Maira Asif is a rising senior majoring in medical anthropology. She is from Northeast Philadelphia.
For her art installation, she chose to work with cardboard, wood, fake blood and different forms of sugar, starting with small packets commonly found in dining halls to its origins with sugarcane. She constructed a cardboard board with the question “Can you give up sugar?” behind two wooden plates. One featured sugar in its powdered form and packets while the other had sugarcane covered in fake blood to make visible the violence that is often overlooked in making a historical luxury into a household necessity.
Check out her poem below:
The summers in Pakistan are nothing short of brutal. In my memories of growing up in the northern province of Punjab, the temperatures would consistently reach up to 110 degrees Fahrenheit. The air would be so humid that I could feel each individual ray of sunshine hitting my skin every time I walked back home after classes ended. As I trudged miserably through the heat day after day, I wondered how the crops I was walking by managed to grow in such harsh conditions. My family-owned land that mostly grew wheat and touching it felt similar to holding rocks because of how hot it would get. My grandfather, on the other hand, grew sugarcane on the farm he shared with my grandmother. He was a kind, gentle soul who would always teach me fun tricks during summer vacation. For example, if there was a stalk of sugarcane nearby, he would spin it in his right hand by passing it through each of his fingers one by one. When I learned it for the first time, I used a small, yellow and brown stalk. Afterwards, he told me I could eat it as a reward for my efforts. As I bit into the sugarcane, I could taste the juice but nothing particularly sweet. When I said so out loud to my grandfather, he took me to a field close by. He gathered a bunch of sugarcane in one hand and used the other to cleanly slice them using a small sickle. He told me that everything in his hand would probably only make a few grams of sugar, which is why a singular stalk is not very sweet. While he showed me this, I noticed another sugarcane at the edge that had a stain on it. I did not think too much of it as it could’ve easily been sunburnt, unable to stand the heat, unlike wheat. However, it also looked like blood, and I wondered: can sugarcane bleed?
Pakistan is no stranger violence within and around agriculture. It suffers from a history of brutal and bloody injustices under British rule. While new faces now sit in seats of power, they rely on the same skewed hierarchical systems used by the colonizers. Those who prospered under the British Raj continue to do so while those who were pushed to the bottom of the social ladder remain destitute of stable livelihoods. Growing up, I did not question or think too much about the farming industry. After all, the ecology surrounding me always remained the same and I never noticed any major changes. Sugarcane, specifically Saccharum officinarum L., would be grown in a plot of land, cut down and then somehow end up as the sugar on my dinner plate. Perhaps as a young, relatively sheltered child from a privileged family, I failed to notice that I’ve always taken this process for granted and it is nowhere as commonsense as it appears to be. In their work on decolonization, Heather Davis and Zoe Todd put the start date of the anthropocene at the dawn of colonization because it signaled the beginning of the practices of dispossession and violence that have shaped the modern world. Pakistan’s current economy and politics are an excellent example of their argument. Sugarcane has continued to act as a motivator for unequal power dynamics since the beginning of colonization in South Asia, leading to the creation of the country’s sugar mill mafia. However, it is now also a sign of protest and resistance for those who refuse to adhere to the unbalanced status quo.
Agriculture is the backbone of Pakistan’s economy and sugarcane is the most important cash crop in the country after wheat. The most common of its species, Saccharum officinarum L., is grown in Punjab and tends to have a very sensitive cultivation process. A slight deviation from the recommended growing method, such as late planting, can reduce yields by as much as 30 percent. It is also a perennial grass, which means that it does not have to be planted every year. A new shoot will typically sprout from a cut stalk and farmers can harvest crops from one planting for the next 3-5 years. Since it is a deep-rooted crop, land preparation plays a huge part in its cultivation. Manure is applied a month prior to plantation and the land is plowed every two years to ensure full germination. It is typically planted in row spacing in the spring, which is an optimal season since it tends to not have any low temperatures that could be detrimental to the crop. In Punjab, the planting begins in the middle of February and ends in March. Sugarcane is then harvested towards the end of the summer and delivered to sugar mills, which crush it into the sugar that is loved worldwide.
