Reuben Jentink

What Kind of Sugar is This?

January 4, 2016

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 organizing. Internally, however—since it was to a considerable extent self-sufficient—the plantation was feudal in many important aspects, and its labor force consisted mainly of slaves. Thus three distinct historical periods—mercantilism, feudalism, [and] 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.

– Eduardo Galeano, from Open Veins of Latin America

Part one: Sugar is a given

On the street where I live there are twelve different cafés. Each establishment is as well-stocked as the next with vacuum-sealed bags of single-origin Guatemalan coffee beans and paper packets of artificial sweetener, white, brown, and raw sugar. In the social space of the café, sugar is a given.

While sugar is “free” at the condiment stand, it comes at a cost. Field labourers, factory employees, refinery workers, and longshoremen make a menial wage. Transnational corporations (including chief executive officers, board members, and managerial staff) meanwhile, make a hefty profit—somewhere along the chain from production to consumption. I am, however, less interested in the economics of this phenomena than in the social and ecological implications of how sugar arrives. How, in other words, are all of the material conditions of production, including plantation growing and harvesting, transnational and local shipping, and sophisticated technoscientific refining processes, made invisible by a commonplace paper packet?

In what follows, I address the material conditions of sugar production in Guatemala, including the increasing consolidation of land dedicated to its cultivation and harvest. I demonstrate that conditions driving the consolidation of land are articulated by Euro-American “green” initiatives and the increasing demand for plant-based renewable energy sources such as ethanol. My project is carried out in Vancouver, BC and is attuned, accordingly, to the material histories of sugar cane as it travels from Guatemalan plantation fields to café counters and to the historical impact of the Rogers Sugar Refinery (Fig. 1).


Figure 1. Chas E. Goad. “Fire insurance plan of the British Columbia Sugar Refining Co. Ld.
Vancouver B.C.” 1899. Drawing. Modified.

The B.C. Sugar Refining Co. was incorporated in 1890, a mere four years after the incorporation of the city of Vancouver. The refinery ran its first melt in 1891, marking a significant diversification of the city’s three main industries: forestry, mining, fishing.[1] Benjamin Tingley Rogers, who opened the refinery, had been connected to sugar his whole life. Following the American Civil War, Rogers’ father bought a sugar plantation on the Mississippi, in Louisiana, staffed by “newly freed slaves.”[2] Rogers worked in sugar refineries in New Orleans and New York before moving to Vancouver. The wealth generated by centuries of plantation slavery was not redistributed following its abolition. Vancouver’s material foundations are undergirded by the wealth amassed through oppression of enslaved Africans and mapped across lands taken from Indigenous peoples.

Cane sugar was not always sourced from Guatemala and has historically come from places further afield: the Fijian archipelago and the Dominican Republic. (The BC Sugar Refining Co. owned plantations on both island nations.) Today, however, the sugar cane refined in Vancouver is sourced primarily from Ecuador and Guatemala and sugar beets, come from the nearby Fraser Valley and the province of Alberta.[3] The shifting geographies of origin as well as the changes in source product (from cane to beet) provokes an additional line of inquiry. Are we attuned to these changing histories? Or, as I contend, is the association between the sugar we consume and the cane plantation so persistent that sugar maintains an imagined geography?

Let us return to the social space of the café. Here, sugar is often economically and physically within reach. A barista ensures that the condiment counter is well-furnished with disposable plastic lids, post-consumer waste recycled into paper sleeves and napkins, compostable wooden stir sticks, myriad milk and non-dairy products, and sugar. Within reason, with such choice, I am free to take as much sugar as I want. When the sugar is out of reach, however, phrases such as “half-sweet” accompany an order. The cafés that line my street (Fig. 2) have different goods for purchase, clientele, atmosphere, and ordering practices (“double-double” or “extra hot, extra whip”). These speech acts are requests, suggesting a variance in exchange value (cost); yet the price of the good (in this case coffee) remains the same. A person who takes one sugar pays the same price as the person who takes eight—whether or not the sugar is within reach. We might say that the person who takes eight sugars has taken more than his or her fair share. But what is fair when the thing (sugar) is always on offer? —when the thing is there for the taking?


Figure 2. Locations of cafés in my neighbourhood.

I have chosen the social space of the café as a site for analysis because it remains a principle site of our interactions with sugar. Of course, there are other forms (in cola, on five-cent candies, sprinkled on porridge) and sites (in the bakery, the supermarket, and at the carnival) in which and where we consume sugar. But what “kinds” of sugar are represented? Many industrial food products include high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) meaning sugar cane is not the source. Cane sugar, however, is the kind of sugar I am after. Sugar is “sticky”; the historical realities of plantation slavery, contemporary materializations of Western capitalism and neoliberalism (including global inequality, poverty, and hunger) get “stuck” to whatever it is we think about when we think about sugar.

