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Sugar and Modernity in Latin America

Sugar has become an important economic and cultural commodity in most parts of lation America. Since Columbus brought sugar cane from the Canary islands on his second trip to the New World, sugar has played an important role in the political and economic history of major parts of thecontinent, especially of the caribbean area.

For many years sugar was produced by slaves and forced labour for the North American and European markets. Today, many Latin American countries continue to produce sugar for a global market, but sugar is no longer an aristocratic luxury. Instead, the consumption of sugar has globalized and filtered down to the lower classes in society. Changing consumption patterns mean that the intake of sugar-rich food products is growing steadily in most parts of Latin America and many studies have pointed at an associated increase in health problems such as obesity, diabetes and tooth decay.

The proposed cross-disciplinary project addresses sanitary, political and cultural aspects of the globalization and modernization of sugar consumption in Latin America. By using the case of sugar –  and the ways in which this good is produced, distributed and consumed – the project explores different aspects of the processes of modernization in Latin America and throws light on the  different forms of knowledge and perceptions that exist among different groups in Latin America. This implies an interest in knowledge creation and distribution on both  micro-, meso- and macro- levels. The aim of the project is to highlight the following questions:

  • What is sugar physiological context? Is sugar the source of the epidemic growth rate seen in diseases of affluence, especially in developing countries? Is there a link with high intake of sugar products and the risk of developing diabetes?
  • Are there differences in cultivation and production methods of sugar in America? What impact has sugar production on soil quality? Is sugar production responsible for depletion and leaching of soil?
  • What is the role of sugar in ordinary people's everyday life? In what ways and times is sugar-containing products consumed? In which social contexts are sugar-containing products used and in what ways?
  • How is sugar consumed in public spaces? What kind of ideas about sugar is communicated through advertising, literature and other cultural products? What symbolic and religious ideas of sugary products are disseminated in different social contexts?
  • What knowledge is made available to the public? Is knowledge about sugar evenly distributed? What sources of knowledge is available? What institutions and organizations involved in the dissemination of knowledge and what power relationships are they in?

The project is considered as novel due to its transdisciplinary characteristics.

Short abstracts from selected faculties included in the project

1. The Sugar Cane Cycle of José Lins do Rego

Associate Prof. Vinicius Mariano de Carvalho

Dept. of Language, Literature and Culture

University of Aarhus

At the beginning of the XX century, the region of sugar cane plantation in Northeast Brazil was the scene for two different cultural, social and economic logics. On the one side, a pre-modern model, represented by the “Engenho”. This was more than a refinery of sugar, it was a social and cultural construction, connected with the colonial structure of society, heirs of the slave tradition. In this pre-modern logical, the sugar was a blessing. Around the plantation, harvest, milling of the sugar cane the life was organized, the social roles were understood, the word was ordained. In the other side, the modern replace the pre-modern logical. While in the pre-modern model of production and society the sugar was considered blessed and a blessing, because around its plantation, production and consumption, the world was organized, in the new and modern model of production all the social structures were broke, the sugar becomes a damn. The power of the sugar catalyzed the meeting of different cultures in Northeast Brazil, but the expansion of this power also broke cultural ties. The discourse of modernity as synonymous of progress and development is contradicted by a different reality. The society who was born after the modernization of the process of production of the sugar opened a deep socio-economic gap who led to a cultural disruption in the Brazilian Northeast.

That is the context the José Lins do Rego wrote his pentalogy called Sugar-Cane Cycle, dealing with the world in the sugar cane plantation in the Paraíba Province. The Sugar Cane Cycle, correspond to the first five books of José Lins do Rego, Menino de Engenho (1932), Doidinho (1933), Bangüê (1934), O Moleque Ricardo (1935) and Usina (1936). These books reveal several aspects of the sugar cane culture in Northeast Brazil and trace a portrait of the human types of this region and how they were affected by the modernization of the production of sugar in the early years of the twentieth century. Literarily, Rego recover his own history and give a deep memorialistic accent to his books.

In the present research we will proceed an analyses of this pentalogy regarding how the author discuss in the narratives the conflict between this two logics, pre-modern and modern.

