Posted at 03:43 on 20 November, 2012 UTC
Fiji’s National Farmers Union says the military coup in 2006 has pushed the sugar industry into steep decline.
The general secretary, Mahendra Chaudhry, says the amount of sugar cane crushed this season, forecast to be one point six million tons, will be the lowest on record.
The body also says the number of cane growers has halved over the past 20 years, from about 23-thousand to 12-thousand.
Annell Husband reports.
Figures from almost 20 years’ worth of annual reports from the body that runs the factory side of the industry, the Fiji Sugar Corporation, chart the industry’s steady decline.
In 1994 Fiji’s four mills crushed four point six million tons of cane, producing more than five-hundred-thousand tons of sugar.
Sugar production levels had slumped to roughly half that by 2007, a year after Commodore Frank Bainimarama ousted the elected government and the same year the European Union stopped supporting the sugar sector because of the coup.
Tonnages for this crushing season were expected to be down several hundred thousand tons due to severe flooding in the early months of the year, which caused more than 11 million US dollars’ worth of damage to both crops and infrastructure.
But Mahendra Chaudhry says the most recent downgraded forecast for the season - one point six million tons - is a reflection of the impact of years of political instability and most noticeably, the past six.
“The regime here has disbanded industry institutions on which farmers had a voice so right now farmers don’t have a voice at all in the industry, the FSC and the sugar ministry, they’re running it in an arbitrary fashion, in a dictatorial fashion, and this is how things are going here. They’ve got to bring back those institutions because those institutions provided stability to the industry.”
Mahendra Chaudhry says the interim government must give as much cash to the farming side of the industry as it has to the factory side and to the Fiji Sugar Corporation.
“It’s pumped a lot of money into FSC, somewhere near 150 million dollars in the last two years. Now I think what we need at the field level is also a programme of that type where government assistance is made available to the farmers to revive the industry and to get back to the old production figures.”
Mahendra Chaudhry says it will be impossible to return to those figures unless the government gives sugar cane growers more financial help.
An economics professor at the University of the South Pacific, Biman Prasad, agrees that the interim government must look seriously at giving them additional support.
“And how their income level could be maintained by lowering the cost of production. And, in fact, to save the industry, government will have to seriously consider giving subsidies to the farmers who are still there.”
But the executive chairperson of the Fiji Sugar Corporation, Abdul Khan, doesn’t believe there are only 12-thousand sugar cane growers left.
He says there have been a number of improvements in the industry over the past couple of years.
“I would put the industry in a very good position at the moment. Over the last two and a half years the payment to farmers is significantly higher than where we were when we first started. Our mills are operating a lot better than where they were two years ago. In terms of the turnaround for Fiji Sugar Corporation that’s looking a lot better than where it was as well.”
Mr Khan says farmers already receive a subsidy for fertiliser and are able to bring machinery into the country without paying tax.
“An industry will not survive just through subsidies because I think that’s the wrong approach for any commercial industry. I think for a commercial industry the subsidy should be something that’s a premium. What really needs to be put in place is an infrastructure that’s commercially viable. Because it is a commercial industry and we need to look at it from that point of view rather than from a mindset of what I call handouts.”
Professor Biman Prasad says the current system of smallholdings is not commercially viable either and the interim government will have to consider amalgamation.
He says potential investors who could rejuvenate the industry need a mechanism by which they can acquire land.
“Which is not just small farms but bigger farms that can support the economic activities that some of those people who may not be in the sugar industry but are living in towns and cities and on the periphery of towns and cities in those sugar belt areas would have opportunities for employment and other economic activities. So, I think in the long run, that is where the sugar industry will have to go.”
But Mahendra Chaudhry disagrees.
“Well, amalgamating the farms would be a problem because there’s a social dimension to this industry and in Fiji we’ve had cane farming done in smallholdings and so if you want to change that concept and you want to go to a plantation concept it would require a major change in the social dimension of the industry. I don’t know whether that would be a good thing to do.”
Mahendra Chaudhry says the simple fact is that the younger generation is not interested in sugar farming - a problem many other countries are also experiencing.
But Mr Chaudhry says in Fiji, that reluctance is compounded by uncertainty over land lease renewal, low cane price and high harvesting and transport costs - as well as ongoing political instability.
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