A traditional commodity chain analysis, underwritten by a kind of naïve philosophical realism (the idea that reality is independent, singular, and definite), might draw arbitrary boundaries around sugar as cane sugar. Analysis would proceed by tracking this one “thing” from field to paper packet. But would such an analysis produce adequate and satisfactory results and representations? While a traditional analysis would rely on stability, sugar is unstable—subject to changes and refinements (which take place in Guatemala and then again in Vancouver).[4] Other instabilities include worker uprisings and strikes, weather fluctuations, rundown machinery, spoilage, and pesticide contamination.

How would an analysis attuned to instability attend to the adaptability of the global capitalist system?[5] Unlike sugar cane, which must be grown in tropical to semi-tropical regions, sugar beets can be grown in temperate climates.[6] Capital investment in research and development of sugar beets, however, was not undertaken as a form of reparation for slavery, or as a means for the return of Latin American Indigenous lands. These investments sought to harvest a raw product less expensive than imported cane.[7] American cultural critic and environmental activist, Wendell Berry, would call this a deceptive “revolution” in the means and locations of production in an economy founded on exploitation.[8]

When my mother’s parents, Jan and Aafje Kooiman, emigrated from the Netherlands in 1949, they worked harvesting sugar beet in Alberta—labour that my Oma describes as “back breaking.”[9] During the years of Japanese-Canadian internment, men were forced to work the sugar beet fields. These histories of migrant and interned labour overlap with other histories and geographies of sugar but are often ignored in prevalent analyses, which focus solely on plantation sugar.

In contrast to a typical realist analysis, science studies (STS) theorist, John Law, puts forward a method for appraising “mess.” “Realities are not flat,” contends Law, nor are they “consistent, coherent, [or] definite.” Instead of producing tidy—but insufficient—accounts, it is more meaningful “to find ways of enacting non-coherence.”[10] My analysis attempts to perform non-coherence as a means of gesturing toward the messiness of sugar to include networks of capital and oppression, histories of product development and “progress,” and the social complexities and assumptions which come to construct “sugar” as singular and within reach.

Ian Cook et al.’s analysis of the papaya takes a similar approach; Cook argues that papayas are “impossible to avoid.” Like sugar, papayas are sticky, working their way into a range of products, such as chewing gum, cosmetics, and shrink-resistant textiles. The papaya suffuses social meaning across narratives of health, exoticism, and leisure. The more determinedly one works at “unravelling” a “thing” (in this case, papaya) the more one becomes increasingly “entangled in the process.”[11] Sugar spins a similar story.

Part two: Sugar is a Mess

All of the raw sugar product exported from Guatemala to Canada travels between two Pacific Ocean ports. The sugar is loaded onto ships at the Expogranel sugar loading terminal, responsible for the reception, storage, and loading of all sugar product exported from Guatemala’s Pacific coast at Puerto Quetzal (Fig. 3).[12] The sugar then travels 3662 nautical miles to the Rogers Refinery’s deep sea wharf located at the Port of Metro Vancouver. At a speed of twenty knots, transportation takes about seven and a half days (Fig. 4). The raw sugar travels in bulk, usually 25,000 – 27,000 metric tonne loads and is unloaded in Vancouver by two bucket cranes.[13]


Figure 3. Captain Peter. “Loading Sugar at Puerto Quetzal.” 2013. Photograph.

Escuintla, the region where Puerto Quetzal is located, is also the location of the Pantaleón Corporation, a Guatemalan sugar producer. In 1984, Pantaleón took over operational management and control of Ingenio Concepción. Following their merger, Pantaleón is now the largest producer of sugar cane in Guatemala. Their combined facilities have a total milling capacity of 25,363 tonnes per day.[14] Roman Krznaric notes that despite Pantaleón’s formal corporate structure, the Herrerra Ibárgüen family maintains sole control. This model is replicated by each of the eight largest cane mills in Guatemala who, together, control about 77% of all sugar milling in Guatemala.[15] The Herrerra Ibárgüen family alone controls 20%. These families constitute only 2% of the total population of Guatemala and control “over 70% of agricultural land in Guatemala.”[16]


Figure 4. Travel from Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala to Port of Metro Vancouver, Canada.

What does this tell us about the social context of the price of sugar? From above, economically powerful families and transnational corporations dictate the conditions of production; while below, many Indigenous and campesino/a communities struggle to gain access not only to traditional territories but also to the land that sustains their families.

