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The bitter story of sugar (5K)

sugarcane (79K)The story of sugar is bitter indeed. It is a story of addiction, responsible for millions of deaths, unspeakable suffering, despicable human rights abuses, savage cruelty, ruthless exploitation and social injustice, ecological destruction and last, but by no means least - a legacy of public health problems including dental decay, diabetes, obesity and cancer, which together cost millions upon millions in annual health budgets around the world.

The very earliest beginnings of the story of sugar date back to 15000BC. Sugar cane, a member of the grass family that grows as a tall reed originated in New Guinea, but by 6000BC it had spread to India, China and the Fiji Islands. The Arabs were the first to develop a taste for it. By 600AD they were growing it in Iraq and Persia. At that time Arabs were spreading throughout southern Europe and their most important food plants spread with them. By 750AD sugar cane grew in Sicily and southern Spain. They traded the precious substance, though it was an expensive rarity, mostly sold as medicine.

Sugar's reputation as a medicinal substance has a long tradition. In Ayurvedic medicine different forms of sugar have been used for eons and still play a role as adjuncts to countless remedies. It was known as Sharkara and is mentioned in numerous ancient texts from as early as 600BC. Twelve different types were classified in terms of their quality. The best is said to have been a thin type of reed known as Vamshika.

The process of actually boiling sugar cane juice to make a solid sugar is thought to have originated in India in about 100BC. The result was a concentrated, unrefined type of sugar known as jaggery or gur. Ancient Greek historians described it as 'a kind of honey from a reed, produced without bees'.

A turning point came in 1097AD, when in the course of a crusade holy knights robbed a caravan in Palestine and made off with 11 camel loads of sugar. Almost immediately, by 1100AD Venice became the most important trading port for sugar and prospered as a result.

slave labor (103K)But around 1400AD the Portuguese took over and became the biggest force in the sugar trade. By 1420AD they started to settle the island of Madeira, which had only been discovered the year before. It did not take long before they denuded the island of its natural vegetation in order to plant sugar cane. Slaves were needed to do all the hard work and they were supplied by Henry the Explorer, who in 1444 on one of his voyages to circumnavigate Africa kidnapped a group of 235 natives from Lagos, which he brought back to Seville where they were sold as slaves to work in the new Portuguese sugar plantations. Columbus himself is said to have been involved in these early plantations. Soon after, the same fate befell the Canary Islands and it was from here that in 1493AD Columbus started his second voyage to Hispaniola, carrying in the vault of his ship some sugar cane cuttings, which were soon to bring so much misery and destruction to the New World and dramatically change world history. The history of sugar shows that European expansion did not happen haphazardly. It happened by design and should be regarded as a crime.

At first sugar cane was only planted on a fairly small scale in Hispaniola. One problem that the Conquistadores were facing was that the local native population was utterly unwilling and 'unsuitable' as a work force. Sugar plantations are very work intensive. Clearing land, planting and harvesting by hand in the heat of the tropical sun was back breaking enough, but processing the canes in the presses and boilers to make sugar is the proverbial sweatshop, and dangerous on top of it.

The natives simply refused, preferring to die rather than to perform the work, or if they were forced into this horrendous slavery, they quickly died in droves from the inhumane working conditions. Within 20 years of Columbus arrival in Hispaniola (now Haiti) the native population shrank from an estimated 800 000 - 2 million inhabitants to only 15000 and 30 years later it was completely annihilated.

sugar canes (142K)But, no plantations without slaves. And thus planters turned to Africans, as they regarded them 'made for slavery'. The brutal rounding up of people like animals, tied together and marched for miles to the shipping port can hardly be imagined. How is it possible that human beings can be so cruel and heartless to another fellow human being? The answer lies in denial. Europeans were high on sugar, greedy, power hungry - and willing to sacrifice their humanity for profits. They simply denied Blacks status as a human being, just like the Nazis denied it to the Jews. At best they were considered subhumans, and their lives deemed inconsequential except as a work force. The brutal excesses of slavery are well documented and there is no need to spell them out here in detail. Suffice it to say that about 20 million Africans were forced into slavery and transported across the Atlantic over the course of 400 years (several millions more were sold into slavery elsewhere). Millions of them died from the unspeakably harsh conditions (20% of those that were captured never even survived the journey) only to be replaced by new ones. In the 18th century one ton of sugar on average was worth about one slave. For the 70 000 tons of sugar that England imported in 1801 alone, 35 000 slaves died.

