet and Sour Story of Sugar, a group project analyzing globalization from the point of view of a single, though very familiar, commodity: sugar. I was asked to document labor conditions in the sugar industry both in The Netherlands and in the Northeast of Brazil, a former Dutch colony where sugar production was very lucrative.
A few months before, I had been to Brazil to work on a story about the production of bio-ethanol from sugar cane. In the state of Sao Paulo, I had witnessed a modern, sophisticated and technologically advanced industry, where all the steps leading up to the production of sugar and bio-ethanol were fully mechanized and energetically self-sufficient.
When Noorderlicht asked me to go to Brazil to investigate labor conditions of cane cutters in the Northeast of the country. The Northeast is a hilly land, where enterprise used to be reasonably backwards and poverty intensely widespread, I was ready to encounter a very different situation compared to the one I had witnessed in the agro-industrial paradise of Sao Paulo. Since harvesting has been mechanized only on flat-lands, a remarkable part of harvesting is still done manually in hilly Pernambuco, with a lower output rate than in the South as a consequence. Even though local entrepreneurs are investing in new harvesting technologies suitable for hilly grounds, cane cutters are still indispensable to the industry but, surprisingly, their conditions are slowly improving.
Until a few years ago, it was not uncommon to come across cane cutters working in slave-like conditions: men and women hired since their early youth with no contract, no protective gear, no health insurance, no fixed salary and no job security. I collected many an evidence of this recent past, but I have also noticed some surprising improvements. Brazil’s economic boom has particularly boosted the economy of the Northeast and made cheap manual labor not easily available. Cane cutters are now generally better paid and the federal government is looking after their labor conditions and rights. Competition with the South has also encouraged entrepreneurs to improve the production efficiency of their businesses, while fear of sanctions is urging them to respect the rights of their hired labor.