Mexican Sugar Cane Industry: Swing that Machete
Tara A. Spears
I’ve always admired the simple life of farm workers, even romanticized their lifestyle. The reality is that the Mexican trabajador agrícola has a hard life: backbreaking manual labor, long hours for low pay, hazardous working conditions. Yet this large segment of the population- about 2 million people- keeps smiling as they swing that machete in the sweltering sun while looking forward to the next family fiesta.
Sugarcane was brought to Mexico by Spanish settlers and many major plantations were established with the king’s land grants. Mexico’s indigenous population provided a resident labor force which was augmented by the introduction of slaves from Africa in the 1700s.
Since sugarcane is a sub-tropical and tropical crop that prefers lots of sun and lots of water, provided that its roots are not waterlogged, it is mainly grown in the Mexican states of Veracruz, San Luis Potosí, Jalisco, Oaxaca, Chiapas, Nayarit, Tamaulipas, and Morelos. Sugar cane typically takes about 12 months to reach maturity, with the annual harvesting of sugarcane in Mexico running from late October to June. Mexico is the world’s 6th largest exporter of sugarcane, and the main supplier of sugar to the USA.
A Geo Mex 2011 article stated that the large colonial sugar haciendas in Mexico, owned predominantly by foreigners, exerted considerable influence over politics and local economies. Sugarcane remained an important crop following the Mexican Revolution. After the 1910 revolution much stricter controls were instigated on the size of land holdings. Since 1910 sugarcane is grown on approximately 150,000 small farms under 4.5 hectares (11 acres) each.
I was shocked to learn that about half of all Mexican sugarcane production occurs on ranchos that are 2 hectares or less in area. This small size of sugarcane farms effectively prevents the use of automated equipment, hence keeping sugarcane a manual labor operation. Manual harvesting requires skilled laborers as incorrectly harvested cane leads to loss of cane and lower sugar yield, poor juice quality, and problems in milling due to extraneous matter.
According to Geo-Mexico, environmental degradation is one of the most serious issues facing Mexico’s sugar industry, given the nature of sugarcane processing and the age of many of Mexico’s sugar mills: “1. Most of Mexico’s cane is still hand-cut, and burning the cane fields prior to harvest is still a common practice. However, burning has an adverse effect on air quality as well as on soil nutrients, structure and microorganisms.
- Large volumes of water are used in growing and processing sugarcane. Much is wasted; that water that is returned to groundwater sources or streams is heavily polluted. More recycling and water treatment plants are needed.
- Air pollution is also a problem with some mills still to fit modern emissions control devices besides the air pollution from field burning.
- The safe disposal of processing waste (some of which has potential value for subsequent use in other industries) is also a continuing problem. Sugar mills produce a variety of waste materials, many of which are currently dumped.”
Pre-harvest burning of sugarcane fields is done primarily to get rid of the dried leaves, or “trash,” as it is called, which has accumulated over the growing period for as long as 24 months. The Mexican Chamber of Sugar Producers explains “Harvesting cane without burning off the trash…increases the amount of labor and equipment needed to harvest cane, haul it to the mill, and process it into raw sugar. The quality and quantity of the sugar is also negatively impacted if the leafy trash is not separated from the cane stalks before the cane is milled. By producing heat, the burn kills any soil infections. In addition, the heat makes the cane taste sweeter, the sugar or sucrose content of the stalk greater.” But what dangerous work for the laborers-besides the effect on their lungs because of repeatedly breathing this smoke year after year.
Sugar cane workers are paid on commission, about $0.90 USD for every ton of cane they cut. According to a report by La Isla, workers make, on average, $7 USD per day, working as hard as they can through the six month season, hoping this income will make ends meet until the next year.
Not only does working the sugarcane field affect the lungs, but labor groups have recorded increased kidney disease in the last 10 years. Researchers believe that agricultural workers in the tropics are at high risk for heat-related health effects and the risk is expected to further increase with climate change. Many leading scholars indicate that the predominating causes for this ongoing worker illness is due to bad work conditions with enormous heat and long workdays leading to disturbed fluid and salt balances.
Currently, Science Daily gives the strongest hypothesis for such high incidence of kidney disease. The increased occurrence comes from the worker’s repeated exposure to intense heat – often hovering near 100°F (38C). Long term repeated dehydration resulting from strenuous labor without adequate breaks or access to water has a detrimental effect on the body.. IlanaWeiss, Director of public health for the La Isla Foundation, explained that sugar cane workers lose over five pounds of water per day, the average amount runners lose during a marathon, except the cane workers lose water over and over again without recovery time. Rehydration would require drinking an estimated 19 liters of water per day, more than the body can absorb.
It’s sad that the Mexican musicians write songs about the narcos when they should be honoring the hard working campestenos who sweat with bent back; a simple people who take pride in their country and love their family. Saludo a los trabajadores!
The following photos are Mexican art that features the sugarcane workers: