The Local vs Global in Caribbean Sugar

by Benjamin Sacks

Cut sugarcane waiting for transport and processing. © 2013 Wikimedia Commons.

Cut sugarcane waiting for transport and processing. © 2013 Wikimedia Commons.

The Caribbean, with over five hundred years of continual direct Old and New World involvement, remains a unique world region. At present, the Greater and Lesser Antilles comprise a motley collection of European and North American overseas possessions (including four French département d’outre-mer, two American unincorporated territories, and one French, six British, and six Dutch overseas territories), independent democracies, and one of the world’s last remaining Communist states. It is home to some of the world’s poorest nations by GDP per capita (Haiti) and some of its wealthiest (Cayman Islands). Few independent countries, however, enjoy full autonomy; most remain subject to strong European and American influence. Consequently, the Caribbean has often been subject to European Union economic, political, and social policies. Sugar has been at the centre of Europe-Caribbean relations since the late sixteenth century, and continues to play a dynamic role.

Most pre-existing scholarly studies of the lucrative EU-Caribbean sugar relationship have focused on high level negotiations, or generalised trends between islands and regions. Peter Jackson (University of Sheffield), Neil Ward (University of East Anglia), and Polly Russell’s (The British Library) 2009 Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers article sought to bridge the gap between thematic and local conceptions: they carefully examined moral questions and concerns in the international sugar industry, albeit from a Euro-centric perspective, interviewing British farmers and market trade representatives.

But what of the sugar growers themselves? The labourers who harvest sugarcane, process it, and prepare it in an uphill battle to somehow satiate the world’s ever-growing demands? In the most recent issue of Area, Pamela Richardson-Ngwenya (University of KwaZulu-Natal) sought to examine the local impact of EU-Caribbean sugar policy reforms, particularly in recent light of what she described as ‘the on-going entrenchment of neoliberal principles in the EU’s trade regime’. Richardson-Ngwenya followed Clarence Thompson, a Barbados sugar farmer, through his daily routines and his negotiations with other farmers and local agencies concerning prices, wages, and regulation. Thompson and his colleagues remain steadfast supporters of the Caribbean sugar industry, a trade that, according to the World Bank, the West Indies should wind down and ‘move on’ from in favour of considerably larger Brazilian production efforts. Thompson, in recorded video interviews, articulated the centrality of sugarcane beyond its immediate EU-centric impact: ‘Let me tell you something: if we ever stop planting sugar cane in Barbados, the whole island is finished. Because sugar cane is the only crop that keep the island into cultivation. It’s the best crop we have’. The lives and experiences of such farmers as Thompson remind us that industries are often more than the ‘bottom line’ – they represent ways of life, and can resound with deep historical and cultural meanings.

60-world2 2013, Country Comparison: GDP – Per Capita (PPP)The CIA World Factbook 2013, accessed 18 June 2013.

60-world2 2013, The EU’s relations with the CaribbeanEuropean Union External Action, 25 January 2013, accessed 18 June 2013.

books_icon Jackson, P, N Ward, and P Russell, 2009, Moral economies of food and geographies of responsibilityTransactions of the Institute of British Geographers New Series, 34, 12-24.

books_icon Richardson-Ngwenya, P, 2013, Situated knowledge and the EU sugar reform: a Caribbean life historyArea45, 188-97.

On the history of sugar, see Sidney W Mintz’s extensive scholarship:

books_icon 1960, Worker in the Cane: A Puerto Rican Life History, New Haven, CT and London: Yale University Press.

books_icon 1985, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History, New York: Viking.

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