From the Archive | Open veins of Latin America

Uruguayan journalist Eduardo Galeano argues that sugar plantations have destroyed the northeast of Brazil by draining off natural resources, enriching a few and bringing hunger to most.

Considered a literary giant of Latin America’s Left, Eduardo Galeano was a novelist and journalist who wrote extensively about oppression and resistance in Latin America. In 1973, after a coup in Uruguay, Galeano was imprisoned and later went into exile in Argentina. When that country fell to a coup, his name was added to the death squad lists and he was forced to flee to Spain. He returned to Montevideo in 1985 and died there on 13 April 2015.

This is a lightly edited excerpt from Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent (Monthly Review Press, 1997 [1973]) by Eduardo Galeano, translated by Cedric Belfrage.

King sugar and other agricultural monarchs

Undoubtedly gold and silver were the main motivating force in the Conquest, but Columbus on his second voyage brought the first sugarcane roots from the Canary Islands and planted them in what is now the Dominican Republic. To the Admiral’s joy they took hold rapidly. Grown and refined on a small scale in Sicily, Madeira, and the Cape Verde Islands, and purchased in the Orient at high prices, sugar was so precious to Europeans that it figured in the dowries of queens. It was sold in pharmacies, weighed out by the gram. For almost three centuries after the discovery of America no agricultural product had more importance for European commerce than American sugar. Canefields were planted in the warm, damp littoral of northeast Brazil; then in the Caribbean islands – Barbados, Jamaica, Haiti, Santo Domingo, Guadeloupe, Cuba, Puerto Rico – and in Veracruz and the Peruvian coast, which proved to be ideal terrain for the “white gold”. Legions of slaves came from Africa to provide King Sugar with the prodigal, wageless labour force he required: human fuel for the burning. The land was devastated by this selfish plant which invaded the New World, felling forests, squandering natural fertility and destroying accumulated soil humus. The long sugar cycle generated a prosperity as mortal as the prosperity generated by the silver and gold of Potosi, Ouro Preto, Zacatecas and Guanajuato. At the same time, directly or indirectly but decisively, it spurred the growth of Dutch, French, English and US industry. 

The demand for sugar produced the plantation, an enterprise motivated by its proprietor’s desire for profit and placed at the service of the international market Europe was organising. Internally, however, since it was to a considerable extent self-sufficient, the plantation was feudal in many important aspects, and its labour force consisted mainly of slaves. Thus three distinct historical periods – mercantilism, feudalism, slavery – were combined in a single socioeconomic unit. But in the constellation of power developed by the plantation system, the international market soon took the centre of the stage. 

Subordinated to foreign needs and often financed from abroad, the colonial plantation evolved directly into the present-day latifundio, one of the bottlenecks that choke economic development and condemn the masses to poverty and a marginal existence in Latin America today. The latifundio as we know it has been sufficiently mechanised to multiply the labour surplus, and thus enjoys an ample reserve of cheap hands. It no longer depends on the importation of African slaves or on the encomienda of Indians; it merely needs to pay ridiculously low or in-kind wages, or to obtain labour for nothing in return for the labourer’s use of a minute piece of land. It feeds upon the proliferation of minifundios – pocket-sized farms – resulting from its own expansion, and upon the constant internal migration of a legion of workers who, driven by hunger, move around to the rhythm of successive harvests. 

Related article:

The plantation was so structured as to make it, in effect, a sieve for the draining-off of natural wealth, and today the latifundio functions in the same way. Each region, once integrated into the world market, experiences a dynamic cycle; then decay sets in with the competition of substitute products, the exhaustion of the soil, or the development of other areas where conditions are better. The initial productive drive fades with the passing years into a culture of poverty, subsistence economy and lethargy. The northeast was Brazil’s richest area and is now its poorest; in Barbados and Haiti human antheaps live condemned to penury; in Cuba sugar became the master key for US domination, at the price of monoculture and the relentless impoverishment of the soil. 

