Sugar cane in peasant-indigenous resistance

Sugar cane in peasant-indigenous resistance

René Mendoza Vidaurre and Héctor Peña Martínez[1]

Son to his Father: old man, you are not making money on the blocks of sugar; you are just doing it to work.

Father: Yes, I was raised in this and I miss it.

Mom: And where do you think our clothes come from, this roof … and part of the food? From sweating over these blocks of sugar!

(Conversation with peasant family, Yoro, Honduras, 2017).


Sugar cane was domesticated 10,000 years ago on the island of New Guinea. It came to the New World based on slave labor and environmental degradation between 1425 and 1493. Slavery began to be stopped in 1807 when England prohibited the slave trade which happened through the purchase of slaves in Africa with sugar itself; at that time more than 11 million slaves had been brought in, more than half to sugar plantations (R. Cohen, “Passion for Sugar” in: National Geographic). These plantations were established at the cost of dispossessing the indigenous populations of their land. With sugar cane we see that “a lot of water has passed under the bridge” – more than water, human blood.

In Central America part of the elite continues in the sugar industry with enormous human and environmental costs (see case of Guatemala: Labrador, Villagrán, Sánchez y Alvarado, “El cartel del azúcar de Guatemala” in: El Faro 25-4-2017, In the face of this reality, peasant and indigenous families have included sugar cane in their family strategy for self sufficiency and income generation. Does sugar cane allow them to resist? Is this sugar cane, that has planted so much death, also an instrument for life? We argue that if families organize to add value to their sugar cane, they can resist dispossession, remain in their communities without being driven to migrate, and at the same time contribute to environmental sustainability. Consequently, in this article we describe the peasant perspective on sugar cane, the dispossession that they have suffered, their viability, and the challenges that accompanying these processes of repossession imply.

  1. Peasant strategy

When peasant families see themselves forced to migrate, they tend to take with them some sugar cane plants, and other families even take the sugar mill. The families get to the mountains or places where they can buy less expensive land. There they start to produce corn and beans, they establish their banana plants and sugar cane, they preserve patches of forest for wood and firewood, and they raise small livestock (poultry and pigs) and 2 or 3 cows. Their strategy is to diversify and reduce risk: the forest for wood (home construction, fence posts) and firewood for the kitchen and the oven of the sugar mill; they plant corn, beans and bananas to ensure their food; they grow sugar cane that they turn into blocks of sugar for their own use (to sweeten coffee and natural juices, make honey, pastry, coconut squash, mangos with honey, fritters, corn bread, and liquor – and as young D. Mejía tells us “the recipes of my grandmother are the best with brown sugars”- and for selling it. The sale of the blocks of sugar during a good part of the year, and the sale of 2 to 3 cows a year, is cash to cover other needs (salt, soap, matches, etc) and to buy “new clothes.”

Due to their distance from the market, the idea of the peasant families is to depend as least as possible on outside products. That is why it is easier to take blocks of sugar out to sell in the towns to generate income, than bunches of bananas or corn. Taking 100 lbs of brown sugar blocks generates a little more than double the income of 100 lbs of corn. In addition, sugar is one of the crops that are least affected by diseases or insects, and once established, requires little work and can resprout year after year for more than 50 years. So it is that wooden mills and then iron mills emerged, along with the sugar cane, powered by a team of oxen, and in some communities by a motor. In some communities the blocks of sugar are the only way to connect to the market and get some cash.


Table 1. Transformation of brown sugar block (20 tons / mz)*
Price (L) Value (L) L / block $ / block $/lb
Sale (load of blocks) 750** 25000.0 15.6 0.67 0.22
Weeding (1 mz) 1400 1400 0.9 0.04 0.01
Guide for oxen (load) 100 3333.3 2.1 0.09 0.03
Baker (load) 100 3333.3 2.1 0.09 0.03
Team of oxen (load) 100 3333.3 2.1 0.09 0.03
Cutting cane (mz) 100 2000 1.3 0.05 0.02
Transporting cane (ton) 100 2000 1.3 0.05 0.02
Total cost 15400.0 9.6 0.41 0.14
Balance 9600 6.0 0.26 0.09
* 20 tons of sugar cane in 1 mz (0.6988 has) = 33.33 loads of blocks, 1 load = 48 blocks, 1 block= 3 lbs. ** L750/load of blocks; price varies between 700 and 1000/load. L = lempiras, currency of Honduras

Source: based on family producers of cane and with/without mill (Yoro, Honduras)

Table 1 shows its profitability. A family with sugar cane, a mill and a team of oxen could generate income of 13,533 lempiras (balance of 9,600 + 2000 transportation + 3,333 team of oxen – 1,400 for weeding). A family with sugar cane, but without a mill and oxen, that turns in their cane so that it gets processed and they get half the value in return, gets L10,500 (half of L25,000, minus 2,000 for the transportation of the cane). If that same family with a mill takes on the cost of the weeding, leading the oxen around the mill and the cooking, their income increases. Both families get more income as they produce more than 20 tons per manzana.

