Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Price of Sugar

I was in Boston this past weekend and jumped at the chance to see The Price of Sugar, since it will be showing in Champaign-Urbana probably never. It is a documentary about sugar cane workers in the Dominican Republic that I had heard about on NPR. It was certainly a sober counterweight to our recent Halloween excesses. I came away thinking that perhaps I should never use sugar again, or anything that contains sugar, or anything that might bring me joy, if even for a moment. When I mentioned this to my wife on the phone, her only comment was that she would try to make sure our sugar supply was gone by the time I got home.

The story is actually as much about immigration as slave-like working conditions. Dominicans apparently hate Haitians, since they are poorer and darker, and one of the few groups that Dominicans can look down on. Haitians are willing to work for a lot less, so sugar plantation owners illegally bus them across the border and into the plantations. The plantations provide squalid living conditions under the constant threat of violence and don’t even provide enough food for the workers to eat. If the Haitians manage to leave the plantation, the Dominicans arrest them for being illegals. When a local priest succeeds in raising the Haitians’ standard of living a little, the Dominicans hold protests that the Haitians are stealing their jobs. It all seemed so depressingly familiar, but with much worse conditions and more nastiness.

I know this is incredibly naive of me, but I just don’t understand why it has to be this way. It can’t take that much money to provide workers with basic housing and food. I doubt the sugar plantation would lose any competitive advantage in treating their workers humanely, rather than as medieval serfs. What possible rationalization justifies the added wealth brought about by the complete dehumanization of workers? That’s one area where the documentary disappoints, because it only shows the workers being abused, and not the bigger picture of why. If it is simply that plantation owners are evil, then I want to see them sniveling and rubbing their hands greedily into the camera.

So, my question of “why are people bad?” must remain open for now. And sadly, I’m not really going to stop using sugar. It is hard to resist something so ubiquitous that also tastes so good. The problem isn't the sugar itself, but that our entire economic system is designed to produce low prices, rather than fair and just working conditions for workers. The best thing I can do is buy fair trade sugar, chocolate and coffee, which only takes more work and money on my part. More work and less money for me doesn’t sound so bad compared to what sugar cane workers have to endure to provide a steady supply of cheap sugar to the world.


Robert Sievers said...

Dan said "So, my question of “why are people bad?” must remain open for now."

Dan, I think this finally comes to the root of many of our arguments. Any attempt to change systems without changing hearts is doomed to fail, because people are inherantly bad.

People have to want to be different, and there is only one way to accomplish this transformed life.

Dan S said...

I think you've hit on something here.

Yes, people don't change their hearts because systems are put in place. But they do behave better, and that matters. Even if someone doesn't believe in their heart that people deserve a living wage for their work, it would be a good thing for everyone if they were required to provide it.

Also, even after people have transformative experiences that make them want to be better people, it doesn't last unless there is a system in place to support it. The church can be a good place for this, but too often it gets it wrong in ways that are harmful to the world rather than helpful (for example, twisting Jesus' message of radical love into a kind of militaristic nationalism).

So, systems matter in that they can bring out the best or worst in people. I wouldn't call all people evil by default - people want to be good, but are just easily corrupted by power. Therefore, systems that distribute power are better for everyone, regardless of what they believe in their hearts.

Anonymous said...

I am quite sure that you are both right. There needs to be fair systems in place or there is no chance for individual transformation and there needs to be individual transformation so that systems can work. I am personally called to work at individual transformation, but I am grateful that there are people who are working at policy changes.


About This Collection of Prayers and Liturgies by Clair Kauffman said...

I've been searching every where to find the documentary you mentioned "The Price of Sugar" Can you tell me where to buy it?
You can email me at clairandanna@gmail.com

Dan S said...

Hmmm. It looks like it isn't out on DVD. The best I can do is point you to their website contact info:


Students4SocialJustice said...

Yes you are quite right to not stop using sugar, not just because it is tasty and enjoyable, but also because the only thing worse for these people than earning a dollar a day, is earning nothing at all. Supporting fair trade (read: BUYING fair trade) is important, and spreading the word and raising awareness is also important. Changing the policies, laws and agreements (such as NAFTA) takes a lot of work on many levels. The success of the fair trade movement relies on increasing the number of people willing to become active participants in the democratic process, as opposed to being satisfied with leading a very passive lifestyle, and "feeling bad" for all of those "less fortunate" in the world.

drew strait said...

hey there... i am a mennonite at living water community church in chicago. my wife and I spent two years in the dr working with haitian immigrants through an organization called children of the nations. www.cotni.org. thanks for the reflecting on the film... i still haven't seen it. the injustice and racial tension is beyond belief down there.