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Louisiana's sugar-cane farms; Has the plantation image faded

By Robert M. PressStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / February 16, 1983

Thibodaux, La.

Moss-draped trees line many of the back roads in this area. Muddy-water bayous split many of the towns. Just a few feet off one highway, egrets stand in the shallow waters of a swamp, oblivious to the traffic as they wait patiently to spot their next bite of food.

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Here and there the tall, white columns of an old mansion stir images of the antebellum South. And here and there the houses of sugar-cane workers bring to mind news reports about the treatment of those workers by farmers.

To some extent, the negative publicity given the farmers can be traced to a fact of life in this part of Louisiana: Many of the cane workers lived, and still live, on the farm in rent-free houses. It is easy to contrast the homes of farmers and workers. The stories usually came out as mansions vs. shacks. Such contra h - // exist, would be far less evident in an urban area. A plant owner, for example, is likely to live in the suburbs, miles away from his inner-city employees.

Today, because of mechanization, there are far fewer workers living on the farms, and far less attention is given to the issue in the news media.

But critics charge, on behalf of the thousands who still work the cane fields , that exploitation persists. They point not only to continued poor housing, but to low pay and unhealthy working conditions.

Sugar-cane farmers emphasize today, as in the past, that they provide the workers' houses free. And if workers don't like the conditions or the pay, they are free to leave, they say.

Critics argue, however, that the workers are poorly paid, undereducated, and unlikely to have the opportunity to obtain training for a better-paying job. In effect, so the argument goes, the workers are trapped.

But even beyond the poverty of the workers, ''the main issue is plantationism ,'' says Sister Anne Catherine Bizalion, cofounder of the Southern Mutual Help Association (SMHA). Her organization seeks improved conditions for cane workers.

Sugar-cane workers are ''cQught Rn a vicious cycle of poverty and disease and seeing life through one person'' - the farmer, she said in an interview at the SMHA office in New Iberia. She alleges that farm workers still live under a cloud of fear: fear of loosing their free home and their way of life in the country if they displease the farmer.

But Charles Hodson, general manager of the American Sugar League (a Louisiana organization), strongly disagrees with this assessment. In contrast to the old image of the rich plantation owner, he says, sugar-cane farmers ''haven't gotten rich'' over the past decade.

''Very few of those plantation homes are occupied by sugar-cane farmers today ,'' Mr. Hodson says. ''The plantation system, or whatever, is just something nonexistent in these days and times.''

And the future of the industry is uncertain, dependent on federal protection of uncertain duration, he says. That protection is currently in the form of import quotas, which have the effect of raising the price of imported sugar so the more costly US-produced sugar can compete. A Department of Agriculture official estimates that Americans would probably pay about half as much for sugar without such protection. But the US sugar industry argues that the quotas protect jobs and income for Americans. It also points out that continued US production provides some insurance against sugar rationing in case foreign supply patterns change.