Whether he was reporting from Gaza, Sarajevo or South India, USC journalist and professor Sandy Tolen failed to take his mind off Lulu Pierre.
Tollen met Pierre in 1991 when he was visiting the Dominican Republic on a mission for NPR, where he was working at the time. Pierre, then 14, was a victim of child labor and human trafficking that brought the slow-moving to the Dominican Republic where they had to cut sugar cane in orchards to survive.
After struggling with the laborious task, Tollen said that Pierre “gave up, and he said ‘I surrender myself to God.'” Tollen decided to intervene and helped bring Pierre back to safety in Haiti.
More than 30 years later, Tolan returned to Haiti in an attempt to create a story about finding Pierre and learning if he had returned to safety. While this effort was unsuccessful, another story became the focus of Tolan’s return – the modern conditions in the Dominican sugarcane fields.
Tollen, along with his reporting partner Euclid Cordero Noel, created “The Bitter Work Behind the Sugar” for exposing the Center for Investigative Reporting, published in conjunction with Mother Jones magazine. The story won the Overseas Press Club Award and sparked potential change for Haitian reed cutters in the Dominican Republic.
“Because of our report, and some additional work in the Washington Post, the United States Congress, through the House Commerce Committee on Roads and Means [has] “He wrote two very powerful letters, including something called a letter of supervision, demanding that three federal agencies investigate what they call ‘slave-like conditions,'” Tollen said.
Cordero Nuel says Stolen posted the news of the award to the team in a group chat that included the duo’s editor, Michael Montgomery. The Morton Frank Award from the Overseas Press Club is given to “reporting the best international business news on television, video, radio, audio or podcast.” The award will be presented at a ceremony in New York on April 21.
Tolan said the situation in the fields and small working-class towns has not improved much since his last visit in the 1990s. In 2019 they found homes in poor condition, poor medical care and no electricity or running water.
“In most homes there were no basic things we take for granted [in the United States]”Rafael Perez, a second-year student in business administration, said about one of his service trips in the country.” Some had running water, some did not – just not great conditions to live in. “
Workers get paid as low as $ 4 a day, but that depends on the amount of sugar cane brought in. Healthcare and other services are sorely lacking, and slow workers are forced to go into loan plans that could carry interest rates of more than 520% a year, and lock them down. For a life of debt, Tolan said.
“That’s why the Romana Center does not want to change people’s lives,” said Cordero Noel. “If their lives change because of the better pay, they have no workers.”
The Romana Center is the huge corporation that is responsible for about 70% of the Dominican Republic’s sugar exports and has incredible power in the country. Cordero Noel said they were “a state within a state.”
“The Romana Center says it has poured millions of dollars into warehouses to improve living and working conditions,” Tolan wrote in “The Bitter Work Behind Sugar.”
However, the corporation still exploits its employees in poor working conditions and living conditions. While those stuck at the bottom of the Romana Center suffer, brothers Alfonso and Papa Punjul, who bought the Romana Center in 1984 with a group of investors, live a life of luxury, travel on million-dollar yachts and are hosted in luxury resorts.
This human rights catastrophe does not exist in a vacuum: much of Romana’s main sugar cane produced by the Haitians goes directly to U.S. processing plants and eventually falls into the hands of ordinary Americans, Tollen said.
“It becomes Hershey’s cakes and cookies and bars, literally Hershey’s bars,” Tolan said. “There is a real connection between the lives of these people in the Dominican Republic, those cane-cuters from Haiti, with the consumer decisions we make.”
Cordero Noel grew up in the home and testifies to the difficulties these workers face. The Haitian Dominican journalist has devoted most of his career to telling the stories of Haitian Dominicans, especially those who work in the sugar cane fields.
“When I’m not working in the sugar cane orchard, an interviewer [and] Talk to the people and investigate the violence there, [the] Violations, I’m on the Dominican border between the Dominican Republic and Haiti, “said Cordero Noel.
Cordero Noel helped bridge a cultural and linguistic gap between the sugarcane workers and the Tolan. The two met when Tolan was looking for someone who knew the area and the Dominican houses.
“It’s rare to find someone who has kinds of linguistic skills, and courage, and good humor, and kindness and great journalistic instincts,” Tolan said, speaking of Cordero Noel.
The crew was in danger because of their reporting, sometimes threatened by armed guards.
“There were times I put my phone in flight mode because we thought they were following us,” Tolan said.
Both reporters are excited to receive the award, but Tollen is particularly excited for Cordero Noel, given the start of his career and the danger he faced in reporting.
“I’m so excited for [Cordero Nuel] Because it was harder for him. He had more difficulties as a result of the story than I did, “Tolan said.” He is a young journalist who is at a relatively early stage in his career, and I am so excited for him above all else. “
Tollen and Cordero Noel hope these investigations will lead the U.S. to take action to hold the Romana Center accountable. Of its employees is more likely.
“Action from Congress and perhaps other agencies will have a far more sweeping impact than any award can,” Tolan said.