From Cane Farm to Sugar Factory: Brazilian Cane Suppliers’ Fight for Standardization

Sunday, January 6, 2019: 11:00 AM
Salon 2 (Palmer House Hilton)
Gillian McGillivray, York University
In 1931, the “Great Class of Cane Suppliers of Pernambuco asked the newly-established Department of Labor to standardize a formula to increase their income, based on the better yields industrial sugar-factories were extracting from their cane. Animal and water-run mills, they argued, had determined the then-reigning price of 38 kilograms of sugar per 1,000 kilograms of cane, but Cuban farmers averaged a much higher 45 to 75 kilograms. They quoted Mussolini: “the real wealth of a people comes from the land, that is, from agriculture.When the state intervened to stabilize the price of sugar, many sugar-factory owners opted to purchase or repossess lands previously controlled by farmers. The 1930s Vargas regime’s developmentalist policies unintentionally facilitated this by extending credit and loans to sugar-factory “industrialists” to the exclusion of cane-farmer “agriculturalists.” Together with farmers from other regions of Brazil, the newly self-defined sugarcane-farming class mounted a lobbying campaign to reclaim ground lost to the sugar-factories. They argued that the ever-growing latifúndio estates ran contrary to the modern spirit that advocates the division of property as a solution to the labor problem.” The Department of Labor had little capacity to act, nor did the Department of Agriculture. Standardization became possible only in 1933, when the state established an autarchy above them called the Institute of Sugar and Alcohol. Using documents from this Institute, the Getúlio Vargas (Rio de Janeiro) and Joaquim Nabuco (Pernambuco) Foundations, and meeting minutes from the Union of Cane Suppliers of Pernambuco, this paper reveals the slow and contentious process whereby the state tried to coerce sugar-factory owners into formalizing relationships with cane farmers. Ironically, cane-farmer and factory-owner lobby group infighting distracted state policymakers away from workers; They convinced the state that their “special” (paternalistic and sharecropping) relations with workers made them exempt from Brazil’s new labor laws.
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