Sugar cultivation has a pretty grim history.
The sweet stuff contributed to the colonization of tropical lands by European powers, fueling the slave trade, forced migration and indentured servitude that forever changed the face of the world.
Refined sugars, which are commonly consumed by most people around the world, are believed to have many ill health effects, such as diabetes, obesity, heart disease and Alzheimers, not to mention tooth decay. However the extent of these effects is unknown, partly due to the difficulty in finding significant populations who do not consume sugar to measure against those who do. The entire world is hooked on the stuff.
In Asia, sugar is mainly produced by India, China and Thailand, but has a significant presence in countries like the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia.
The sugar cane industry in the Philippines has come under some recent scrutiny due to its use of child labor, which is illegal in the country, but poorly controlled. Children in the southern region of Mindanao can earn a meager $ 3.50 per day working in sugar cane fields, a common enough condition in poor parts of the world where such work is a simple matter of survival rather than choice. Coca-Cola buys much of the sugar produced in Mindanao, though the fizzy drink giant is trying to mitigate their contribution to child labor practices by helping to fund an education project there. I guess that’s Coke’s way of sweetening a bad deal.
Climate change is expected to impact sugar cane farming in much of the world, due to the water intensive nature of the practice. Increased drought on the Indian subcontinent, for example, could harm both the sugar and cotton industries. A World Bank study predicts a depletion of water reserves in Pakistan by as much as 30% over the next 20 years.
Though the world may be cheering the political changes taking place in Myanmar, International companies, including Malaysian palm oil producers, are salivating at the possibility of converting Myanmar’s native forests into palm oil, sugar and wood plantations. This is naturally worrying for environmentalists, who fear catastrophic consequences for Myanmar’s biodiversity.
From The Irrawaddy/Asia Sentinal:
As political reforms start to open up Burma to economic development, it’s the country’s natural resources which are initially attractive: oil, gas, valuable and coveted timber such as teak, and land and climate ideal for large-scale agricultural commodities such as palm oil, sugar cane and rubber.
Then there is the sugar palm, from which a supposedly healthier, tastier alternative to refined sugar can be made, as well as a possible source of biofuel that isn’t a greenwash, as opposed to the palm oil typically produced in Indonesia. According to a Dutch-born Indonesian orangutan conservationist, scientist and sugar palm enthusiast, it is also a sustainable farming option for Indonesian villagers.
From China Dialogue:
It doesn’t need pesticides or fertiliser, and once it starts producing, it has to be tapped twice a day, which gives employment to local people, so it creates 20 times more permanent jobs per hectare than oil palm. It is highly efficient in converting sunlight to energy and, because it cannot thrive in monoculture, it preserves biodiversity. It has very deep roots, so it never dries out, and it improves the soil by bringing nutrients up. It stores carbon very deep, and it only needs half the water of similar trees because of its waxy leaves. And, it produces 60 useful products, including a wood that is harder than oak.
Another miracle crop? If you listen to Smits, apparently so. At least this final bit of hopeful news can help give Asia’s sugar blues a bittersweet taste as opposed to rotten one.