Christopher Columbus brought sugarcane to the Caribbean and the New World during his second voyage to the Americas.
The Portuguese introduced sugarcane to Brazil.
In colonial times, sugar formed one side of the triangle trade of New World raw materials. Sugar was shipped from the Caribbean to Europe or New England, where it was used to make rum. The profits from the sale of sugar were used to purchase manufactured goods, which were then shipped to West Africa, where they were bartered for slaves. The slaves were then brought back to the Caribbean to be sold to sugar planters. The profits from the sale of the slaves were then used to buy more sugar, which was shipped to Europe.
Sugar was referred to as “white gold”
The sugar plantations became a main basis for a vast network of forced population movement, supplying people to work under brutal coercion.
Slaves and children were working in the sugar plantations and mills, and were facing threat of boiling hot kettles, open furnaces and grinding rollers. Sugar houses operated night and day. Exploitation was the guiding principle and fatigue might mean losing an arm to the grinding rollers or being flayed for failing to keep up. Resistance was often met with sadistic cruelty.
One of the method used to punish the slaves was the following: slaves or children were placed into a hot sugar juice bath to make their skin softer and then they were whipped and lashed …. to increase the marks on their body.
I quote: After boiling him on the sugar juice, the overseer brought him out and whipped him so much that it took the young enslaved African another six months to recover from the wounds and scalding on his skin.
This method was so widely used that still until recently, grown adult males descendants of the original slaves punished their sons with this sadistic technique. Let me re-phrase this: one of my very good friends from Caribbean origin (and thus a descendant from African slaves) told me that he has a very good friend whose father used to be punished by his own father with the following technique: he was placed in a hot bath to make his skin softer, and was then lashed with a belt to increase the marks on his body. So the descendants of the slaves used those sadistic techniques to punish their own kids after the abolition of slavery.
Other means of punishment included:
- Mutilations: it was common for owners to order bodily mutilation. Sometimes, it involved cutting off an ear or slicing at the flesh. More severe examples included amputating limbs, gouging out eyes, cutting hamstrings, or even castrating both males and females.
- Branding: large companies often branded their slaves to make them easily identifiable and to prevent the theft and resale of slaves. Eventually, these brands were used as bodily evidence to refute claims from larger companies that the practice had never occurred.
- Smoked alive.
- Hogshead: nails were hammered into a hogshead (large barrel) and left the nail points protruding inside. His slaves were stuffed into these barrels and rolled down long, steep hills while the owner and other slaves watched.
- Suspended Beneath A Cooking Fire
- Public Burnings
- Long-Term Chaining
- Forced Reproduction and rapes
The passage of the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act led to the abolition of slavery through most of the British Empire, and many of the emancipated slaves no longer worked on sugarcane plantations when they had a choice.
The sugarcane industry used new methods to replace “slavery”, namely “indenture”, a long-established form of contract, which bound them to unfree labour for a fixed term. The conditions where the indentured servants worked were frequently abysmal, owing to a lack of care among the planters. Other techniques were also used such as “blackbirding” (workers were coerced or kidnapped into slavery).
Life expectancy on sugar plantations was lower than that on a cotton plantation and the most overworked and abused workers could drop dead after seven years.
Current Conditions for sugarcane workers
Brazil is the largest sugarcane producer in the world with 746,828,157 tonnes production per year.
Sugarcane is harvested by hand and mechanically. Hand harvesting accounts for more than half of production, and is dominant in the developing world. In hand harvesting, the field is first set on fire. The fire burns up dry leaves, and chases away or kills venomous snakes, without harming the stalks and roots. Harvesters then cut the cane just above ground-level using cane knives or machetes. A skilled harvester can cut 500 kg (1,100 lb) of sugarcane per hour.
At least 20,000 people are estimated to have died of chronic kidney disease in Central America in the past two decades – most of them sugarcane workers along the Pacific coast. This may be due to working long hours in the heat without adequate fluid intake. Not only are they dying because of exhaustion but some of the workers are being exposed to several hazards such as, high temperatures, harmful pesticides, and poisonous or venomous animals. This all occurs during the process of cutting the sugarcane manually, also causing physical ailments by doing the same movements for hours every work day.
I’m sure Braskem will tell you how wonderful their sugarcane feedstock is and they will come up with all kind of labels, certifications and fairy tale storytelling. Great literature.
The facts are that Brazilian sugarcane is connected to the slave trade. Although, slavery has been abolished, the current working conditions of sugarcane workers isn’t up to human rights standards.
Sugarcane plantations survived colonial times and the ownership of sugar plantations was transferred under (multinational) corporate structures …. but behind the corporate structure hides shareholders and families of which some are the descendants of the original slave owners.
So whenever, I hear about sugarcane bioplastics, I cannot ignore the barbaric origin of this feedstock.
Next time you think of buying sugarcane bioplastic, remember that you’re maintaining a colonial system in place.
Not very circular isn’t it?