Simon Granovsky-Larsen catalogues a series of disputes over and struggles for land since the end of la violencia[17] (1960–1996). His account brings together two kinds of labour: that labour taking place in cane plantation fields and the labour of resistance against neoliberal consolidations of large land holdings. One salient example is the ongoing struggle (since at least the 1960s) in the Polochic Valley of Panzós, Alta Verapaz. Here, the Maya Q’eqchi’ people as well as members of the agricultural collective, Canlún, have been resisting the infractions of the sugar cane company, Chabil Utzaj (previously named Ingenio Guadalupe), which holds official title to the disputed land. In 2006 the campesinos/as decided to symbolically take control of their land by planting a communal maize field across 157 of the 630 contested hectares. In 2011, the ongoing negotiations between Indigenous and campesino/a communities, state agencies, and Chabil Utzaj “fell apart,” resulting in at least fourteen violent evictions carried out from January to March 2011.[18]

The restructuring of corporations and the consolidation of Guatemalan lands into large parcels for agro-business is not taking place in a bordered, national vacuum. There is new money to be made from sugar cane—but not in the way one might think. Recent environmental legislations from European and American governments have increased the demand for biofuels as a means of offsetting traditional fuel sources such as oil and gas. Sugar cane and African palm are two plants that can be processed into bioethanol. So, while proponents tout these initiatives as environmentally conscious forms of techno-salvation in the face of climate change, the social realities are quite different.[19] Some of the most direct impacts include the polarization of wealth distribution; increasing costs of food staples (such as maize) and decreasing food security (among poor and Indigenous populations); loss of access to arable land; and rising gender inequality since modernizations in the sugar sector have mechanized jobs that were typically held by women.[20] Such conditions force people into working on plantations at below subsistence wages, with poor working conditions, and incredibly limited bargaining power.[21]

image03Figure 5. Richard Perry. “Trucks loaded with sugar cane,” for The New York Times. 2013. Photograph. ( guatemalans-feel-squeeze-of-biofuel-demand.html?_r=0)

But how do the conditions of labour involved in the production of sugar cane for bioethanol relate to the conditions of labour involved in the production of sugar cane for raw sugar? Firstly, sugar cane is harvested and distributed as a raw material for multiple applications such that the sites of labour and the people employed to produce sugar as a food product are the very same sites and labour employed to produce biofuels. Secondly, and in my thinking more interesting, are the parallels between demands for new forms of energy and the desire for new, highly modified sugar-free products such as chewing gum, soda, and sweeteners. These movements represent two forms of abstinence: from fossil fuels and from sugar. Such figurations render that which is abstained from as something abject: “dirty oil,” “bad sugar.” How do these figurations come to bear on the manifold realities of sugar, of oil?

One way to think about the figure of “bad” sugar is to ask for whom it is figured as bad. Typically, the victim of such commodities is the individual, who might suffer cavities, obesity, or “sugar crashes.” Sugar’s harms are not figured as violence against communities of people at point of origin; instead, these harms are discerned during at the moment of individual consumption. This is why soil degradation, forced evictions, and hunger are overlooked. We might also reflect on whose bodies count as victims[22] in the figurations (projections) of climate change and the imperative to “transition” to a green economy. Failing to attend to these messy questions obscures the ongoing violence of sugar.

We might ask ourselves why, when standing in the café, we pick “raw” sugar over “white.” Raw suggests that the sugar is non-refined, more natural, and by extension, pure. Is raw sugar figured as less “bad”? Earlier I suggested that there is a potent association between sugar and the imagined geography of the cane plantation. Rogers exploits this association in their “Plantation Raw” sugar. This image obscures the violent histories of plantation labour and romanticizes the plantation, representing its harvest, sugar, as pure—maybe even “good.” In the process, sugar is loosened from its histories of slavery and violence. The hope of a “green” future, powered by renewable energy sources (such as cane) participates in the obfuscation of the material realities of sugar production.

“Sugar-free” lives need to be figured not as performances of healthy living but as, what Mary Louise Fellows and Sherene Razack call, “moves to innocence.”[23] The day-to-day lives of Guatemalan Indigenous and other plantation labourers (as well as those who do not work in the fields) are bound up in seemingly neutral sites like Vancouver cafés. Likewise, a life of abstinence (from sugar), which is celebrated for its perceived innocence, finds itself entangled in the same networks of global inequality. Living a sugar free “lifestyle” without a rote interrogation of all the other messy connections to sugar is at best, naïve, at worst, dishonest.

