Lessons We Learned from the 6th Hemispheric Meeting in Havana

Strong RootsMaría Luisa Mendonça brought to the meeting in Havana a powerful documentary film on the subject of manual sugarcane cutting in Brazil.

As I did in my previous reflection, I have written a summary using María Luisa’s own paragraphs and phrases.  It goes as follows:

We are aware that most of the wars in the last few decades have been waged over control of energy sources.  Both in central and peripheral nations, energy consumption is guaranteed for the privileged sectors, while the majority of the world’s population does not have access to basic services.  The per capita consumption of energy in the United States is 13,000 kilowatts, while the world average is 2,429 and in Latin America the average is 1,601.

The private monopoly of energy sources is ensured by clauses in the bilateral or multilateral Free Trade Agreements.

The role of the peripheral nations is to produce cheap energy for the central wealthy nations, which represents a new phase in the colonization process.

It’s necessary to demystify all the propaganda about the alleged benefits of agrifuels.  In the case of ethanol, the growing and processing of sugarcane pollutes the soil and the sources of drinking water because it uses large amounts of chemical products.

Ethanol distillation produces a residue called vinasse.  For every liter of ethanol produced, 10 to 13 liters of vinasse are generated.  Part of this residue can be used as fertilizer, but most of it pollutes rivers and the sources of underground water.  If Brazil were to produce 17 or 18 billion liters of ethanol per year, this means that at least 170 billion liters of vinasse would be deposited in the sugarcane field areas.  Just imagine the environmental impact.

Burning sugarcane to facilitate the harvesting process destroys many of the microorganisms in the soil, contaminates the air and causes many respiratory illnesses.

The Brazilian National Institute of Space Research issues a state of emergency almost every year in Sao Paulo — where 60% of Brazil’s ethanol production takes place — because the burning-off has plunged the humidity levels in the air to extreme lows, between 13% and 15%; breathing is impossible during this period in the Sao Paulo area where the sugarcane harvest takes place.

The expansion of agrienergy production, as we know, is of great interest to the corporations dealing with genetically modified or transgenetic organisms, such as Monsanto, Syngenta, Dupont, Bass, and Bayer.

In the case of Brazil, the Votorantim Corporation has developed technologies for the production of a non-edible transgenetic sugar cane, and we know of many corporations that are developing this same type of technology; since there are no measures in place to avoid transgenetic contamination in the native crop fields, this practice places food production at risk.

With regards to the denationalization of Brazilian territory, large companies have bought up sugar mills in Brazil: Bunge, Novo Group, ADM, Dreyfus as well as business magnates George Soros and Bill Gates.

As a result of all this, we are aware that the expansion of ethanol production has led to the expulsion of peasants from their lands and has created a situation of dependency on what we call the sugarcane economy, not because the sugarcane industry generates jobs — on the contrary, it generates unemployment because this industry controls the territory.  This means that there is no room for other productive sectors.

At the same time, we are faced with the propaganda about the efficiency of this industry.  We know that it is based on the exploitation of cheap and slave labor.  Workers are paid according to the amount of sugar cane they cut, not according to number of hours they have worked.

In Sao Paulo State where the industry is most modern — “modern” is relative of course —  and it is the country’s biggest producer, the goal for each worker is to cut between 10 to 15 tons of cane per day.

Pedro Ramos, a professor at Campinas University, made these calculations: in the 1980s, the workers cut around 4 tons a day and were paid the equivalent of more or less 5 dollars.  Today, they need to cut 15 tons of sugarcane to be paid 3 dollars a day.

Even the Ministry of Labor in Brazil made a study which shows that, before, 100 square meters of sugarcane yielded 10 tons; today, with transgenetic cane, one must cut 300 square meters to reach 10 tons.  Thus, workers must work three times more to cut 10 tons.  This pattern of exploitation has resulted in serious health problems and even death for the workers.