The power imbalance between the farmers and mill owners has begun to result in concerningly low yields. While Pakistan is among the top 20 counties in the world when it comes to area under cultivation for sugarcane, this ranking takes a sharp nosedive when it comes to yield. Although production has continued to expand over the years, the rate of productivity has been very slow and even shows signs of decline. The average global yield of sugarcane is around 60 metric tons/ha and Pakistan’s has been stuck between 45-50 tons/ha for the past few years. Despite having a strong industrial and agricultural foundation, the industry is operating 70 percent below its capacity. The reason for this inefficiency can be traced all the way back to laws created by the British Raj in the 19th century.
The British Empire managed to colonize India, which included present-day Pakistan and Bangladesh, in 1857 and established a system of power that continues to flourish in modern day. In his book, Sweetness and Power, Sidney Mintz talks about the human obsession with sweetness and how it has shaped the world. He writes about the impact of sugar on historical developments, namely the creation of slavery and how it was used to transform a luxury staple into a household necessity. While he focuses on the Americas, the same argument can also be made for Pakistan’s history with the British. One of their main goals in conquering the land was to maximize it for agricultural production of crops such as sugarcane. In fact, pre-independence India became the central importer of sugar for the English after the global slave trade ended in the 18th century. Furthermore, the colonizers carefully organized their agricultural system to ensure loyalty. Those unwilling to support the new regime were uprooted from their land and placed on farms where they had to grow sugarcane or wheat to survive. On the other hand, those loyal to the crown were given the best farmland and elite positions within the government. It resulted in a self-reinforcing system that demanded absolute loyalty, but also made it so that the native elites would uphold colonial policies long after independence.
The Sugarcane Act of 1936 separated the country’s sugar mills by zones and forced farmers to only sell their sugarcane to a mill in their assigned area. It meant that mill owners were given immense power over those harvesting sugarcane since they could buy and sell their products at whatever price they preferred. There have been no additions or changes to the law in the past hundred years, a fact which has been taken advantage of by the current owners. They now regularly delay payments to farmers and even refuse to pay them at a rate on which they can live on. It is estimated that the sugar mills owe approximately 25 billion rupees, nearly 90 million dollars, to the poor farmers. Sophie Chao talks about the idea of dispossessory dynamics in her book, In the Shadow of the Palms. She defines it in relation to the oil palm agribusiness in Indonesia and how it is a process that perpetuates structural violence in the form of poverty and intergenerational displacement. The same concept can be applied to the current state of the sugarcane industry in Pakistan. Nothing is being done about the gross imbalance between farmers and owners because all 32 sugar mills in Punjab happen to be owned by the same 12-15 families for generations. Moreover, almost every mill board has a member in parliament. Due to the shady underpinning of this system, the owners are collectively known as the sugar mill mafia. In addition, things have come to a boiling point. Many farmers have begun to take drastic actions. In response to years of abuse, an elderly farmer named Jaffar set his sugarcane field on fire in Punjab. As he lit the match to destroy his fully ripe sugarcane, he said, “Neither the factory owners purchase the raw material, nor the government is paying any heed to the issue.” His desperate pleas shocked the onlookers who watched the smoke swallow the entire plot of land. Jaffar has no money or power to do anything in this situation. All he has is the farmland that has been in his family for generations.
In conclusion, sugarcane, the object of colonial obsession for hundreds of years, has now been transformed into a sign of protest by the same hands that pain-stakingly planted it in the first place. Has it finally begun to “bleed” after centuries of abuse? It was a major motivator for the British colonization of pre-independence Pakistan and India. It was also the basis for colonial policies and systems of power that are thriving in modern-day to ensure that the sugar mill mafia gets the most profit out of it while also enjoying the sweetness it produces in the form of sugar on their dinner plate.