And this has not been the role of sugar alone: the story has been the same with cacao, which made the fortunes of the Caracas Oligarchy; with the spectacular rise and fall of cotton in Maranho; with the Amazonian rubber plantations, which became the cemeteries of northeastern workers recruited for a few pennies; with the devastated quebracho forests in northern Argentina and Paraguay; with Yucatan’s henequen plantations, where Yaqui Indians were sent for extermination. It is also the story of coffee, which advances leaving deserts behind it, and of the fruit plantations in Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador and the unhappy lands of Central America. Each product has come to embody the fate of countries, regions and peoples; and mineral-producing communities have, of course, travelled the same melancholy road. The more a product is desired by the world market, the greater the misery it brings to the Latin American peoples whose sacrifice creates it. The area least affected by this iron law has been Rio de la Plata, feeding the international market with its hides, meat and wool; yet even it has been unable to break out of the cage of underdevelopment. 

6 September 2008: A portrait of Eduardo Galeano, Uruguayan journalist and writer, taken in Milan, Italy. (Photograph by Leonardo Cendamo/ Getty Images)

How the soil was ravaged in northeastern Brazil 

Because they discovered precious metals first, the Spaniards only began raising sugar in their colonies – initially in Santo Domingo, then in Veracruz, Peru and Cuba – as a secondary activity. Brazil, on the other hand, became the world’s largest sugar producer and remained so until the middle of the 17th century. Portugal’s Latin American colony was also the chief market for slaves; native workers, always scarce, were rapidly killed off by the forced labour, and sugar needed thousands of hands to clear and prepare the ground, to plant, harvest, transport, grind and refine the cane. Brazilian colonial society flourished in Bahia and Pernambuco as a sub-product of sugar until the discovery of gold moved its centre to Minas Gerais. 

The Portuguese Crown granted lands in usufruct to Brazil’s first big landlords. The feats of conquest proceeded in tandem with the organisation of production. Twelve “captains” received by written grant the whole of the vast unexplored territory, to be exploited in the king’s service. However, the business was mostly financed by Dutch capital and thus became more Flemish than Portuguese. Dutch entrepreneurs not only participated in establishing sugar estates and importing slaves; they also picked up the crude sugar in Lisbon, refined it, sold it in Europe, and pocketed a third of its value in profits. In 1630 the Dutch West India Company invaded and conquered the northeast coast of Brazil and took over direct control of sugar production. To multiply their profits, the sources of sugar had to be multiplied, and the company offered the British in Barbados all facilities to start massive production in the Antilles. It brought Caribbean colonists to Brazil to acquire technical and organisational knowledge. When the Dutch were finally thrown out of the Brazilian northeast in 1654, they had already laid the foundations for intense and ruinous competition by Barbados. They had taken slaves and cane roots there, had set up sugar estates and had provided all the implements. Brazilian exports plummeted to half of what they had been, and sugar prices were halved by the end of the 17th century. Meanwhile, Barbados’ Black population increased tenfold in a few decades. The Antilles were nearer to the European market, and Barbados developed superior techniques while Brazilian soil was wearing out. The crisis in the sugar-growing northeast was also precipitated by serious slave revolts and by the gold boom to the south, which robbed the plantations of labour. The crisis was definitive: it has dragged itself painfully down the centuries into our time. 

Related article:

Sugar had destroyed the northeast. The humid coastal fringe, well watered by rains, had a soil of great fertility, rich in humus and mineral salts and covered by forests from Bahia to Ceara. This region of tropical forests was turned into a region of savannas. Naturally fitted to produce food, it became a place of hunger. Where everything had bloomed exuberantly, the destructive and all-dominating latifundio left sterile rock, washed-out soil, eroded lands. At first there had been orange and mango plantations, but these were left to their fate, or reduced to small orchards surrounding the sugar mill-owner’s house, reserved exclusively for the family of the white planter. Fire was used to clear land for canefields, devastating the fauna along with the flora: deer, wild boar, tapir, rabbit, pacas and armadillo disappeared. All was sacrificed on the altar of sugarcane monoculture. 

At the end of the 16th century Brazil had no less than 120 sugar mills worth some £2 million, but their masters, owners of the best lands, grew no food. They imported it, just as they imported an array of luxury articles which came from overseas with the slaves and bags of salt. Abundance and prosperity went hand in hand, as usual, with chronic malnutrition and misery for most of the population. Cattle were relegated to deserts far inland from the humid coastal zone to the sertão which, with two head of cattle to the square mile, supplied (and still supplies) tough, tasteless and always scarce meat. 

