Sweat and Sweet: The Back-breaking Truth Behind Sugar

by Vergielyn Cubol

April 15 2019, Negros Oriental Philippines. It is almost 11 AM when I arrive in this scorched landscape. A verdant oasis of stalks after stalks of sugarcanes. A delight to the eyes, only that it’s more than a hundred degrees Fahrenheit, without shade or an ounce of mercy from those clouds hanging across the horizon. How I wished they would move closer and shelter the farmers from the sweltering summer heat.

Just the night before, a TV network reported one of the highest temperatures ever recorded in the country’s history. A heat wave of 128 degree. Today is not far different. I could attest as I feel the inhospitable weather begins to pierce under my hood, into my head and even to my very bones. I stand here, watching the men in work, with an intention to understand more about the origins of the thing that keeps our lives sweet: SUGAR.

Everytime I am offered sugar by a barista, I am reminded of the back-breaking truth of how this product has come into this form. From farm, to my cup. For this country where technology races its way to the bottom, the production of sugar has to be done in manual labor, oftentimes, in the expense of hard work, physical sacrifices, unequal wages and a continuous cycle of poverty.

I stand here. Heat leaks all over the farm, into every stalk of sugarcane. I take my rugged Canon D20 and as the horizon comes to frame, a sight of disorientating haze rises above the ground.

Sugarcanes are harvested once every year, during the months between November and May. On tiempo Muerto (pause season) months, farmers wait for the crops to grow into harvestable length.

Somewhere in between the months of re-planting and farm maintenance, farmers endure at least 8 hours of work in the farm, most of the time under extreme whether condition with little to no time for a break. This, of course, is to no surprise, since most sugarcane farms in the country rely on manual, physical labor.

By now, it is harvest season. I observe as men and their machete stride into the sharp blades of sugarcane. I watch as the heat does its ugly dance. For the farmers, it’s that time of the year where they get to finally rip what they sow; which is, even almost not worth it.

In average, a farmer earns about $6 a day which is a challenging figure to divide when you have a family to feed. The worse could happen when rats decide to have their fair share prior to the harvest season. They would eat the stalks. This results to less quality of harvest, which means less income to farmers.

The 10-hour harvesting labor alone is a challenge but add up the scorching heat while climbing through the ladders to load the produce to the truck, sugar, indeed, comes a long way before it reaches into our morning coffee.

Every time a barista hands me my sugar and each time I pass through the roaring sugarcane fields, I am reminded of a back-breaking truth: a life as a farmer in one of these haciendas is not as sweet as its produce.