Have you ever had the opportunity to travel to the Dominican Republic? It's beautiful beaches and palm trees are very inviting, indeed, its pristine waters enticing for the Americans and foreigners who travel there for leisure. There's a dark side of the story, though, and you don't have to look too hard to see the stark contrast that exists between the rich and the poor in this country. All you have to do is look out the window of your car on the way to the airport, and you'll see workers slaving away in the sugar cane fields. During this holiday season, when it's a fun little tradition to break out the rolling pin and make sugar cookies, sprinkled with colorful dots and buttons an bows, be mindful of the price someone else had to pay to feed our collective sweet tooth. Hopefully, after reading this little story, you will rethink your sugar.
Several years ago, my family took a vacation to this paradise island, invtied as guests in a villa overlooking the water at Casa de Campo. After landing at the airport, we rented a car and headed to a grocery store in La Ramana to pick up some bread, milk, cereal, and the like to stock the fridge and pantry in our villa. I was taken aback by the extreme poverty and all the people who ran around without shoes on their feet. I had a lump in my throat, just thinking of how hard their lives must be and here I was coming down to take a vacation in "paradise" a mere ten miles away.
I tried hard to enjoy myself while I was staying in the beautiful villa overlooking the water, manned by men in machetes. Really? There's a need for machetes? The thoughts was distrubing for me. For someone who loves to walk every day, it was quite frightening to stroll past guards holding these intimidating weapons, but I refused to let this control my life. As I made my out of the plush compound we were staying in and out to the main resort area, I was forced to look at the dark side of the hotel industry. The sight of the laborers piled like a sardines into the back of a big open-air truck made me physically ill, and I had to look away at times. They were headed off to do landscaping or to clean the rooms on the sprawling property, with very little room to move or to breathe. Catholic Guilt set in, for sure.
At "home" in our villa, we had a nice team of people scurrying about, prepping meals, cleaning, and bringing poolside drinks with little umbrellas. It was all very nice, for sure. I noticed the workers used a big stick to catch their dinner. Interesting, I thought, and so I asked one of the men about this practice. It was simply a part fo their lives, living off the land and the sea. They didn't have a lot of money, but they sure did have a lot of mouths to feed and this was a free way for them to rovide for their families. One man who worked on the property had a whole army of children to feed, seven or eight!
While I was on this vacation in paradise, I couldn't bear the thought of someone else making my children their breakfast. I'd sneak into the kitchen before everyone arrived for the day and whip up my own Frecnh toast or pancakes, much to the dismay of the head cook. Hey, I'm a rebel rouser...always have been, always will be. I simply don't like people wating on me.
Perhaps one of the most disturbing things, besides meetnig a beggar on the golf course, was what I saw in the sugar cane fields on the way back to the airport. Though I was unaware of it at the time, this was really my first introduction into human trafficking and modern day slavery. The kind driver explained that the workers are brought in from Haiti, and they either live in shanties or they sleep in the fields overnight. He told me that the Haitiians are smuggled into the Dominican Republic, many of them promised jobs from a labor broker in the construction or hotel industries, but upon arrival into the DR, they are forced to work in the sugar cane fields instead. The work is back-breaking, to be sure, laboring under the hot, hot sun. Being so close to the equater, just being outside in this island paradise for even ten minutes is exhausting, but imagine wearing clothing while cutting down heavy stalks of cane, carrying the heavy bundles, loading them onto a truck and doing this over and over again from sunup to sundown...are you cringing yet? The reality is that this is how sugar cane is harvested, and it's then shipped off to places like America and to Europe, where we take it for granted that many of the foods we eat are leaden with this commodity.
Here's a video from Aljazeera about the conditions that exist for the modern day slaves in the sugar cane industry. How do we break this cycle of exploitation? By looking at the supply chains, of course! I am guilty as the next person for purchasing Domino and other brands of sugar, simply because Fair Trade sugar is not readily available in the local grocery store. It is, however, an option that's becoming more readily available. Aldi's carries Simply Nature, for example, and Fair Trade USA has a whole list of brands and ways for your business to purchase Fair Teade certified sugar and other items, too. As a consumer, you wield a great deal of power in your decsion-making. When you look for the Fair Trade label, know that the farmers are receinving more income for their hard work, which helps them hold onto their land and keep their kids in school. Feel good about the products you buy and consume, and help bring an end to the epidemic of global poverty, which often results in children being exploited in the labor force and sold into the sex trade.