I want to share a story somebody told me yesterday as we drove past the sugarcane fields. The men in the fields were covered in soot, and looked more like coal miners than field hands. That is because they burn all the green off the sugarcane before they harvest it, making it easier to work with. The leaved stalks of sugar cane are sharp and will cut you. Green sugar cane also attracts a lot of bees, scorpions and other pests. By burning it, workers don’t need to worry about any of that. The environmental effects of burning the sugarcane are pretty severe. By burning all the excess from the sugarcane, you deprive the land of any micronutrients. Sugar cane is already an extremely nutrient-depleting plant. By burning, you make it more so. During harvest season, the burning creates a perpetual haze throughout the land. In El Salvador, I lived about two miles from a large sugar cane plantation. During burning, my house would be covered with ash and burned leafs, inside and out.
Anyway, this story yesterday has nothing to do with the burning. But it should give you an idea of the extreme conditions these workers are faced with. Sugarcane is grown in hot climates and then they sit in a field and burn it. Workers are basically cutting sugar cane in a gigantic oven. The minimum wage in Guatemala for agricultural work is about $10 (74 quetzales/day). Although I doubt that enforcement is too strong, some landowners have found a way around that pesky regulation.
This is what an agronomist that works in the region told me yesterday: On Saturdays and Sundays, some farms hold a cane-cutting competition. The winner gets a motorcycle. Everyone else gets nothing. Each person can cut up to three tons, even four tons a day. At about 125 tons per hectare, with 1000 contestants, you can clear more than 30 hectares a day. And instead of paying $10,000 (minimum wage for the 1000 people), you only have to buy a $500 motorcycle to give away. And even that is usually more than they need to do because there is oftentimes an inscription fee to join the competition. And they aren’t breaking minimum wage laws because it is just a competition. So there you have it. You got to hand it to them. It takes a lot of, well something, to get some of the most exploited workers in the world to perform one of the worst jobs in the world while charging them a fee to do it.