Guatemala in Central America wants to become a key player in the global economy and move away from its history of violence, corruption and repression. One its biggest exports is sugar for which is boasts some of the most advanced farming and processing techniques in the world. But as Humphrey Hawksley reports from Guatemala the young generation are abandoning sugar for a more lucrative and lethal trade.
The sky around was clear blue and streaked with smoke that curled up in grey clumps then blew away in the wind. The air above the field of high green sugar cane shimmered, and orange flames rose into the flare of the sun.
Half the field had been harvested, the ground dark and scorched. A truck stood in the middle to be loaded. Beyond that rose cane yet to be cut, and figures appeared from it, then vanished then reappeared again, as they moved in and out with their machetes, slashing down the shafts and throwing them to the ground.
Their faces were black like Dickensian chimney sweeps. Soot and grime cake their hands. Their feet were protected only by sandals so black that it was difficult to tell the plastic straps from the human skin.
They set fire to the field first before starting work to ward off rats and snakes and to burn old leaves and rubbish that would hamper their cutting.
This scene in rural Guatemala would not have changed much since the first sugar refinery was built here in the 16th Century.
Their income is a pittance for work that begins in the middle of the night and they keep going until dusk. Fathers cut cane with sons who should be at school.
“It’s hard,” complained Michael who said he was fourteen, but in his grubby red T-shirt, looked much younger.
But why isn’t he at school, I asked the father who replied: “I prefer to have my child at my side working so that he doesn’t become a delinquent”
It was answer that didn’t yet quite add up.
Guatemala’s sugar – and other food industries – are making a push into international markets where consumers are becoming intolerant of child labour and poverty like this.
The global sugar companies earn billions of dollars a year, yet in the village of Las Flores next to the cane field, the roads are unpaved, sanitation is poor, the homes are shanty huts and almost half the children suffer from malnutrition.
But also the younger generation here, poor but still hooked up to Facebook and Twitter, now imagine a different kind of future for themselves.
But exactly what — because in these parts one alternative to working in the cane fields is particularly unpalateable.
In the near-by remote town of San Jose El Idolo, Mayor Alfredo Lam, cuts a commanding figure as he moves through the crowd of women with their children who have come to him for help.
He is a large man, his dark blue shirt tight around his stomach, a businessman who ran for mayor when he saw his town turn more violent, its people more desperate.”
“You’re a widow, right?” he asks one young woman, holding a child on her shoulder and another standing with her free hand.
“Yes, I’m a single mother,” she says.
“And he left you with how many children?”
“I have two.
He turns to explain. “He left her with two children and one has special needs. These are all mothers here, single mothers, widows, abandoned by their men, or the men are in prison.”
He takes me on a tour of the town and surrounding areas. We talk as we drive, putting in context the sugar cane belt where he lives with the general violence that’s wracking Guatemala – sixteen murders a day among just 14 million people — much of it linked to drug crime.
Since 2006, the northern neighbour Mexico has waged war on its drug cartels. More than 50,000 people have been killed, and as the cartels are squeezed there, they’ve moved their guns and money across the border to Guatemala.
“The young people, they don’t want to work on the banana plantations,” says the mayor, as we passed a collapsed, rusting bridge, destroyed by a long-ago flood. “They don’t want to cut sugar cane. That’s why we have a problem with drug gangs because we’re close to the border with Mexico. The young people can make a lot of money.”
“So how do you fight it?”
He drove us to the police station in the town’s narrow high street. Nine police officers were employed for a population of 11,000. Only one was there — and he couldn’t go out because there were no vehicles.
“The police can’t fight it,” says the mayor. “We need education and jobs.”
Suddenly, the conversation I’d had with little Michael’s father in the cane field made sense. The choice he faced wasn’t between his son working or going to school.
It was more sinister than that.
It was between cutting cane in those appalling conditions or being pressured into joining a gang with the risk of getting killed in a drug war.