A researcher with the Ministry of Labor in Sao Paulo says that in Brazil, sugar and ethanol are soaked in blood, sweat, and death.  In 2005, the Ministry of Labor in Sao Paulo reported the death of 450 worker for other causes such as murder and accidents — would this be because transportation to the refineries is very unsafe? — and also as a result of illnesses such as heart attack and cancer.

According to María Cristina Gonzaga, who carried out the survey, this Ministry of Labor research shows that, in the last five years, 1,383 sugarcane workers have died in Sao Paulo State alone.

Slave labor is also common in this sector.  Workers are usually migrants from the northeast or from Minas Gerais, lured in by intermediaries.  Normally the contract is not directly with the company, but through intermediaries — in Brazil we call them “gatos” — who chose the laborers for the sugar mills.

In 2006, the district attorney’s office of the Public Ministry inspected 74 sugar mills, only in Sao Paulo, and all of them were taken to court.

In March 2007 alone, the district attorney’s office of the Ministry of Labor rescued 288 workers from slavery in Sao Paulo.

That same month, in Mato Grosso State, 409 workers were pulled out of a sugar mill that produces ethanol; among them was a group of 150 indigenous people.  In Mato Grosso, the central area of the country, indigenous people are used as slave labor force in the sugar industry.

Every year, hundreds of workers suffer similar conditions in the fields.  What are these conditions?  They work without being legally reported, with no protective equipment, without adequate food or water, without access to washrooms and with very precarious housing; moreover, they have to pay for their housing and food, which is very expensive, and they also have to buy their implements such as boots and machetes and, of course, when work-related accidents occur, which is often, they do not receive adequate care.

For us, the central issue is the elimination of the latifundia because behind this modern façade we have a central issue, and that is the latifundia in Brazil and, of course, in other Latin American countries.  Likewise, a serious food production policy is called for.

Having said this, I would like to present a documentary that we filmed in Pernambuco State with sugarcane workers; this is one of the biggest sugarcane producing regions, and so you will be able to see what the conditions are really like.

This documentary was made with the Pastoral Land Commission of Brazil (CPT) and with the unions of forestry workers in the state of Pernambuco.

With this, the outstanding and much admired Brazilian leader concluded her speech.

And now I shall present the opinions of the sugarcane cutters as they appeared in the film shown to us by María Luisa.  In the documentary, when the people are not identified by name, they are identified as being a man, a woman or a young man.  I am not including them all because there were so many.

Severino Francisco de Silva: When I was 8 years old, my father moved to the Junco refinery.  When I got there, I was about to turn 9; my father began to work and I was tying up the cane with him.  I worked some 14 or 15 years in the Junco sugar mill.

A woman: I’ve been living at the sugar mill for 36 years.  Here I was married and I gave birth to 11 children.

A man: I’ve been cutting cane for many years, I don’t even know how to count.

A man: I started working when I was 7 and my life is that: cutting cane and weeding.

A young man: I was born here, I’m 23 years old, and I’ve been cutting cane since I was 9.

A woman: I worked for 13 years here in Salgado Plant.  I planted cane, spread fertilizer, cleaned sugarcane fields.

Severina Conceiçäo: I know how to do all this field work: spread fertilizer, plant sugar cane.  I did it all with a belly this big (she refers to her pregnancy) and with the basket beside me, and I kept on working.

A man: I work; every work is difficult, but sugarcane harvest is the worst work we have here in Brazil.

Edleuza: I get home and I wash the dishes, clean the house, do the house chores, do everything.  I used to cut cane and sometimes I’d get home and I wasn’t able to even wash the dishes, my hands were hurting with blisters.

Adriano Silva: The problem is that the foreman wants too much of us at work.  There are days when we cut cane and get paid, but there are days when we don’t get paid.  Sometimes it’s enough, and sometimes it isn’t.

Misael: We have a perverse situation here; the foreman wants to take off from the weight of the cane.  He says that what we cut here is all that we have and that’s that.  We are working like slaves, do you understand?  You can’t do it like this!

