Catherine Hyland

The Sugar

The Sugar


Mauritius: The Face of Sugar

Sugar is a disastrous crop. It exhausts the soil, it’s responsible for a global increase in diabetes and obesity, and its price is plummeting. If you’re growing it, you are doomed.

It’s a problem for sugar producers the world over, but especially on the island of Mauritius. One third of the island is given over to sugar plantations, with deserted fields and barren lands marking the 8,000 hectares that have been abandoned. With the closure of preferential access to European markets happening in 2017, Mauritian sugar farmers are being forced to adapt and change.

Instead of producing ordinary cane sugar, there are plans to limit production to higher-priced organic sugar. Sugar farmers are diversifying into a burgeoning rum industry, sugar biomass is being used in the production of biofuels, and there are rumours of Mauritius developing a sugar that can be tolerated by diabetics.

In this sense, Mauritius is the poster boy for the evolving sugar market. It’s an evolution that needs to happen. Sugar is the world’s greatest health threat, it’s the new tobacco. After years of industry-led disinformation, governments are slowly awakening to the health risks it poses.

The challenges faced by the sugar industry are nothing new. Sugar has always been in crisis. It’s always been an evolving, expanding, and volatile market. Two hundred years ago, sugar was the most valuable commodity in European trade. It went from being a luxury good only used by the absurdly rich in the 17 th century, becoming a common ingredient in everyday households 200 years later. And as the household market became saturated, so sugar entered other markets, becoming a flavour enhancer in processed foods ranging from cornflakes to pizza and beans.

Through environmental portraits of farmers (there are 30,000 small sugar farms on Mauritius), labourers, exporters, and factory workers, it presents portraits of the island’s chain of sugar-related labour against a sugar-dominated landscape. On Mauritius, the embedding of sugar into the landscape is evident in the deforestation of the island, in the decrease in biodiversity (the dodo was famously native to Mauritius), and in the construction of transport infrastructure built deliberately to serve the sugar industry. It’s visible in the capital of Mauritius, it’s visible in the sugar-farming hinterlands, it’s visible in the faces of the people who live on the island, and it’s visible in the way they walk, they work and they relax.