2. Sugar cane cultivation and production.

Associate Prof. Ulla Kidmose

Dept. of  Food Science

Research Centre Foulum

University of Aarhus

Sugar cane is cultivated in tropical and sub-tropical regions including in the Caribbean, Central and South America. Sugar cane is mainly produced due to its sucrose content and by-products such as molasses and bagasse, - the cellulose material that remains after pressing.

Under favourable conditions and the appropriate use of pesticides and fertilizers, cane grows rapidly. For a better crop of sugarcane it is advisable to apply 150-250 kg nitrogen in the form of ammonium sulphate in normal soils, urea in saline soils and calcium ammonium nitrate in acidic soils. Generally, sugar cane plants occupy the same parcel of land for several consecutive years. At harvest, a part of the stalk is left in place for the new shoot. However, with this practice the yields usually diminish after each cycle. After three successive harvests from the same plantation, the field must generally be replanted with new cuttings.

To ensure the maximum sugar content of 1 to 17% of total weight, the cane must be harvested immediately after it reaches its final growth period. The cane fields are burned prior to harvest, to eliminate weeds (without destroying the crop), to destroy insects and other pests and to facilitate cutting. However, burning reduces the sugar content of the cane. Harvesting is done either by hand or by a sugar cane harvesting machine. Mechanization of sugar cane harvesting has become more prevalent during the 1990s. To retain the sugar content, the cane has to be processed as soon as possible after harvesting at sugar cane mills.

3. Is there a correlation between sugar consumption and the increased health problems in Latin America?

Associate Prof., PhD. Per Bendix Jeppesen

Dept. of Endocrinology and Metabolism

Aarhus University Hospital

University of Aarhus

The rapid processes of modernization and development in South-America countries mean that new challenges are being added to the old and well-known social, economic and environmental problems. One of these are the global consumption of sugar that has doubled since the end of the 70´s from 80 to 160 million tons/year. Latin America is one of the world biggest producers of sugar, leading with Brazil how is not just the biggest producer of  sugar  globally,  but also the country in the world  how consume most sugar per capita (aprox. 60 kg per annum).  The increased intake of processed sugar has caused intensive discussion about its effect on human health. Studies have indicated that sugar-rich foods are associated to health hazards, including obesity, tooth decay and cardiovascular diseases which may lead to Type 2 Diabetes. It is striking that those countries in the world how produce and consume most sugar, also are excepted to have the highest incidence of  Type 2 Diabetes in the next decades. The International Diabetes Federation (IDF) have predicted 85 %  increase of  type 2 Diabetes in Latin America in the year 2025, where more then 26 million subject may have developed diabetes. The Diabetes epidemic are clearly linked to the modernization processes, even many parts of Latin America have experienced a better health care system, still more than 10 % of the population in Latin America, or more then 39 million people, lives under very poor conditions with limited or no access  to health care systems.

4. The Politics of Sugar in Modern Latin America. Images of Modern life in Soft Drink Commercials in Contemporary Mexico.

Associate Prof.  Ken Henriksen

Dept. of Language, Literature and Culture

University of Aarhus

Obesity and its related disorder, diabetes, are today major health concerns in Mexico. The country is the "second fattest" in the world, and diabetes has become a leading cause of death. Studies show that Mexicans are eating more fat and processed foods. Such foods were once unavailable, but they can now be purchased at new modern supermarkets. In some areas of the country, it's easier to get a soft drink than a glass of clean water, and the vast majority of Mexico City's public schools lack drinkable water. Moreover, obesity was once a mark of wealth in many parts of Mexico, but it is today a sign of poverty, especially in the inner cities, where there is a high prevalence of overweight in the poorest segment of the Mexican population.

One of the reasons of this trend is associated with changing consumption patterns and a growing intake of sugar and other unhealthy foods. Statistics show that the consumption of sugar has been growing steadily for the last 20 years, and the intake of carbonated soft drinks such as Coca Cola and Pepsi has increased by 60 % over the last 14 years (Ordonez 2008).

The aim of the proposed project is to understand this increase in obesity/diabetes and sugar consumption by analyzing what I term the politics of sugar. This term directs our attention to official or formal political decisions and practices such as the liberalization of sugar and sweetener trade among NAFTA members, and the diverse initiatives taken by the National Institute of Public Health. But politics of sugar also refers to informal practices and discourses by non-state actors such as civil society, social movement, organizations and private companies. Decisions at this level may challenge or reproduce official policy making.

