Critics and stakeholders are criticising the Guyana Sugar Corporation for a strategic plan they say falls short of addressing the poor state of cane fields.
According to industry insiders agronomy is not being seriously addressed in the 60-page 2013-2017 strategic plan. The plan has triggered dismay at its slashing of projected annual output by 100,000 tonnes and its revelations on the poor state of the flagship Skeldon factory.
One industry expert noted that the plan stated what is well known information that the fields need to be replanted after five ratoons and that flood fallowing needs to bepractised once again. He said that critics had been calling for a return to flood fallowing for years and that having the plan state this was necessary was just stating the obvious.
He told Stabroek News that legume fallowing was an interesting idea and that it was something that GuySuCo should have been already contemplating. Stabroek News was told that legume fallowing, which involved legumes being planted among the cane, would be far cheaper as the legumes work as a natural fertiliser. The industry expert noted that GuySuCo has consistently complained that a lack of capital has long held the corporation back from executing various husbandry initiatives.
The industry insider told Stabroek News that the plan was more political and did little to address what needed to be done and how to effectively execute changes. He said that GuySuCo was “tinkering” with the truth and that for years since the 2009 blueprint – which had been meant to engineer the turnaround of the industry – the state-owned corporation has been adamant that it was unable to perform flood fallowing since it could not sacrifice land for six months or over. He said that GuySuCo has stated multiple times that there was not enough land for cane so that the necessary flood fallowing and proper care of the fields could not be addressed. According to GuySuCo’s new strategic plan, five percent of all land should be under flood fallowing on a yearly basis. The plan continued that between July 2013 and June 2014, 510 hectares of land would be under flood fallowing.
The industry insider noted that GuySuCo’s carefully worded plan to eliminate the fifth ratoon, which is the fifth harvest before new cane needs to be planted, did not represent an actual change in the corporation’s strategy. He explained that while the plan stated that after the fourth ratoon the land will be replanted, the first ratoon is actually called “first harvest” and then the four ratoons follow. He said that GuySuCo was not eliminating the fifth ratoon, but simply referring to the first as “first harvest” which would result in the remaining four cycles being called ratoons. GuySuCo said in the plan that approximately 30 percent of the current cultivation is over the fourth ratoon stage which is actually over the fifth harvest since the cane would have been planted.
President of the Guyana Agricultural and General Workers Union, Komal Chand, speaking about his concerns about the industry said that while the union did not receive an official figure for the number of canes in the ground, GuySuCo has failed miserably in caring for the land and as a result flood following and other good husbandry practices have been abandoned. Chand said that the cane yield has severely diminished which resulted in GuySuCo being unable to have an annual portion of land resting or under flood fallowing. He said that GuySuCo needed to do a comprehensive survey of the fields and that the plan had to take this into consideration.
Chand said that GuySuCo needed to be asked “over the past three years what percentage of the industry crop have they been able to rehab?” He continued that unfortunately GuySuCo has not been able to come up with a number from a comprehensive study. He said that flood fallowing “is feasible, it has been very rewarding in that it revives nutrients, a lot of nutriments in the fields so the canes that they plant, the yield per hectare is higher than where they have not been able to do flood fallowing”.
He moved on to private cane farmers, stating that when the Chinese-built Skeldon factory was being commissioned, the original plan was to have the estate responsible for one-third of all production. He said that Skeldon was to be responsible for 110,000 tonnes of sugar annually. Stabroek News has reported previously that Skeldon is currently only operating at 36 percent of its original 2008 projection and has so far only produced approximately 41,000 tonnes of sugar for the year.
Chand said that private cane farmers are worried and they feel that it was not good business sense to jump into something that was not profitable. He told Stabroek News that private cane farmers at Wales, West Demerara have remained consistent but to improve the industry the status quo had to change for the better and that the plan didn’t outline how to bring private cane farmers on board.
Kenneth Joseph, the general secretary of the other major union in the industry, the National Association of Agricultural, Commercial and Industrial Employees, said that in his view the plan was just political posturing. He said that there was little to be said about workers throughout the plan and this reflected a lack of respect for the largest stakeholder, the employees of the sugar industry.
Joseph stated that “the corporation do not feel (that) listening to the workers’ voices is important”. He said that the resulting trajectory is to increase the number of private cane farmers and slowly even privatize sugar in Guyana. Joseph told Stabroek News that this would further cripple the industry and instead, funding had to be spent in training and ensuring that workers were knowledgeable about their job requirements.
He recalled that prior to the troubled US$110M Skeldon factory being constructed NAACIE had requested that workers be sent along with other experts to see how factories operate around the world.
Joseph said that investing in employees could easily fix many of GuySuCo’s current issues. He said that GuySuCo’s board was so far removed from the actual business of sugar that the plan was just a political move to put something out.
Joseph stated that by going to the unions prior to formulating a plan, worker turnout, low productivity and the continued stress due to the unpredictable industrial relations environment could have been addressed with ideas to resolve these issues. The unions were not involved in the composing of the new plan.
Stabroek News did ask Joseph why the unions were not more proactive in preparing plans and submitting them to GuySuCo in the hope that the state-owned corporation would utilise informal submissions as compared to having no input. He said that this was an issue with industrial relations throughout Guyana and that was something that the unions did have to take on. He added that GuySuCo has remained silent and is not open to sharing information which has consistently presented roadblocks in addressing the level of debt GuySuCo is in and how to transition from debt to sustainability once again.