Sugar, as Timothy Morton contends, is the locus of connection between “colonialism and representation.”[24] In this sweet commodity we find the residue of transnational trade networks and global inequality even at the very same moment as it is recast as a means of carbon abstention. The present obsession with source (single-origin, organic) is merely a rebranding of capitalist marketing narratives (alongside fat-free, sugar-free), which obscure the material histories of certain products. We should slow down to ask whether ethanol and sugar-free lives constitute forms of reparation for historic and ongoing injustices (including colonialism)—in other words, whether these are forms of climate change mitigation—or whether, simply, these initiate self-interested acts of consumer adaptation.

[1] John Schreiner, The Refiners: A Century of BC Sugar (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 1989), 15-20.

[2] Mary Isabella Rogers, B.C. Sugar (Vancouver: 1958), 5.

[3] Ted Bowsfield (Lantic. Inc. General Manager), email message to author, 30 Nov. 2015.

[4] Priti Ramamurthy makes a similar critique of realist commodity chains in her article “Why is Buying a ‘Madras’ Cotton Shirt a Political Act? A Feminist Commodity Chain Analysis” (Feminist Studies 30, no. 3 [2004]: 734-769); see especially, 738-41.

[5] Elaine R. Hartwick, “Towards a Geographical Politics of Consumption,” Environment and Planning A 32, no. 7 (2000): 1190.

[6] Bowsfield, email, 30 Nov. 2015.

[7] Schreiner, Refiners, 15-16; 147-50.

[8] Wendell Berry, “The Unsettling of America,” in The Art of the Commonplace: Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry, ed. Norman Wirzba (Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 2002), 43.

[9] Aafje Kooiman, telephone correspondence with author, 19 Dec. 2015.

[10] John Law, “Making a Mess with Method,” version of 19 Jan. 2006, (available at http://www. MesswithMethod.pdf), 13-14.

[11] Ian Cook et al., “Follow the Thing: Papaya,” Antipode 36, no. 4 (2004): 662.

[12] “About Us,” Expogranel, S.A.,

[13] Ted Bowsfield (Lantic. Inc. General Manager), email message to author, 14 Dec. 2015.

[14] Roman Krznaric, “The Limits on Pro-poor Agricultural Trade in Guatemala: Land, Labour and Political Power,” Journal of Human Development 7, no. 1 (2006): 121; “History,” Pantaleon,

[15] Oligarchies do not only operate “over there,” and similar genealogies of power might be made between Vancouver economic elites. Stuart Belkin, for example, has just been announced as the incumbent chair to the University of British Columbia’s board of governors. Belkin is chairman and CEO of Belkorp Industries Inc. and chairman of Rogers Sugar. In 1970 his father, Morris Belkin, sold fifty percent of his company to Rogers Sugar for $9.5 million in a bid to raise capital to purchase an aging pulp and paper mill from MacMillian Bloedel Ltd. (specialists in forestry products). A decade later Rogers sold back its shares for nearly twice the original price.

[16] Krznaric, “The Limits on Pro-poor Agricultural Trade,” 120-21.

[17] Granovsky-Larsen notes that in Guatemala the most common description for the “horrific massacres of unarmed civilians, disappearances, torture, and generalized terror associated with the counter-insurgent state” is el conflicto armado (the armed conflict); he worries, however, that this term does not clearly articulate the thirty six years of violence which “culminated in state terror and genocide against the Maya population.” (Simon Granovsky-Larsen, “Between the Bullet and the Bank: Agrarian Conflict and Access to Land in Neoliberal Guatemala,” The Journal of Peasant Studies 40, no. 2 [2013]: 325, n.1.)

[18] Simon Granovsky-Larsen, “Between the Bullet and the Bank: Agrarian Conflict and Access to Land in Neoliberal Guatemala,” The Journal of Peasant Studies 40, no. 2 (2013): 335, 338; Rob Mercatante, “Polochic: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow,” El Quetzal: Guatemalan Human Rights Commission 10, (June/Sept 2011): 1-11.

[19] Elisabeth Rosenthal, “As Biofuel Demand Grows, So Do Guatemala’s Hunger Pangs,” The New York Times, 5 Jan. 2013.

[20] For an overview of some of the social impacts of biofuels see: Jennifer Hodbod and Julia Tomei, “Demystifying the Social Impacts of Biofuels at Local Levels: Where Is the Evidence?,” Geography Compass 7, no. 7 (2013): 478-488.

[21] Krznaric, “The Limits on Pro-poor Agricultural Trade,” 124-26.

[22] Judith Butler contends that some bodies matter more than others, noting that we “mourn for some lives but respond with coldness to the loss of others.” (Judith Butler, Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? [London: Verso, 2009], 36.)

[23] Mary Louise Fellows and Sherene Razack, “The Race to Innocence: Confronting Hierarchical Relations among Women,” The Journal of Gender, Race & Justice 1, no. 2 (1998): 340.

[24] Timothy Morton, The Poetics of Spice (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000), 172.

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