Sugar plantations dramatically changed the demographic face of the world. Over the course of 400 years native populations, especially in the Caribbean Islands were practically obliterated, Africans from a multitude of ethnic backgrounds were imported. Irish, Welsh and Scottish immigrants followed and after the abolition of slavery Chinese and Indians were lured in as a cheap workforce.

In 1747 a German researcher by the name of Maggrave discovered that sugar beets yielded a substance that was identical to cane sugar. Soon Europe began its own sugar production, but it was not until Napoleon issued a trade embargo against transatlantic colonies that Europe's domestic sugar production really took off.

sugarplantation1 (134K)Sugar plantations did not only massively impact human populations, but also had dire ecological effects. Sugar demands good soil and plenty of water and is extremely hungry for expansion. Millions of acres of native forests were decimated to make room for this monoculture cash crop. Water supplies became polluted from the industrial wastes and water tables sank. As in all monocultures, pesticides and fungicides need to be applied in vast quantities thus further polluting soil and water and poisoning workers. Social injustice has been programmed into each and every cash crop economy and even now the vestiges of unfair land distribution determine the political, socioeconomic and demographic patterns in all areas in the world where colonial cash crop powers once ruled.

In all one could say that sugar cane is easily the most destructive cash crop the world has ever exploited. And why? Purified sugar offers no nutritional benefit what-so-ever. It provides nothing, but empty calories while causing major damage to our bodily health. Yet we classify it as a food. Health problems related to excessive levels of sugar in the diet such as obesity and diabetes are costing health services billions each year. Yet, sugar's grip on society's sweet tooth continues unabated - in fact, global sugar production and consumption are still steadily increasing. This sweet desire has driven the world economy for hundreds of years, and with disastrous consequences. However, it is not the plant that is at fault, but our addictive psychology. Addiction and denial go hand in hand. As long as we refuse to acknowledge a problem there is no problem, and we can go on 'as normal', fulfilling our desires while ignoring the consequences. Whether the object of desire is sugar, coffee, tea, cocoa, tobacco - or oil, the patterns that drive consumption and ruthless exploitation are the same.

Fast forward to the here and now:

It is against this background that we should view the issues that are on the negotiating table at Rio+20. Today's problems are to a very great extent a direct result of the historic mismanagement of land and resources, outright ecological devastation and utter disrespect with regard to the rights and sovereignty of local populations or the human rights of the labor force.

Not a great deal has changed since. Worker's rights and conditions, especially in developing countries have improved little and although it is officially abolished, slavery is far from being an issue of the past. In fact, today there are more slaves in the world than there ever have been before. Today's slaves are children - millions of whom work for nothing or just pennies a day to pick cotton or cocoa, make clothes and sportswear, mobile phones and computers - you name it. Millions more work and die in the mines where the precious minerals come from that are crucial for the manufacture of electronics - another one of those addictions that we are in denial about. Our vested economic interests allow the bloodiest holocaust since WWII to take place right under our noses while we turn a blind eye (and satisfy our electronic gadget dreams as we please.)

Today, our strongest addictions are natural resources such as oil, minerals and metals. The modern parallel to the spice wars and slave trade of the 17th and 18th century is the rapacious plundering of these natural resources in places like Congo, where millions are dying in the struggle to control access to these resources. Western powers are not directly involved, though by providing 'development aid' and arms to the wrong people ensures that these evils continue. What is happening in the Congo right now is the bloodiest and most tragic incident of modern exploitation, though sadly, by no means the only one.

"The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them without doing anything."
Albert Einstein

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