San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

The End of a Season: Sugar Cane Harvest Closes

Eighty machete-wielding cane cutters have swiped at the charred stalks in Grecia, in the Central Valley, since late January.After burning the undergrowth to make the cuts easier, these men, employees of the Compañía Agrícola Industrial de Tacares Limitada of Grecia, chop up to eight hectares (19.8 acres) of cane every day, according to their supervisor Juan Marín. They work under the sun of the dry months until the cane-cutting season ends in early May.The workers gather an armful of the stalks, then with languid, time-proven strokes and the whine of steel they cut them from their roots and hack off their upper leaves. Then they drop the stalks in woody, meandering rows and the yellow leaves fall between them. The sticky soot of the burned cane slicks their hands and blackens their clothes.A bulldozer of sorts bunches the cane together in straggly piles for a steel claw to snag and drop them in a rickety line of basket cars pulled by a tractor.Mario Palma has cut cane here for two months. He is an immigrant worker from Nicaragua, in his early twenties, has no children, and will return to his family’s home when the harvest ends in two to three months.His story is typical – the variations among these mostly migratory workers are the number of children they have and the tons of cane they can cut in a day.It is a harsh labor for the campesinos, who are paid by the metric ton – ¢850 ($2) for each. Some can cut up to eight in a day, Palma said he cuts seven, which would be about $14 for an eight to 10 hour day.The men live in a dormitory that the company provides, two to a room, and they fend for themselves for other expenses.Hector Lòpez is also from Nicaragua, but he is one of the few Costa Rican residents in the fields. He is the father of seven children, has cut cane for one month, and said some days are better than others. On average, he cuts four tons per day.“You have to beat yourself to earn a little bit,” he said. In San Ramón, a county in Alajuela some 30 miles from San José, cane cutters work in similar conditions, some finding themselves in a cycle of poverty. There, workers complain of low pay, an unforgiving sun and respiratory problems from the ash of the burned stalks. It is a job with a ceiling.With no training or education, there little chance of advancement or earning more money.It is work for those who do not have options – unemployment is high in Nicaragua, and these men needed jobs.Thousands of Nicaraguans cross into Costa Rica each month in an attempt to find work here, often the jobs that Costa Ricans do not want to do.According to official statistics, Nicaragua has a 53% unemployment rate and more than 70% of the population live in poverty.Between 300,000 and 600,000 Nicaraguans live in Costa Rica (TT Daily Page, Jan. 22), some illegally, and some officials estimate there could be more than 1 million Nicaraguans living here, working primarily in agriculture, construction, security and domestic services. (TT Daily Page, April 13).Though there is little improvement on the horizon for the workers, Costa Rica’s sugar industry expects to produce nearly 5% more sugar this year, and earn $42 million in exports, a paycheck that would be more than 10% higher than last year’s, according to the Sugar Cane Industrial League (TT Daily Page, Nov. 26, 2003).Those numbers might mean more job openings in the fields for Nicaraguan immigrants, but they do not translate into management positions, job security, educational opportunities or even living wages.Next week in the Weekend Section of The Tico Times: Sweet Process of Sugar: How is sugar cane transformed into edible form?

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