Sugar cultivation was first introduced in Essequibo around 1630s when the Dutch ruled. By the second half of the 17th century it had rapidly expanded and over three-and-a-half centuries, sugar played an important if not the most important role in our country’s economy. Over time it became the largest single employer in Guyana.
Africans first came here along with the Dutch in the 1620s. They worked on the plantations, although the Amerindians sometimes did the clearing of the land. After the abolition of slavery in1834, labour was sought by way of the indentured system with the arrival of the Portuguese and then the East Indians who first came in 1838. The Chinese first arrived in 1853.
Guyana’s unique ethnic composition is one that we brag about. Hence it is noteworthy that our country’s first official product saw the participation of every ethnic group. All six races played a role in the establishment, cultivation, expansion and sustenance of Guyana’s sugar industry over the centuries. Three hundred and fifty-nine years later the industry had acquired a track record of positive growth and unparalleled contribution to the economy with a decline only on two occasions, the first being in the 1980s with a revival after 1992 and again in 2005 after the flood. However, recent events have revealed that the government is somewhat unaware of these facts or they are vehemently bent on throwing out the baby with the bath water.
On the attainment of Independence sugar was one of the two main agricultural industries in Guyana, and was selected to be depicted on our Coat-of-Arms one of our country’s symbols of nationhood. In like manner the green on the Golden Arrow Head symbolizes agriculture of which sugar is a part. Social Studies teaches us from an early age that sugar is one of the five natural resources of Guyana, and there is a local expression that ‘sugar is king.’
What we have not been taught is that because of the blood, sweat, tears and suffering of our foreparents, sugar by way of its contribution to our economy for three hundred and fifty-nine years has made us free. Yet today as we witness the rapid decline of our country’s economy there are those who are unashamedly refusing to recognize the oldest and largest economic sector in Guyana.
The government talks of greening the economy, but it is hell bent on discarding the industry that could be a major contributor to this initiative by way of by-products which are used in the production of food, beverages, confectionery, medicines, paper and ethanol. The government complains of having to bail out the sugar industry in a manner that makes it seem a burden on the economy, yet it willing to provide subsidies to other areas.
Red Plastic Bag in his calypso ‘Sugar Made Us Free’ urged that, “we need to stop and consider the consequences that we will suffer later.” These can be detrimental not only to one sector of society but to so many others directly and indirectly. The closure of the industry will have a ripple effect on individuals and the economy. Biased and visionless thinking will result in workers being placed on the breadline, and the disruption of family and community life. The toxic attitude of the supposedly caring government reeks of discrimination and no concern for the welfare of the sugar workers. What sins have the workers in this age old industry committed?
The latest violation is the late payment of wages and salaries to sugar workers that were overdue by two weeks without any explanation. This is a violation of ILO’s Convention, 1949 (No 95).
The continued violation of workers’ rights such as is being witnessed in the sugar industry is illustrative of blatant disrespect for the workers, the union representatives and the entire Trade Union Movement of Guyana, making the flaunted united May Day Rally as hypocritical as it can get.
The final chapter on the story of sugar in Guyana is about to end on a sad note.
Gillian Burton Persaud, MP