Marco: Harvesting sugar cane is slave work, it’s really hard work.  We start out at 3 in the morning; we get back at 8 at night.  It’s only good for the boss, because he earns more every day that goes by and the worker loses, production decreases, and everything is for the boss.

A man: Sometimes we go to sleep without having washed, there’s no water, we wash up in a stream down there.

A young man: Here we have no wood for cooking, each one of us, if we want to eat, has to go out and find wood.

A man: Lunch is whatever you can bring from home, we eat just like that, in the hot sun, carrying on as well as you can in this life.

A young man: People who work a lot need to have enough food.  While the boss of the sugar plantation has an easy life, with all the best of everything, we suffer.

A woman: I have gone hungry.  I would often go to bed hungry, sometimes I had nothing to eat, nothing to feed my daughter with; sometimes I’d go looking for salt; that was the easiest thing to find.

Egidio Pereira: You have two or three kids, and if you don’t look after yourself, you starve; there isn’t enough to live on.

Ivete Cavalcante; There is no such thing as a salary here; you have to clean a ton of cane for eight reales; you earn according to whatever you can cut: if you cut a ton, you earn eight reales, there is no set wage.

A woman: A salary?  I’ve never heard of that.

Reginaldo Souza: Sometimes they pay us in money.  Nowadays they are paying in money; in the winter they pay with a voucher.

A woman: The voucher, well, you work and he writes everything down on paper, he passes it on to another person who goes out to buy stuff at the market.  People don’t see the money they earn.

José Luiz: The foreman does whatever he wants with the people.  What’s happening is that I called for him to “calculate the cane,” and he didn’t want to.  I mean: in this case he is forcing someone to work.  And so the person works for free for the company.

Clovis da Silva: It’s killing us!  We cut cane for half a day, we think we are going to get some money, and when he comes around to calculate we are told that the work was worth nothing.

Natanael; The cattle trucks bring the workers here, it’s worse than for the boss’s horse; because when the boss puts his horse on the truck, he gives him water, he puts sawdust down to protect his hoofs, he gives him hay, and there is a person to go with him; as for the workers, let them do what they can: get in, shut the door and that’s that.  They treat the workers as if they were animals.  The “Pro-Alcohol” doesn’t help the workers, it only helps the sugarcane suppliers, it helps the bosses and they constantly get richer; because if it would create jobs for the workers, that would be basic, but it doesn’t create jobs.

José Loureno: They have all this power because in the House, state or federal, they have a politician representing these sugarcane mills.  Some of the owners are deputies, ministers or relatives of sugar mill owners, who facilitate this situation for the owners.

A man: It seems that our work never ends.  We don’t have holidays, or a Christmas bonus, everything is lost.  Also, we don’t even get a fourth of our salary, which is compulsory; it’s what we use to buy clothes at the end of the year, or clothing for our children.  They don’t supply us with any of that stuff, and we see how every day it gets much more difficult.

A woman: I am a registered worker and I’ve never had a right to anything, not even medical leaves.  When we get pregnant, we have a right to a medical leave, but I didn’t have that right, family guarantees; I also never got any Christmas bonus, I always got some little thing, and then nothing more.

A man: For 12 years he’s never paid the bonuses or vacations.

A man: You can’t get sick, you work day and night on top of the truck, cutting cane, at dawn.  I became sick, and I was a strong man.

Reinaldo: One day I went to work wearing sneakers; when I swung the machete to cut cane, I cut my toe, I finished work and went home.

A young man: There are no boots, we work like this, many of us work barefoot, the conditions are bad.  They said that the sugar mill was going to donate boots.  A week ago he cut his foot (he points) because there are no boots.

A young man: I was sick, I was sick for three days, I didn’t get paid, they didn’t pay me a thing.  I saw the doctor to ask for a leave and they didn’t give me one.

A young man: There was a lad who came from “Macugi.”  He was at work when he started to feel sick and vomit.  You need a lot of energy, the sun is very hot and people aren’t made of steel, the human body just can’t resist this.

