By Autumn Quezada-Grant
SAN RAFAEL EL YUMA. Roger Williams University students visited several bateys in the eastern side of the Dominican Republic island. Bateys usually do not draw visitors or tourists being that these are the company encampments for Haitian sugar cane workers. To paraphrase a section of Dr. Paul Farmer’s writing from Pedagogy of the Oppressed – he intimates that during the Cold War walls stood as en vogue. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall the overt war between communism and capitalism has shifted to more subtle battle between the power of capitalism against those too weak to fight it. Nowhere is this better seen than when comparing (the Republic of) Punta Cana and the surrounding cane fields on the way through the southern highway towards the capital, Santo Domingo.
A quick glance at the bateys open up the painful question about what we are willing to turn a blind eye away from in order to have our greatest vice – SUGAR.
Cann Andrelevan, 48 years old with his life and seven children are fairly new to the bateys. They live in Batey Princesesa for six months, but have lived in the Dominican Republic for over 10 years. In his off time, Cann cuts can to sell on the side of the road, which he had done for many years in Santo Domingo. His wife, meanwhile, sells fresh coconut water.
Batey Verde offers a compelling more tragic story. The batey houses roughly 100 persons, with about 25 houses. Nicolo, a 42-year veteran of the sugar can industry tells us more details. People are paid roughly $100 pesos per ton of sugar that one cuts. Not easy work. Nicolo himself is 73 years old, with two teeth and still is working. He comments, “One has to or you starve to death.” Malnutrition, starvation andvarious curable diseases are the most common ailments and leading causes of death. Nicolo himself lost three of his sons from simple diseases arising from cuts to malnutrition.
If one thinks about the cost of payment — $100 pesos per ton and a train trailer holds 50-60 tons, that sounds good. No. Not when all of the cane is cut and sheared by hand. This this horrific work. Moreover, the cost of passage from Haiti to the Dominican Republic is $10,000 pesos that you work off could take a bit of time. Plus, if you become sick or injured you get scripts from the company to make passage to the hospital of which you work off. This is called debt peonage or in modern terms, slavery.
In the area, a larger batey offered us a contrast to the smaller bateys. Palo Bonito built inside the case fields made for easy access to work. Generally speaking the batey was a small town with just over 500 houses and over 1,000 people in all. The batey had cement block houses, streets, decorations, three schools, a small clinic and a large population of children. What it did not have was – electricity, easy access to any place (transportation), and access to food
A strange dynamic and one that we should all consider when putting sugar in our coffee.
Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic
January 7, 2018