My father Mr Joseph Vieira had 4 British patents when he was 34 years old; they were all for the design of implements for our sugar industry, specifically for tools to do land preparation in our canefields. For this achievement he was asked to join the Board of Directors of Bookers in 1952 as the Director of Mechanical Coordination, a position he held until 1992, when he was removed since he was not a PPP supporter. Even then at age 74 he was still inventing new ways to prepare the sugar-cane fields using big articulated John Deer tractors with 8 wheels rather than the more costly and slower caterpillar tractors.
My father retired from Houston Estate in 1978 at age 60; he said that he was going to enjoy his retirement and relax. At the time Houston, a sugar estate of around 1600 planted acres, was producing around 4500-4800 tons of sugar a year, ie a yield of around 3 tons sugar per acre. Even though small it was producing nearly 25-30 per cent of LBI’s sugar, even though it was much bigger.
He was not allowed to retire for long. My father was always an avid aeroplane pilot and had his own plane as far back as I could remember, and he was the non-executive chairman of Guyana Airways for many years. After he retired from Houston, Burnham asked him to become executive Chairman of the then bankrupt Guyana Airways Corporation, to which he agreed, and after only 4 years he brought the airways back to profitability and retired again at 70 in 1988. But at that time he began to work as manager of Houston again, since in his absence the estate had dropped from producing 4800 tons to just about 1800 tons. In 4 years he brought it back to a production of over 4000 tons. Mr Yesu Persaud, who is not unfamiliar with the sugar industry, when shown this accomplishment by my brother, described it as an inspired performance. When I said that my father was the greatest Guyanese sugar-cane planter in the history of this country, I was not joking or boasting; it was just a statement of fact.
Any sugar industry can be returned to normalcy (as far as the canes are concerned) in 4 years. The reason is not that Joe Vieira did it at Houston; it is that the sugar industry replants 20% of its fields every year, so in 5 years all the damage Mr Bhim and Mr Komal Chand are seeing in the canefields of GuySuCo today, can be undone by starting now with great plant fields, which will be great first ratoons, and then great second ratoons, etc, until the 4th ratoon after which it will be thrown out to become a plant field again, since it is unreasonable to expect that a great plant field will return a poor first ratoon just as it is unreasonable to expect that a poor plant field will become a great ratoon field. Only a disaster like the 2005 flood can step in the way and undo that.
Does GuySuCo have the knowhow to prepare and plant a high-yielding plant field today; the ability to reap it on time, fertilize it on time and prepare it for growing into a great first ratoon? This is the real question that must be answered.
In one of my first commentaries aired in Guyana on 21st August, 2001, I made the following observations: “It is very strange. It means that the industry increased its acreage from 36,000 hectares to 46,000 hectares in the last 10 years, a significant 28% increase, with no significant improvement on the total amount of cane produced, which stays at around 3 million tons per year. Our sugar production has, however, been improving: 1986-245,000 tons sugar (TS;) 1987-221,000 TS; 1988-168,000 TS;1989-165,000 TS; 1990-130,000 TS; 1991-160,000 TS; 1992-243,000 TS; 1993-243,000 TS; 1994-253,000 TS; 1995-250,000 TS; 1996-280,000 TS; 1997-276,000 TS; 1998- 253,000 TS; 1999- 321,000 TS. This was a direct result of improved factory efficiency under Booker Tate and the use of chemical ripeners and not the grinding of more canes which seem to be stuck at just around 3 million tons of cane per year. So the dropping field yields of cane per acre in our industry have been constantly going on since the 1990s. What has helped is that they were enjoying better factory performance and they were using ripeners and were taking less tons of cane to make a ton of sugar, but they were not getting more canes.”
Since I can only get this data from annual reports which are notorious for hiding the faults of the management of the industry I cannot tell why this fall in field productivity was going on.
It is the most crucial question which has to be asked and answered: why are the tons of cane per acre in the industry declining? And what can we do to restore them?
And Komal Chand is right; as far as factories go in our industry Albion, Rose Hall, Blairmont and Enmore are performing credibly well, which leaves the Skeldon, Uitvlugt and Wales factories needing some monitoring, but their problems could be an unreliable supply of canes. But all estates show a decline in canes per acre and the ability to cut when there are a lot of canes to be cut, so this problem could be a mixture of a dwindling workforce as well as poor and late husbandry practices. No matter how good the canes, if you don’t reap them on time and conduct good husbandry practices on time there will be “no canes in the fields.”
The real problem seems to be that the management unassisted by a board of directors which is totally at sea without a paddle or a compass, doesn’t know where to start to identify these problems, and what they have to do to rectify them. The fact that they will inevitably have to diversify and to mechanise the industry goes without saying; it is how to phase in one and phase out the other without disturbing the workforce and putting people out of work that will take inspired management.
The President has asked for advice and I have given it to him; where we go from here is up to him. For 12 years I saw this problem looming in this industry and I am very proud of that foresight, but when it comes to GuySuCo I have never been wrong. And I will say again that I told Mr Bharrat Jagdeo since 1999 that the Skeldon expansion project was riddled with risks. Perhaps he sees the dangers now.