Valdemar: This poison we use (he refers to the herbicides) brings a lot of illness.  It causes different kinds of diseases: skin cancer, bone cancer, it enters the blood and destroys our health.  You feel nauseous, you can even fall over.

A man: In the period between harvests there is practically no work.

A man: The work that the foreman tells you to do must be done; because as you know, if we don’t do it. . . .  We aren’t the bosses; it’s them that are the bosses.  If they give you a job, you have to do it.

A man: I’m here hoping someday to have a piece of land and end my days in the country, so that I can fill my belly and the bellies of my children and my grandchildren who live here with me.

Could it be that there is anything else?

End of the documentary.

There is nobody more grateful than I for this testimony and for María Luisa’s presentation which I have just summarized.  They make me remember the first years of my life, an age when human beings tend to be very active.

I was born on a privately owned sugarcane latifundium bordering on the north, east, and west on large tracts of land belonging to three American transnational companies which, together, possessed more than 600 thousand acres.  Cane cutting was done by hand in green sugarcane fields; at that time we didn’t use herbicides or even fertilizers.  A plantation could last more than 15 years.  Labor was very cheap and the transnationals earned a lot of money.

The owner of the sugarcane plantation where I was born was a Galician immigrant, from a poor peasant family, practically an illiterate; at first, he had been sent here as a soldier, taking the place of a rich man who had paid to avoid military service and at the end of the war he was shipped back to Galicia.  He returned to Cuba on his own like countless other Galicians who migrated to other countries of Latin America.

He worked as a hand for an important transnational company, the United Fruit Company.  He had organizational skills, so he recruited a large number of day-workers like himself, became a contractor, and ended up buying land with his accumulated profits in an area neighboring the southern part of the big American company.  In the eastern end of the country, the traditionally independent-minded Cuban population had increased notably and lacked land; but the main burden of eastern agriculture, at the beginning of the last century, rested on the backs of slaves who had been freed a few years earlier or were the descendents of the old slaves and on the backs of Haitian immigrants.  The Haitians did not have any relatives.  They lived alone in their miserable huts made of palm trees, clustered in hamlets, with only two or three women among all of them.  During the short harvesting season, cockfights would take place.

The Haitians would bet their pitiful earnings and the rest they used to buy food which had gone through many intermediaries and was very expensive.

The Galician landowner lived there, on the sugarcane plantation.  He would go out just to tour the plantations, and he would talk to anyone who needed or wanted something from him.  Often times he would help them out, for reasons that were more humanitarian than economic.  He could make decisions.

The managers of the United Fruit Company plantations were Americans who had been carefully chosen and they were very well paid.  They lived with their families in stately mansions, in selected spots.  They were like some distant gods, mentioned in a respectful tone by the starving laborers.  They were never seen at the sugarcane fields where they sent their subordinates.  The shareholders of the big transnationals lived in the United States or other parts of the world.  The expenses of the plantations were budgeted and nobody could increase one single cent.

I know very well the family that grew out of the second marriage of that Galician immigrant with a young, very poor Cuban peasant girl, who, like him, had not been able to go to school.  She was very self-sacrificing and absolutely devoted to her family and to the plantation’s financial activities.

Those of you abroad who are reading my reflections on the Internet will be surprised to learn that that landowner was my father.  I am the third of that couple’s seven children; we were all born in a room in a country home, far away from any hospital, with the help of a peasant midwife, dedicated heart and soul to her job and calling upon years of practical experience.  Those lands were all handed over to the people by the Revolution.

I should just like to add that we totally support the decree for nationalization of the patent from a transnational pharmaceutical company to produce and sell in Brazil an AIDS medication, Efavirenz, that is far too expensive, just like many others, as well as the recent mutually satisfactory solution to the dispute with Bolivia about the two oil refineries.

I would like to reiterate our deepest respect for the people of our sister nation of Brazil.

Fidel Castro Ruz

May 14, 2007

This article was first published in Granma International.

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