Summary of the Dominican Sugar Industry

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Sugar cane is an important crop to the lives of many Dominicans. This is a brief summary of how sugar is produced, detailing both the generic process of growing and milling sugar cane as well as the specific actors involved in making sugar in the Dominican Republic. I've also included some basic information about life in the sugar-worker settlements, which are called "bateyes.". Sugar in the Dominican Republic is a big story that has to do with topics as diverse as immigration, racism, nationalism, Trujillo, education, language, agriculture, human rights, the first American invasion of the DR, and international trade; the following is merely a summary.

Production Overview

Table sugar comes from both sugar cane and beets. Beet sugar is popular in certain parts, but Americans eat sugar from sugar cane.

Sugar cane (spanish la caña, kreyol cán la) grows as a perennial crop. It takes about six months to reach the point in which it could be harvested. While the cane is usually cut every year during the harvest, called zafra (spanish la zafra, haitian zaf la), it can be left for a number of years without cutting with only a certain small amount of depreciation in eventual yield.

Cane germinates from the small nodules that are to be found at the joints in a stick of cane. In practice, to plant cane, small pieces of cut cane are laid down in furrows. Once planted, cane will grow for many years in the same place, even if it has been cut. Thus, every year a field may be cut, but immediately the cane sprouts again in the same place.

After a certain number of zafras, a cane field, or campo de caña, starts to yield less sweet juice. It is the practice where I live to burn cane fields that have been left without cutting for a long time or that have not been replanted for five years. Once burned, the burnt stalks will be cut and shipped off to the processing plant, and the cane field will be replanted. (Canefields are sometimes also burnt as an act of sabotage).

There are many different varieties of sugar cane. Landholders experiment with different varieties of cane to see which will provide the best yield at the lowest production cost. Some varieties are better for eating and some are better for milling.

During the harvest, from here on referred to as "the zafra," the cane is cut, gathered, weighed, and shipped to a sugar refinery. The zafra takes place from January through June. By concentrating the use of their capital resources (e.g. sugar refineries, tractors, weighing equipment) into a single six-month period of the year, sugar producers get the most for their money. During these months, the sugar refineries are kept going at full tilt twenty-four hours a day, thus maximizing the yield from a capital intensive plant. There is also some belief that it is in this period of the year that the sucrose concentration in the cane juice is highest.

At the sugar refinery, cane is mashed up into pulp. This mashing expels some of the liquid inside. The remaining mash is then doused with boiling water and is then crushed again. The process of wetting the mash and crushing may be repeated a few times. The used mashed cane may be discarded, or, in some older plants, used to fire up the steam machinery. The juice that has been expelled will now go through various processes of boiling until it reaches the consistency of molasses. Grain sugar is extracted by using a centrifugal device to separate the liquid from the suspended sucrose crystals in the molasses. Raw brown sugar, the cheap kind sold at colmados in the DR, is the result. White table sugar comes from a chemical process using charcoal filtering (vegan/vegetarian trivia: often this charcoal is made from animal bones.)

Actors in Production

In this description of how sugar is produced, everything said to this point is probably applicable to the process of growing sugar cane in any country: the sugar is planted, it grows, it is harvested, and it is sent to a mechanical refinery. However, the Dominican Republic has a sugar industry that is different from its competition inasmuch as it is characterized by a lack of modernization/mechanization as well as a concomitant heavy reliance on manual labour. I will describe the specific individuals and institutions that play different roles in the Dominican sugar industry and provide the Spanish vocabulary for each.

In the DR, the basic conglomerate unit of a sugar production is called an ingenio. An ingenio consists of the central administrative office, a sugar refinery, the town around the office and refinery, any number of outlying worker settlements (called bateys), sugar fields (campos de caña), and miscellaneous production equipment like trucks, trains, tractors, and weighing scales. Thus, all of the resources except for the machetes involved in growing cane are usually owned by an ingenio; this includes housing for workers, land for growing sugar cane, etc...

As an exception to the above, there are also landholdings that belong to smaller firms or even individuals. These individuals are called "colonos." Smaller colonos are obliged to send their cane to the nearest operating ingenio using that ingenio's transportation, e.g. train or tractor trailer truck. Larger colonos may own their own transport for their crop and may only differ from an ingenio in that they do not have their own sugar refinery.

