The debates over the future of the sugar industry in Guyana continue in the public sphere, as they should. One puzzling aspect however is the trajectory of many of the arguments. Few laymen would disagree that a strategy based on the continued export of large quantities of raw (unrefined) sugar is not a particularly promising option, given the loss of preferential access to key markets and the small fact that our neighbour Brazil produced about 34 million tonnes of sugar last year. Many of us question why steps were not taken years ago to add value to our sugar product, by constructing a refinery, for example.
However to concede these points is not the same as saying that the cultivation of sugar has no future in Guyana. Sugar has been cultivated here for several hundred years. Why the hasty retreat?
Look around. Two of our most prominent and successful local businesses ‒ Banks DIH and Demerara Distillers Ltd ‒ produce and export rum.
Is it so impossible to imagine (and facilitate) a half-dozen micro-distilleries dotted around the countryside producing rum?
We already have a significant degree of knowledge and expertise in this area and, in terms of adding value to sugar, it doesn’t get much better than making rum.
A hundred years ago, our sugar was a more diverse product than it is today and new strains were constantly being tested and developed. Sugar estates often produced some molasses and rum on site. Many also routinely cultivated other side-crops for sale and maintained extensive kitchen gardens and livestock to feed their workers. What about re-visiting some of these ideas?
Some suggest that GuySuCo should be phased out or sold. This is seen as synonymous with the end of the cultivation of sugar. Why? Sugar has been managed by private owners or conglomerates for much longer in our history than by a public entity.
For better or for worse, sugar cultivation is embedded in our DNA. Our sugar estates are communities, not just a collection of canefields. We simply cannot afford to put thousands of people on the breadline without a clear, watertight plan for alternative employment and industries. Nothing has emerged so far which even begins to fit this criterion.
Isabelle de Caires