  1. Pressure combined with dispossession

Living in these communities for 25 to 30 years, families now feel pressure on their economic strategy (income diversification and generation), social strategy (sharecropping relations and sharing labor – mutual support) and political strategy (decisions and autonomy). The “domino effect” of the so-called agricultural frontier is being felt (see: Maldidier, Ch., 2004, “agricultural pioneer fronts, the crest of a far-reaching wave”). The land is tired and its productivity is declining, it needs to be fed, which in turn creates pressure for financial resources to buy fertilizers. Because of world sugar demand and how lucrative it is for the oligopolies, large sugar cane, african palm, rice, and extensive ranching plantations require more land and more water, and that pressure is being felt in the communities whose families at times of greater economic fragility (e.g. sickness of a relative, indebtedness, lack of water), or when the pressure suffocates them (e.g. plantations that close off the road to a community), are left with no choice but to get rid of their land. The sons and daughters who form their own homes press for their inheritance, with the consequence being that the areas per family are getting ever smaller. And the milling of the sugar cane begins to suffer from a scarcity of labor: the work of the ox guides and the cook is hard, from midnight to 9am, because the workers, with the passage of time, take advantage of other opportunities like working in sawmills, coffee fields or migrate in search of other opportunities.

Slowly the sharecropping relationships get eroded and the capacity to decide gives way to the force of the market that comes in with different consumer products, with different labor relations, with credit that finances mono-cropping, with the “deadly embrace” of expensive farm inputs and low prices for peasant products; this is when the population murmurs, “our money doesn´t go very far”. Also state law imposes taxes and restricts the use of their forest areas, while the laws do protect the sugar industry. So human groups, like an ear of corn that shells itself when it loses one kernel, cede their places and go off to other land or become workers. That is why we do not find mills close to the cities; they get farther away tas the “domino effect” intensifies. That is when the profitability of Table 1 gets complicated, because it begins to operate less frequently.

In the last 15 years this practice of establishing oneself, and being forced to migrate to the mountains, appears to be facing drastic changes. Practically speaking there are no more mountains to go to, which is why that escape valve is now being shut down. So increasingly the population migrates to the cities and leaves the country. But at the same time countries like the United States are closing their doors to migrants. The paradox is that that “domino effect” that starts from the demand for sugar mediated by oligopolies, on the one hand expels the peasant families from their land, and on the other hand, they are rejected by the metropolis. This is the second “deadly embrace.”

  1. Adding value to the product in an associative way

How can you resist for more than 25-30 years and stop the “deadly embraces?” The COMAL Network is trying one way, where the peasant families organize into associative enterprises to add value to the sugar cane, producing granulated brown sugar (See: “Eco comal, una marca campesina que cobra auge” in: Diario Tiempo, 4-8-2015).


Table 2. Transformation of granulated brown sugar (20 tons / mz)
Lbs Price (L) Value (L) L/lb $/lb
Granulated brown sugar 2900 8.0 23200 8.0 0.34
Crumbs (lbs) 1900 4.50 8550 4.50 0.19
Total sales 4800 31750 6.61 0.28
Purchase sugar cane (ton) 20 440 8800 1.83 0.08
Labor (hrs work) 300 20 6000 1.25 0.05
Packaging 3001 3001 0.63 0.03
Administrative costs 6683 6683 1.39 0.06
Production material 1513 1513 0.32 0.01
Total Cost 25997 5.42 0.23
Balance 5753 1.20 0.05
* 1 ton sugar cane = 240 lbs (60% granulated brown sugar 40% crumbs). Exchange rate $1 = L23.3

Source: Records of the granulated brown sugar processing plant of APROCATY (Yoro, Honduras)

In the municipalities of Taulabé, Jocón and Yoro in the last 5 years 100 peasant families that have sugar cane on their diversified farms have organized into 3 associative enterprises. With the support of international aid, they have established 3 processing plants on their farms. Even though their yields vary between 60 to 72% of granulated brown sugar, the calculations in Table 2 are encouraging, even based on the lowest yield. Let´s take a look, a member family sells 20 tons of of sugar cane at L8,800; and then, depending on the policies of the organization, that member family has the possibility of accessing part of the remainder of L5,753 that their sugar cane generated in the organization. In only 3 years, on average in these experiences, the difference of the “value added” is noticeable.

