December 12, 2019
I am on Bansi Lal’s porch on a hill above the cane fields. Roosters are crowing, and there is a chill in the air. Lal’s ancestors were the earliest Indo-Fijians — indentured laborers from north-central India the British brought over to cut sugarcane. I am here after a full day’s journey that began with a 4:00 a.m. taxi from my hotel to the port at Fiji’s capital city, Suva, where I rode a ferry to the island of Vanua Levu, and into the cane fields.
Vanua Levu is largely rural. Lal’s wife serves me cucumber and cheese sandwiches and tea. He says, “we are a dot,” and then corrects himself. “Two dots,” he said, pointing out that Fiji’s two main islands, Viti Levu — the larger one, where Suva is — and Vanua Levu, are hard to find on a map of the South Pacific. Sugar cane production is a significant part of Vanua Levu’s economy, like much of Fiji's, although the island has started to develop other forms of agriculture and logging. Tourism is limited. Lal cut cane for most of his life and now drives a tractor to move cane to the rails, where it will be transported to the Labasa mill. One of his sons is a schoolteacher; the other manages a parking garage in town.
Groups of cane laborers are called gangs, organized units attached to the Labasa mill, a system that dates back to the indenture period. Each man — there are usually eight to nine — has a specific task and pay rate. Lal is the tractor driver and doesn't cut cane. The mill tells the gang each day how much cane it will purchase from them and at what price. Once they meet the day's quota, the gangs stop working.
Lal, age 69, and the other members of Gang 12, some of whom are 20 years younger, are almost certainly the last generation of Indian cane cutters in Fiji.