I worked in the Guyana sugar industry for decades, ending my career in 1999 as a Director of GuySuCo specifically in charge of marketing. I suppose it is because of this long experience that I am quite frequently asked to comment on the current state of the industry.
Knowing full well my serious deficiencies in current knowledge of sugar’s strengths and weaknesses, problems and challenges, perils and prospects – and remembering my father’s advice when I was a young man long, long ago: “Better not presume to tell the next man how to walk unless you are wearing his boots with the nails in them” – I am hesitant to get involved or even comment in any way.
Nevertheless, memories come back to me and I recall how much of my life – heart and mind and soul – I invested in this great industry and I find myself wanting to venture some random thoughts as the debate on sugar’s future grows more rancorous and perhaps comes to a head.
I am very disturbed by the state into which the industry has fallen – the terrible decline in production and productivity, the mounting losses and the accumulating debt, the plight of workers and their families – especially right now those at Wales which I read so much about. I am saddened. So many good scenes of growth and prosperity and progress I saw sugar foster, and now I hear daily of loss and debt and decline and closures.
I frankly do not know what the answer is. My own experience with “other crops” in years gone by leads me to think that this is not the answer. I would have thought that the better route would be to take advantage of, and lobby hard for, any premium bulk sugar markets which might be left in the US and in post-Brexit Britain while developing products like co-generation, refined sugar, special sugars, molasses and alcohol derivatives. I remember we used to sell as much as 120,000 tonnes of sugar in Caricom; we should go hard for that market, our regional and legally protectable market.
As I have always been, I am deeply in favour of saving the industry and urge everything possible to do so if only for the following reasons, all of which carry a ‘weight’ which substantially transcends simple profit and loss:
- The industry brings in considerable foreign exchange very hard to replace, and it does so with an inexhaustible, ever-renewable resource.
- Above all, the industry provides direct employment for 16,000 people (if that is the current figure) and therefore livelihood for as many as 90,000 Guyanese.
- Estate operations and requirements also generate spin-off economic, social and infrastructure activity without which whole communities deteriorate into deprivation and disorder or ghost-town despair.
- Much of rural Guyana is historically and significantly held together by the framework of the sugar industry. If this fabric is abruptly torn apart the socio-political consequences would be grave and disruptive. In other words, sugar contributes a large element of rural stability in the nation.
Those who manage the economy and the nation should, at the very least, make sure they have a good idea of how these four contributions are to be achieved in a sugar-less economy and society before taking any action which will effectively kill off an industry which still can give the nation so much and which sustains the lives of tens of thousands of Guyanese.