The outlook that they offer us is even more interesting. According to the table the costs are 81.8% of total sales, and to the extent that they grow in volume and yield (let´s say from 60% to 70% of granulated brown sugar), those costs drop from 81.8% to 70%, then the remainder will go beyond L10,000 and also $0.10/lb. This is the commitment of the three organizations.

Going back to the communities, specifically Laguna de la Capa (Yoro) which was already on the outer limit of the 25-30 years, the impact of the processing plant made itself felt. When the APROCATY organization began, the prices for the blocks of sugar were falling below L500/load (48 blocks), the cane fields were being lost and all the symptoms described in section 2 began to appear. “The ear of corn was beginning to lose its kernels” . The entry of the production of granulated brown sugar helped raise the price of cane and blocks of sugar to L700, 800 and even L1,000/load of blocks, because a good part of the sugar cane was turned into granulated brown sugar, which put sugar blocks into short supply. This slowly began to re-energize the production of sugar cane as part of the diversification systems of the families, promoting the consumption of an alternative product to refined sugar, and a production alternative to the human and environmentally degrading practices of the sugar industry.

In spite of the short time line of these experiences, they teach us that it is not just a matter of adding value to the sugar cane and generating profits, but learning to cooperate under associative and business rules. For example, knowing the principle of accounting identity, where the expenses of a business are accounted for separately, understanding that the more effective the organs are (board of directors, committees, assembly) the more efficient the business is that transforms and sells the products, and regulating the use of the profits so that they contribute to the sense of ownership of the members of their organization, and that at the same time allows the equity of the organization to increase. They also teach us that there are risks in the future: that the aforementioned initiative might end up promoting monocropping of sugar cane and erode the peasant-indigenous resistance strategy; that a group might take over the business; that the administration might run the organization behind the backs of the members…

  1. The challenge of accompanying these processes

To manage the risks and create conditions to make the expressed goal viable, it is important to start from the experience of the peasant-indigenous families themselves. They have learned that they are going to make the changes IF they have long term allies – in the good times and in the bad times. The COMAL Network is an expression of that commitment. That committed role, nevertheless, faces enormous challenges, three of which we will introduce here.

For centuries peasant families have counted on the organization and self sufficiency of their extended families. Getting this commitment to scale up organizationally for an effective resistance that would take them beyond the threshold of the 25-30 years implies overcoming centuries-old, deeply rooted institutions. “Yes, I was raised in this and I miss it”, the phrase from the Father quoted at the beginning of the article, means that the practices that he learned and the institutions (e.g. extended family, exclusion of women from the inheritance and from organizations) in which he was raised are going to persist, and even “will be missed.” In this dialogue, the son as well as the father ignored the fact that making blocks of sugar is profitable, as part of a diversification strategy, for 25-30 years. How to understand those perspectives in their contexts in order to accompany them is a monumental challenge for any external ally, because you have to study those realities and ask about alternatives, something difficult when we are accustomed to provide standardized solutions for any situation.

Peasant distrust toward outside actors, particularly merchants, is another institution deeply rooted because of centuries of plundering. Now that distrust is expressed as: “we will go to the meetings if they call us.” This assumes that the one calling the meeting is the external actor or a local person with the aura of being the representative of the external actor, and that they are not going to take the initiatives to call their own meeting and meet on their own. Getting the rules (statutes) and democratic mechanisms of an organization to be followed and used, as a way of “calling your own meeting”, is another challenge for any organization accustomed to going out to the communities and being “the big man” with resources in hand.

Member families in organizations with important physical investments tend to hunker down and prevent the entrance of new members. They do not allow even their sons to join the organization, much less their daughters. It will be difficult for organizations to respect their democratic mechanisms in their statutes if there are no changes in the heart of their families, changes in equity in terms of inheritances and in decision making where the mother and the offspring participate like the father. Without members that are experiencing changes in their families, it will be difficult for the organization to make progress. This is the third challenge for any ally organization.

In conclusion, sugar cane came into Latin America spurting human blood and subduing nature, a practice continued today under “modern clothing.” In the face of this, as the Mother at the beginning of this article would say, granulated brown sugar is more than the block of sugar, and the block of sugar is more than sugar cane, it is “sweat”: work and life. Behind it are peasant-indigenous families that are organized around blocks and the granulated brown sugar, while at the same time they are going deeper into their logic of “not putting all their eggs in the same basket.” Will it be possible that they might begin to express a path for transforming peasant-indigenous products as they transform their families and their organizations toward greater equity?

[1] René has a PhD in development studies, is an associate researcher of IOB-Universiity of Antwerp (Belgium), a collaborator with the Winds of Peace Foundation ( and member of the COSERPROSS cooperative; Hector is an agronomist, coordinator of the Technical Unit for Business Consultancy of the COMAL Network, and technician-expert in the transformation of granulated brown sugar;

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