The proposed project analyzes the role of national and global companies that produce soft drinks for the Mexican population. By taking a closer look at the ways in which soft drinks are communicated in commercials and on the companies’ web pages the project sets out to explore the values and ideas associated with intake of soft drinks that are sweetened with sugar.

5. Consequences of Sugar – Sugar Culture and Modernity in a Cuban context.

Associate Prof. Susanne Højlund,

Dep. of Anthropology and Ethnography

University of Aarhus

The human preference for the taste of sweetness is not only biological - it is also about international politics. Sugar has in Europe changed from being a spice to being a more used and dominant ingredient. Following from this Sidney Mintz has in his book Sweetness and Power argued that taste is a cultural construct.

This relation between international politics and taste is the core question for this chapter.  I want to unfold and discuss relations between eating as an everyday aesthetic practice and societal constraints and circumstances regarding foodstuffs and provisions.

The Cuban society is a fruitful window for exploring these connections. The sugar industry declined dramatically after the fall of the Wall, and a huge economic crisis followed. Cubans have during the embargo, and especially since the introduction of ‘the special period’ learned to live with food as a resource strongly related to political and economical issues. Nevertheless Cubans love the taste of sweetness, and sugar food is easy to get hold of.

Cuba is known for being the country in the LA-region with the highest level of health (measured on several indicators), and for having the best health system.  But Cuba is, like many other countries in LA threatened by the increase of diabetes, and research and health programmes are in these years initiated in order to prevent an epidemic growth of this disease. Perhaps these threats are linked to life style problems due to the role of tourism as the new income source?

The article analyses how sugar plays a role at these different levels and it is discussed how sugar culture can be used as an analytical concept to understand the consequences of sugar in the Cuban society. These discussions will lead to a critical discussion of the concept of modernity.

6. Sugar and modernity. Literary and Transcultural Negotiations of Latin American Identity

Associate Prof. Karen-Margrethe Simonsen

Dept. of Comparative Literature

University of Aarhus

The project will take its point of departure in Fernando Ortiz’ anthropological work Contrapunteo cubano del tabaco y el azúcar from 1940 (Cuban Counterpoint. Tobacco and Sugar). Ortiz argues that sugar and tobacco not only have meant a lot for the economical development of Cuba but also have functioned as cultural metaphors for oppositional elements in Cuban modernity. Whereas sugar has been associated with imported white culture, slave trade and mechanization, tobacco has been associated with original, ‘mystical’ Cuban culture and aristocratic refinement. Sugar and tobacco show different modes of transcultural exchange between Cuba and the “western world”. Transculturation is a dynamic and multifaceted concept that helps seing processes of modernity in their historical development without recurring to for instance postcolonial vocabulary and dichotomized reflections between the center and periphery.

The project will discuss Ortiz’ concept of transculturation and trace some of the discursive features of sugar and tobacco as they are found, primarily in Cuban literature. Literary examples could be for instance Gabriel de la Concepción Valdés (1809-1844), Juan Cristóbal Nápoles Fajardo (1829-?), both from Cuba, and Carolina Escobar Sarti from Guatemala.

The project has two aims: to show transculturation in practice, the example being that of identity-transformations metaphorized through specific discursive uses of sugar and tobacco. The other aim is do discuss the concept of “transculturation” as a concept valid also for new kinds of global interaction.

7. The Sweet tooth of mother earth

External Lecturer Annie Oehlerich

Dep. of Anthropology and Ethnography

University of Aarhus

Brown sugar, white sugar, sugar cane or sugar beat. The sugar plant is a wide variety in a symbolic way to. The article describes the different symbolic ways in the social life of the Bolivian quechua peasants.

Mother Earth loves the sweat taste. Sugar is one of the basic principles in the Quechua rites to Mother Earth. It is deeply integrated into the social life and symbolic structures of the community. The Indians offer small sugar figures, decorated whit cars, money, animals depending of the occasion. A white sugar figure whit a couple is to be used in a weeding ceremony. Most of the Indians knows the symbolic meaning of the sugar figures, but only the traditional healers knows ho to composed the ritual.

Sugar is part of the naturalistic humeral cold/warm food system, used by the Quechuas, where the body is in balance with the natural environment and the body.