What’s the strategy for sugar?

“GAWU contends that because of GuySuCo’s `poor husbandry and mismanagement’ there are not enough canes in the ground this crop to meet the corporation’s … target”.

The above quote could easily be one of a series that has been made by the Head of GAWU, Mr Komal Chand in recent weeks lamenting the state of sugar fields. It was indeed made by Mr Chand, not this year but 23 years ago as reported in the April 4, 1990 edition of Stabroek News. It gives a sense of how far the sugar industry has fallen since the recovery from its disastrous showing under the PNC.

Here is another telling statement from the April 9, 1990 edition of Stabroek News.

“The high rate of turnover of sugar workers and the big drop in the labour force … especially in fieldwork for replanting harvesting, etc., have led to poor husbandry, low sucrose content, and under-utilisation of managerial and technical staff and capital equipment. Right now, due to mismanagement, there is not enough canes in the ground in several estates to continue the crop for more than one or two weeks. And due to the government’s bungling, sugar production by cane farmers has been drastically reduced…”

Those words were not spoken by Mr Chand but by no less than the late President Cheddi Jagan. Both of those statements are apposite to the state of the sugar industry today. Back in 1990, as the communist empire crumbled, Dr Jagan and the PPP sensed that they were on the cusp of a historic return to power on the tides of the changed geopolitics and the campaign for free and fair elections. They were right. Words were not minced about the patent failures of the PNC as was the case with sugar. Except now the shoe is on the other foot and the PPP/C and its local satellites, GAWU included are now being held responsible for the sorry state of affairs.

One striking difference is however evident. In 1990, the PNC had recognized the catastrophe that had overtaken sugar which had at one stage necessitated the importation of sugar from Guatemala so that the key EU quota could be met. So during 1990, the PNC was deep in discussion with Booker-Tate for a sugar rescue plan which covered the entire gamut – outright purchase to managerial assistance.

In the end, it was a management contract that was agreed and Booker-Tate would eventually set about reviving the fortunes of the industry and consistently producing close to 300,000 tonnes and sometimes higher. There was a plan in 1990 and it eventually worked. In 2013, it is anybody’s guess what the PPP/C is really thinking.

In our May 20, 2013 editorial on the sugar industry, we implored President Ramotar to seize the opportunity and present his vision for the resuscitation of this industry which has meant so much to the pre- and post-colonial history of the country. When he was gifted this opportunity at the June 16 Enmore Martyrs’ observance, President Ramotar failed to deliver and left those who were anticipating a considered expounding  on the state of the industry and a roadmap for the way forward with that sinking feeling in the pit of their stomachs. His offering was some quixotic pitch at the possibility of sugar co-operatives which even his more ardent admirers would have had to politely laugh off. He coupled this with a plaintive appeal for anyone who might have ideas to come forward. That is not leadership. It is not even following. It is a recipe for chaos. The President clearly didn’t have a plan despite the fact that he served on the board of the present GuySuCo for 19 years up until his election as President in 2011.

Does the government have a plan? The Minister of Finance Dr Ashni Singh at the signing last week of the penultimate tranche of support from the EU to soften the blows from the reform of the EU sugar regime mentioned the imminent unveiling of a revised sugar plan for the years 2013 to 2017. This is good to know except that 2013 is nearly half way done and the public has not benefited from a dissection of the previous, hallowed blueprint which was a total failure despite promising much. The government and GuySuCo which have operated as one in these matters can hardly believe that the public will have any confidence in a new plan authored by the same architects who have presided over the present disaster.

So let there be a laying of all the cards on the table. Since the Minister of Finance has spoken boldly about this matter, let him and the Minister of Agriculture present to the public an assessment of why all of the benchmarks of the blueprint failed and whether this new plan has been devised by the same people. The duo should also address questions about how the leadership of GuySuCo will be reformed so that failure isn’t rewarded and that competent professionals will fill the top posts. The public should also benefit from the gleaming insights that suggest a turnaround is possible without a fundamental reorientation and revamping of the industry, how the loss of workers would be tackled, how the likely ending of the EU quota will affect the industry and the efforts that will be made in mechanization to ensure the availability of the entire $6.3b recently announced by the EU.

From the very serious and agonized views expressed about the state of the industry, it is clear that the fields are believed to be in a terrible state. Replanting cycles and tending of ratoons have been so slap-dash as a result of a corporate edict of parsimony that sugar yields are frighteningly low. Time-tested methods have been abandoned and little money or stock is placed in researching new varieties. Another testament from 1990 may be appropriate. The first crop in 1990 produced a dismal 56,488 tons. This year’s first crop was a smidgeon under 48,000 tons. There have been enough production disasters, warnings from experts and portents about the state of sugar. The time for action is now.

Any plan that the government unveils should have as an immediate objective, a thorough assessment of the state of the fields, the quality of cane in them and the present husbandry practices including the types of fertilizers applied and their regimens. That would then provide the point of departure for a medium and longer term analysis of what the sugar industry needs. There should be some considered explication on how the need for labourers will be addressed and how the ongoing problems at the Skeldon factory will be faced.

At no other time in its history has the PPP ever faced a crisis in sugar where it was completely culpable. In the past it could blame the colonialists, private capital, hostile trade unions or the PNC. These bromides have all subsided into the past. The PPP controls the government, it controls the union movement, it controls the industry, it cultivates the private capital on the fringes of sugar. It has no one but itself to hold responsible and accountable for the state of the industry. It needs a practical and realistic strategy that will inspire confidence in the industry, workers, financiers and the people of Guyana. They all await.

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