Sugar is often taken for granted and many do not consider how much labor has gone into making sure it is available at a moment’s notice. Moreover, people do not realize that sugarcane, as the most widely available source of sugar, can be a source of structural violence. Centuries of unequal power dynamics that resulted in displacement and poverty led to the current sugarcane industry in countries like Pakistan. Given how easily it is overlooked, I wanted to force people to acknowledge this commonsense ecology and question how they think about it.
Over the course of a week, I asked various students on campus if they could give up sugar. Interestingly, out of the 42 participants, 22 said they could give it up while the other 22 said they could not. The responses were varied and included several different perspectives. Initially most students said they could not live without sugar because it is such an overwhelming part of their lives. They do not even have to put sugar in a lot of the foods they eat as it’s already added in. However, after learning about my project, many of them began to have second thoughts and began to engage with the topic differently. For example, one respondent said that he could not give sugar permanently but would do so temporarily for a protest to push mill owners to pay their farmers fairly. Another one said that she could use alternatives such as honey. On the other hand, some of them really wanted to keep eating sugar. One student even said that she was American and thus, did not need to worry about what happened outside her country. Despite her bluntness, she brought up an important point. Most of the students said that most major industries have some sort of violence and power imbalance associated with them, so it was hard to care too much about the sugarcane industry.
Unfortunately, unless people see the violence happening for themselves, they find it hard to give up an essential product like sugar. I tried to lessen that effect with my art installation. I created a board that asked the question, “Can you give up sugar?” with the terms “Yes” and “No” written on opposite corners. In front of the board were two plates. One had powdered sugar by itself and in small packets to show how it is normally seen. The other had sugarcane stalks covered in fake blood to represent the violent origins of sugar. While it was able to convince some to think differently about sugarcane, other were dead set on ignoring it. The overall sentiment was that people could give up sugar, but never sweetness.
1 Heather Davis and Zoe Todd, “On the Importance of a Date, or Decolonizing the Anthropocene,” ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies 16, no. 4 (2017): 763-765.
2 Asghar M. Qureshi and Shahid Afghan, “Sugarcane cultivation in Pakistan,” Pakistan Society of Sugar Technologist (2005): 1-11. Sugar Book Publication.
3 Nadeem A. Raja, “All About Crop: Sugarcane,” Pakissan, 2017, https://www.pakissan.com/ english/allabout/crop/sugarcane.shtml#:~:text=There%20are%20two%20planting%20seasons,in%20the%20Punjab%20and%20Sindh.
4 Nadeem A. Raja, “All About Crop: Sugarcane.”
5 Ayed A. Habib, “Analysis of Sugar Industry and Shortfall of Sugar,” Khilji & Co, 2020, https://khilji.net.pk/analysis-of-sugar-industry-and-shortfall-of-sugar/.
6 Sidney W. Mintz, Sweetness and power: The place of sugar in modern history (Penguin, 1986), 1-14.
7 Michael H. Fisher, An environmental history of India: from earliest times to the twenty-first century, 115.
8 Ranjani Chakraborty and Laura Bult, “The Disastrous Redesign of Pakistan’s Rivers,” Vox (Vox, February 7, 2023), 04:59-05:30, https://www.vox.com/videos/2023/2/7/23589769/ pakistan-rivers -flooding-colonialism-engineering.
9 Habib, “Analysis of Sugar Industry and Shortfall of Sugar.”
10 Sophie Chao, In the shadow of the palms: more-than-human becomings in West Papua (Duke University Press, 2022), 4-10.
11 Habib, “Analysis of Sugar Industry and Shortfall of Sugar.”
12 Sarfraz Ali, “Pakistani farmer burns his sugarcane crop over millers mafia’s mistreatment,” Daily Pakistan, December 14, 2017, https://en.dailypakistan.com.pk/14-Dec-2017/ pakistani-farmer-burns- his-sugarcane-crop-over-millers-mafia-s-mistreatment.
13 Sarfraz Ali, “Pakistani farmer burns his sugarcane crop over millers mafia’s mistreatment.”
14 Habib, “Analysis of Sugar Industry and Shortfall of Sugar.”