A legacy of those colonial days which continues is the custom of eating dirt. Lack of iron produces anemia, and instinct leads northeastern children to eat dirt to gain the mineral salts which are absent from their diet of manioc starch, beans and – with luck – dried meat. In former times this “African vice” was punished by putting muzzles on the children or by hanging them in willow baskets far above the ground. (An English traveller, Henry Koster, attributed this custom to the contact the white children had with little Blacks “who infect them with this African vice”. In various ways the northeast is the victim of internal colonialism for the benefit of the industrialised south. Within the northeast, the sertão region is subordinated to the sugar belt which it supplies, and the latifundios in their turn are subordinated to processing plants that industrialise sugar production. The ancient institution of the individually owned sugar estate is in crisis: the central mills have devoured the plantations.) 

Circa 1830: A painting called The sugar mill, from Malerische Reise in Brasilien (1830-1835), a book by Johann Moritz Rugendas found in the Collection of Biblioteca Nacional, Brasil. (Photograph by Fine Art Images/ Heritage Images via Getty Images)

The Brazilian northeast is today the most underdeveloped area in the Western hemisphere. As a result of sugar monoculture it is a concentration camp for 30 million people – on the same soil that produced the most lucrative business of the colonial agricultural economy in Latin America. Today less than a fifth of Pernambuco’s humid zone is used for growing sugar; the rest is not used at all. The big sugar mill owners, who are also the biggest planters of cane, permit themselves this luxury of waste. It is not in the northeast’s arid and semi-arid interior that food conditions are worst, as is erroneously believed. The sertão, a desert of stones and sparse vegetation, has periods of hunger when the scorching sun produces drought and the semblance of a lunar landscape, forcing the people to flee and sowing crosses along the roadsides. But in the humid littoral – that coastal fringe still so ironically known as the “forest zone” in tribute to the remote past and to the pitiful remnants of forestation surviving from centuries of sugar – hunger is endemic. Where opulence is most opulent, there – in this land of contradictions – misery is most miserable; the region nature chose to produce all foods, denies all. The sugar latifundio, a structure built on waste, must still import food from other areas, particularly from the centre and south, at escalating prices. The cost of living in Recife is the highest in Brazil, well above Rio de Janeiro. Beans cost more in the northeast than in Ipanema, the capital city’s most luxurious beach resort. The price of half a kilo of manioc starch equals the wage an adult sugar plantation worker receives for working from sunrise to sunset: if he complains, the foreman summons the carpenter to measure the man for the length and width of the boards that will be needed. In large areas the owner’s or administrator’s “right of the first night” for each girl is still effective. A third of Recife’s population lives in miserable hovels; in one district, Casa Amarela, more than half the babies die before they are a year old. Child prostitution – girls of 10 or 12 sold by their parents – is common in northeastern cities. Some plantations pay less for a day’s work than the lowest wage in India. A United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) report in 1957 said that in the area of Victoria, near Recife, protein deficiency in children produces a weight loss 40%, worse than is generally found in Africa. Many plantations still operate private prisons, but, as Rene Dumont notes, “those who are responsible for murder by undernourishment are not locked inside, since they are the keepers of the keys”.

Pernambuco now produces less than half as much sugar as the state of São Paulo, and has a far lower per hectare yield; but Pernambuco’s inhabitants, densely concentrated in the humid zone, depend on sugar for their livelihood, while São Paulo contains the greatest industrial centre in Latin America. In the northeast not even progress is progressive, for it is in the hands of a few owners. The food of the minority is the hunger of the majority. Beginning in 1870 the sugar industry was substantially modernised as big central mills were installed, and the absorption of land by latifundios progressed alarmingly, sharpening the hunger of the area. In the 1950s, booming industrialisation increased the consumption of sugar in Brazil itself. This stimulated northeastern production, but without causing any rise in the per hectare yield. New lands of inferior quality were planted to cane, and sugar devoured still more of the few food-producing areas. Turned into a wage-worker, the peasant who had previously tilled his small plot experienced no benefit, since he did not earn enough money to buy what he had once produced. As usual, the expansion expanded hunger.

5 January 2017: Street art in Caracas, Venezuela, by Mr Garek, with a portrait of Uruguayan journalist and writer Eduardo Galeano. (Photograph by Thierry Monasse/ Getty Images)
If you want to republish this article please read our guidelines.