In the DR, the vast majority of the ingenios were formerly owned by the Trujillo dictatorship. (In fact, the only ingenios not to be owned by Trujillo were Angelina, Colon, and La Romana). When Trujillo was assassinated, the sugar land and the refineries passed on eventually to a state run company called el Consejo Estatal de Azucar or el CEA. Under the administration of the CEA, these industries operated at a net loss and sometimes even acted as a social welfare system, paying much higher than market value for labour. In the administration of Leonel Fernandez, a half share of each ingenio was sold to private buyers in hopes that the investors would capitalize and modernize the industry; unfortunately, many of these enterprises have been unable to turn a profit and as a result have gone bankrupt, causing a great amount of misery and unemployment.

In the DR, cane is cut by hand with a machete. It is the lowest paid workers who actually cut the cane; they are usually new immigrants from Haiti. The work is grueling, somewhat dangerous, and very uncomfortable. The action of cutting sugar cane is called "picando la caña," which is from picar, and someone who cuts the cane is a picador, plural picadores. Picadores are paid by the metric ton.

The cut cane is gathered and put into a cart. The person who is in charge of this process is a cart-warden, or carretero. Un carretero sabe carretear.

Either a team of oxen (bueys) or a tractor pulls the cart to the weighing area, or grua , where the cart's contents will be weighed. The picadores and the carretero will receive tickets representing the amount they cut or delivered, respectively. There are several officials who work at the grua, and these are called pesadores. The pesadores help the cane get weighed; once weighed, it is put on tractor-trailers or on train cars. The train cars or tractors go to the ingenio, where the cane is processed into crystal sugar.

A metric ton of sugar cane produces about a third of its weight in sugar.

Labour, Migration, and Life in the Batey

All of the workers mentioned above probably live in a batey. A batey is a company town consisting of barracks and a few houses. Bateyes vary in size considerably.

Every year for seventy years or more, male seasonal immigrants from Haiti have arrived. These people are called congoses (plural-singular un congo), which is a derisive term roughly equivalent to "hick," "idiot," "chump," or "sucker" in our language. Congoses are lodged five to a room with no bedding and expected to work long, hard hours. In the past, Dominican heads of state paid Haitian heads of state a finder's fee to round up large numbers of Haitians. These days, individual ingenios and colonos pay headhunters, called buscones, a percentage of the wages of each picador the headhunter provides. A headhunter may entice the prospective labourer with promises of a work permit, and often requires a large fee from the prospective immigrant. When immigrants arrive, they may find that they are not free to leave the batey, and that the conditions are not so good after all.

Over time, some of these migrants have stayed through the six months that follow the zafra, called tiempo muerto, and have started families. Haitian women have migrated, as well. Bateyes are unique in culture and language in their mix of that which is Haitian and that which is Dominican.

The Dominican government has historically provided fewer public services to bateyes than to similarly sized communities in the rest of the country. The bateyes were regarded as exceptions to the country's governance system. It was often left to the CEA or private companies to provide basic services, a responsibility that all too often they did not fulfill. Bateyes are often still regarded as places where only Haitians (non-citizens) live. Since the Haitians who originally filled the bateyes were not legal immigrants, their children have often been denied citizenship papers. Without citizenship papers, these Dominican born children of Haitian immigrants cannot go to school nor can they receive the benefits of other public services.

In the past, sugar was a profitable industry. However, the Dominican sugar industry is no longer competitive, and when combined with the historical lack of educational and health services to these communities, the low wages have tended to make bateyes some of the poorest communities in the country.

The current trend in the Dominican Republic is for the ingenios to stop producing and for the bateyes to very slowly transform themselves into new sorts of communities. Los Alcarizos in the Distrito Nacional is a good example of something that used to be a batey (actually an ingenio) but now is something entirely different. It is clear that the sugar industry doesn't provide much in the way of a future for anyone, but making the transition is hard when people are so poor and only know about the sweet stuff.

Recomended reading for the curious:

Yanguela-Tejada (2000) Bateyes del Este USAID, Santo Domingo and Washington

Martinez (2000) Migrants on The Periphery University of Kentucky

Bitter Sugar

Why the Cocks Fight

McCarthy-Brown, K (19??) Mama Lola: A Voodoo Priestess in Brooklyn

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last revised 15 August 2015
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