This morning we were lucky enough to be chosen to wake up at 5:15 AM in order to get everyone up at 5:45. We then headed to Sheila’s for breakfast at 7:00 AM, and stayed there for an academic seminar about consumerism and the global economy in terms of the Dominican Republic.
At 8:30, our wonderful driver, Cristian picked us up and we headed to a Haitian sugar cane community called Batey 6 near the Conscorsio sugar plantation. When we arrived, we met with Plataforma Vida, an organization that works for the betterment of the sugar cane communities. The speakers were an incredible group of individuals who were kind enough to share their stories about working in the cane fields from ages as young as 6 years old. One that was especially impactful was the story from Rafael, who began working in the cane fields when he was only 7 years old. He told us that at the age of 14, he began to lose his eyesight, and by 18 he was completely blind. Hearing his story and the stories of others was incredibly emotionally-jarring because although we hear about the exploitation of workers on the radio and on TV, it never really hit us until we heard a personal story from somebody sitting right on front of us. This made us understand that these people are not statistics: this is happening every day, and we need to change it.
After the speakers had finished talking to us and answering our questions, we split off into two separate groups to walk around the community and talk to the locals. In one group, we spoke to some of the older members of the community who talked to us about the differences between the sugar cane industry from when it was run by the government to now that it has been privatized.
The other group had the pleasure of meeting an incredible man named Barba, who is a 58 year old man in his sophomore year of high school. He was unable to receive an education when he was younger, but believes that it’s never too late to go to school and achieve your dreams. He is a very inspirational person, who touched everyones’ hearts in the group. The story of his educational road brought the whole group to tears. A quote that he said that really stuck with us was, “Your presence here is worth more to me than a million dollars.” Knowing that the presence of foreigners is very important to him helped some of us process our emotions. He understands that we will take his story back with us and be able to shed some light on the situation in the States. At the time that he was telling his story, a man approached the group and told us that every year we go to visit the community, but we never give them anything tangible. Many of us felt helpless, but having Barba explain to the man that the knowledge that you give to them is worth more than anything materialistic helped. After the talk, we made our way back to the center, where we had lunch with the locals. During this time, we were able to converse with them and play with the little kids.
We headed out of the batey at around 2:00 PM and drove to the Conscorsio sugar plantation. When we arrived, we were met by Pablo, an employee of the social arm of the company. He explained that the owners of the company were a Guatemalan family, and they owned two other facilities in Costa Rica and Guatemala. We toured the facility and were shown the process of how the sugar cane is collected and cleaned, and Pablo answered questions that we asked him about the company throughout the bus ride. However, he often was unable to answer questions in regard to the treatment of workers and their living conditions. His job includes working with the sugar cane communities that surround the plantation, but he did not answer our questions when we asked about whether he believed the communities that he visited were equipped with acceptable resources and wages to survive. We then drove to a community project that he had organized that consisted of raising fish and selling it to other cities in order to allow the community to make money from other places rather than just cutting cane sugar. The only issue with this was that we were unable to receive any information about where the profits actually go.
After that, we drove to a facility where Haitian seasonal workers live while they cut cane sugar. The facility itself reminded all of the students of an internment camp. There were 10 beds to a tiny room, and completely open showers without any type of stalls to divide them. The stoves were just stone blocks underneath which you would light a fire and cook. The facility was completely fenced in, which caused a student to ask why there was a fence, to which Pablo replied “To keep the animals out.” However, after noticing how high the fence was and the fact that it was topped with barbed wire, a student asked about it, to which Pablo didn’t reply at all. Overall, the experience was quite jarring, and everyone left the facility with a very uncomfortable notion about the reality of how these workers were treated.
The facility was where we parted with Pablo and began our drive back to San Juan to have a delicious dinner at Sheila’s. After dinner we returned to the hostel, and had a self-reflection about everything we had been through that day, which led to a lot of conversation about our essential question, which asked about the positive and negative sides of global businesses functioning within developing countries.
In conclusion, today was a very impactful and emotionally heavy day, but we had one another to lean on for support, which brought us closer together as a group and changed our perspective on big businesses as a whole.