It’s hard to imagine a tougher way to earn a living than growing and harvesting sugar cane by hand. Small-scale sugar cane farmers in countries such as Paraguay, Belize, Costa Rica, the Philippines, and Malawi face dangerous challenges every day challenges that impact their personal health and the environment.

Many farms are located in isolated rural areas where health care, education, transportation, and clean water are often lacking. In traditional farming situations, a sugar cane farmer typically earns US$1 to US$5 a day. To survive, they often need to subsidize their income by raising livestock, growing cash crops such as maize, or working off the farm.

World sugar markets operate in ways that can impede farmers from making a decent living. Farmers are at the end of a global supply chain that produces 160 million tonnes of sugar a year. The industry employs millions of people in 123 countries involved in refining, packaging, and shipping sugar.

Sugar cane grown in tropical countries produces 80 percent of the world’s sugar, with the remaining 20 percent produced from sugar beets, many of which are grown in Europe. To protect its own industries, and to the disadvantage of producers in developing countries, the European Union subsidizes its beet farmers, sets production quotas and high prices, imposes import tariffs, and dumps its surplus sugar on world markets. These practices have driven sugar prices down, making it even tougher for farmers in poor countries to make a living.

Sugar prices are highly volatile, affected significantly by supply and demand. For instance, in 1984, Coca-Cola and Pepsi began using high-fructose corn syrup instead of sugar in their soft drinks, causing sugar prices to plummet. Sugar prices reached a 30-year high in 2011, but in 2012, they dropped 45 percent. A 2013 report by Rabobank predicts further sugar surpluses through 2014. It states that, based on current supply and demand, these surpluses will be the largest experienced by the industry in the past 15 years. This is not good news for the world’s small-scale farmers.

But there are many more challenges to growing sugar cane than volatile world markets. Farmers also face harsh working conditions and serious health hazards.

A sugar cane cutter works long hours under the hot tropical sun. Cutters, when severely overworked, risk death from heatstroke and exhaustion. They use sharp machetes to harvest the sugar cane, and tired workers risk serious cuts and injuries.

In countries such as El Salvador, children may work in the fields for up to nine hours a day. Like adults, they use machetes and are susceptible to the same workplace hazards.

Pesticides, insecticides, fertilizers, and especially herbicides are commonly used in growing sugar cane. The toxic chemicals they contain are a health threat to workers and to the environment. Before the sugar cane is harvested, fields are often burned to destroy leaves, so only the stalks remain, making the cane easier to cut. The fires create pollution that can lead to respiratory problems for workers and release acidic fine particles into the atmosphere, which contribute to climate change.

More than 37,000 farmers in countries around the globe have overcome the difficulties of traditional sugar cane farming by adopting Fairtrade certification. Fair trade principles promote self-sufficiency, better working conditions, sound agricultural practices, and a healthier environment.

Today, Fairtrade certified sugar is grown by 69 organizations in: 

One of the most successful organizations is the Manduvirá co operative in Paraguay’s isolated Arroyos y Esteros district. In 1999, this group of sugar cane farmers obtained Fairtrade certification for their crop, and were encouraged by their Fairtrade contacts to rent a factory and become financially independent. Using money earned from Fairtrade Premiums, they also underwent the long process of obtaining their own organic certificate, which they achieved in 2004. They hired a local sugar mill to process their crop, and became the first Paraguayan co-op to export their own sugar directly to clients overseas.

In 2011, they began building their own sugar mill, the first producer-owned mill of its kind. The farmers no longer have to pay to transport their sugar cane to a mill 100 kilometres away, nor do they have to pay refining costs.

The Manduvirá co-operative now has more than 1,500 members. They export their own fair trade sugar to more than 30 clients in Europe, Asia, Latin America, New Zealand, and Canada. And along with growing sugar cane, they also produce cotton, sesame, molasses, and stevia.

“Thanks to Fairtrade, we have grown from small sugar cane farmers to sugar producers,” stated Andrés Gonzáles Aguilera, the manager of the co-operative.

The volatility of the international sugar market keeps many farmers in poverty, but when co-operatives such as Manduvirá adopt Fairtrade certification, farmers are paid a fair and stable price for their product. As well, payment of a Fairtrade Premium allows co-operatives to provide members and their families with social and economic benefits that can transform—and save—lives.

In 2004, Manduvirá used Fairtrade Premiums to undertake their first major project: building a community hall and an office with a medical clinic to house a doctor, two dentists, two medics, and laboratory services. Up to that time, there was only one doctor who looked after patients in the entire region.

The Fairtrade Premiums also made possible other benefits, including many everyday amenities that we take for granted: running water, bathrooms with toilets, improved housing, and computers.

The benefits extend to the environment as well. Sugar cane is often grown in wetlands and other vulnerable ecosystems where it contributes to a major loss of biodiversity. Its production also requires a lot of water—from 7,000 to 45,000 litres per hectare.

With the help of the Fairtrade Premiums, farmers are able to grow sugar cane using sustainable methods that protect the environment. Organic fertilizers and biological disease-control methods are used, with organic practices encouraged whenever possible.

According to a survey conducted by Fairtrade International in 2011, Canadians “have high expectations for companies to act responsibly when working in poor countries, particularly for paying workers and farmers fairly. Most Canadians believe in the power of ethical consumerism to address global challenges.”

One such challenge is child labour, which is common in the sugar industry. Buying Fairtrade certified sugar ensures no child under the age of 15 was forced to endure long hours of back-breaking work to produce the sweetener you stir into your morning coffee.

Fair trade connects consumers directly to producers by allowing products, such as sugar, to be traced back to their source, such as the Manduvirá co-operative in Paraguay. The decision to buy fair trade sugar is an ethical choice that allows us to impact the lives of farmers and their families in a positive way. When we purchase fair trade sugar, we help provide education, health care, environmental protection, sustainability, and fair labour practices—and that’s a sweet deal for us all.

Ellen is a writer and editor at alive magazine. She loves discovering new fair trade products.

“How Sweet It Is” was originally published in the


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