RA Cane Farmers Were Kept in Dark for a Year

Mill no more

Felix Chaudhary
Tuesday, March 28, 2017

THE Fiji Sugar Corporation (FSC) board has announced the permanent closure of the Penang sugar mill in Rakiraki.

Board chairman Vishnu Mohan said the decision to close the mill for good was one not made easily, but it was something that had to be done.

“The reasons are many, but fundamentally if we were to refurbish the mill, it would cost us between $40 million and $50m and honestly I don’t think we can afford it at this point in time,” he said.

“We have to get our priorities right and in any business, we need to be very careful in how we spend our money.

“It is a 136-year-old mill and we have not spent any money in the upkeep in the last 20 years.”

Mr Mohan assured the Rakiraki and Tavua farming community that they would not be affected by the closure as plans were in place to formalise transportation from the Penang mill area to Rarawai in Ba.

He also said the Rarawai sugar mill would be maintained to handle the increased load.

“We can assure that it is not going to impact production.

“We are looking at 2.1 million tonnes of cane and more than 200,000 tonnes of sugar. We have done some work on it and we feel we can handle the increase.”

FSC chief executive officer Graham Clark said Rarawai had handled the situation well last year and the miller had strategies to cope with the additional cane this season.

“The options that we’ve got is running more efficiently, crushing through Sundays, which we haven’t been doing and extending the season slightly to take in the extra cane. I think we’ve got enough options to handle all the cane.”

Mr Clark said FSC would look at redeploying as many of the 110 employees from Penang to other mills.

“Nobody will be prejudiced by this decision in terms of their own personal circumstances and that refers to employees or our farmers for that matter.

“We are very mindful of the position of employees.

“A lot of employees were redeployed within the organisation since its closure over the last two years and we will take this as an opportunity to find them alternate employment around the group. We’ll find positions for those that we can and take care of those that we can’t.”

Mr Clark said FSC would initially secure the mill yard and then begin dismantling it over a period of time.

Growers’ representative organisations have labelled the decision as a slap in the face of Tavua and Rakiraki farmers and the Rakiraki business community.

“Growers and the business community in Ra had pinned their hopes on the mill reopening and now all their dreams have been shattered,” said National Farmers Union general secretary and former prime minister Mahendra Chaudhry.

“Everyone will be affected by this decision, farmers will slowly lose interest in farming and the loss of income from employees of the mill will affect the Rakiraki economy. Ra has potential for cane production growth as opposed to the Sigatoka-Nadi corridor where a lot of farms have given way to tourism and industrial developments.”

Fiji Cane Growers Association president Attar Singh said it was a sad day for the industry.

“This is a decision that is not going to be accepted by the farmers,” he said.

“Last season, farmers and stakeholders put up with the transfer of cane as a temporary inconvenience but this decision changes everything.

“Carting the Penang mill area cane to Rarawai places a huge burden on the Ba mill and this could mean an extension to the crushing season. And farmers will be faced with increasing labour costs because of this.

“The FSC needs to seriously look at the costs to growers and there needs to be an indepth study in terms of transportation and the expected losses to farmers.”

Rakiraki Chamber of Commerce and Industry president George Shiu Raj said the decision would impact significantly on the business community.

“We will lose between 60 and 70 per cent of our business, it’s a very sad day for Rakiraki,” he said. “Why didn’t they explore other options like giving this mill up for lease to the private sector instead of closing it down completely?

“I produce 2000 tonnes of cane and was looking at extending my farm but this decision has made me lose interest in investing because of the inconvenience and additional cost of transporting cane from Rakiraki to Rarawai.”

Sugar Cane Growers Council CEO Sundresh Chetty said nothing had been communicated to him from FSC when contacted yesterday.

“We are the legitimate representative of the farmers and have not been officially informed as yet,” he said.