The facts about sugar industry

By National Federation Party Whip Prem Singh

On 14th May 1879, the schooner Leonidas arrived in Fiji waters off of Levuka carrying 463 Indians from Calcutta, India; who became the first  of a total of 60,553 Indentured labourers or Girmitiya to be brought to Fiji for 37 years until 11th November 1916. Most made Fiji their home after Indenture.

They were brought to Fiji by the Colonial Administration to work in our sugarcane farms. These 60,553 Girmitiya laid the foundation of the sugar industry that remained the backbone of Fiji’s economy for more than a 100 years until the turn of this millennium 18 years ago. Of course for many years now  the number of i-taukei taking up cane growing has increased, estimated to be more than 30% of the total number of growers. They are too, contributing in a large measure to this historical industry.

As far as the legacy of the Girmitiya are concerned, an overwhelming majority of the Indo-Fijian population made Fiji are their descendants. Their contribution to the social, economic and political landscape of Fiji ever since the end of Indenture is well documented – none better than one of the finest historians of the Pacific and the leading authority on history of the Girmitiya in Fiji, Professor Brij Vilash Lal.

Unfortunately, Professor Lal, himself the descendant of a Girmitiya and his wife Dr. Padma Narsey Lal, who had done invaluable research on the state of our sugar industry and launched a book titled “Ganna” in  the mid 2000’s  have been banished from Fiji and cannot enter the land of their birth because of instructions from the Prime Minister’s Office almost ten years ago.

A historical industry being run down

While Fiji’s pre-eminent historian is being barred from entering Fiji and treated like a common criminal by this Government on the strange pretext that he is a risk to national security (only this Government knows how), the Bainimarama regime that later camouflaged itself as the Fiji First Government, is endangering the sugar industry and some 200,000 people who directly or indirectly depend on it for their livelihood. The facts are indisputable and speak for themselves.

In 2006, before the coup, we produced 3.22 million tonnes of cane and over 310,000 tonnes of sugar.  Last year we produced 1.63 million tonnes of cane and 180,388 tonnes of sugar. This wasn’t a sudden decline. It was steady, declining every year since the coup.

This week in Parliament, we heard that the decline was caused by non-renewal of expiring cane leases under the Government that it overthrew in December 2006.  And that since the coup and the leadership of the current Prime Minister, a vast majority of the leases are being renewed.

If this is so, how then have the number of active cane growers fallen from over 18,000 in 2006 to almost 12,000 now – a reduction of 6,000? And why land under sugarcane has fallen from 58,000 hectares in 2006 to almost 40,000 now?

This proves that growers have lost interest in the industry because it has become non-profitable and they are in perpetual debt.

Why is it reeling

The answer is simple. As we said in Parliament this week, the industry is being run by personnel who cannot differentiate the root of a cane stalk from its top. All they are doing is leading growers up the garden path that has perilous hazards along the way.

It is a government headed by the same leader, who was interim/military regime Prime Minister in 2007, with the help of the then Sugar Minister – himself a victim of three coups – but one who joined a regime after the toppling of a multiparty government in which 9 ministers were from his party – who started the sharp decline of the industry.

In what could be described as totally unlawful acts, the then CEO of the Sugar Cane Growers Council was forcibly removed from office despite a High Court Order preventing such an action.  His removal was then promulgated through Decree Number 1 that said this was necessary to save a moribund industry.

“Moribund” simply means at the point of death. If the industry was moribund it would not have produced 3.22 million tonnes of cane and 310,000 tonnes of sugar in 2006. Indeed if the industry has been moribund or staggering towards death, it is for the last 12 years under the Bainimarama regime and Fiji First Government that has been pumping money into an industry in the hope that it survives.

All its forecasts or projections on the industry are horribly wrong.  One only has to look at the 5-year and 20-year National Development Plan which has out of this world projections for sugarcane and sugar production. This was highlighted by NFP in Parliament this week with no denial or rebuttal from the Minister for Economy.

For all intents and purposes the Minister for Economy has taken ownership of a Plan with fictional figures on the industry that are out of this world.

The rot continues

This week, the NFP called for the Lautoka sugar mill to be shut down to enable an immediate independent investigation into the scope of works carried out at the mill that reportedly cost Fiji Sugar Corporation $16 million.

This after the country’s largest sugar mill suffered three breakdowns within 8 days since it started crushing.

Ideally, once the mill was repaired, it should have crushed all cane that had been harvested and was either lying in the fields or delivered to the mill and then cease operations immediately.

Three breakdowns in 8 days since the mill started crushing with much fanfare and praise by a Cabinet Minister and the FSC CEO is outrageous and totally unacceptable.

The FSC CEO said they engaged the services of experts for mill upgrades and therefore there is no need for a Mill Audit to ascertain its state of preparedness.

But the latest breakdown necessitates a cessation of mill operations to have a complete independent audit of the factory to determine where and how the $16 million was used.

The problem with the sugar industry is that it is now totally controlled by Government, with growers having no say whatsoever in how the industry is being run.

This is because of a total lack of democratisation of the Sugar Cane Growers Council that was dissolved in 2009 and appointments to key positions in the industry including Boards of personnel who have little knowledge of the industry.

This is exacerbated by the fact that unlike previous parliaments before the 2006 coup, this Government refused to allow a bipartisan parliamentary select committee on sugar, which in situations like this, could have met and made decisive decisions that  would have compelled FSC to abide by them.

As a result the growers who are the largest and most important stakeholders in the industry are suffering along with cane cutters, lorry drivers, and all their families. This is the legacy of this Government that claims all Fijian families matter.

The only hope

The NFP has time and again both demonstrated and proven beyond any doubt whatsoever that it is the only hope left for cane growers. This is due to the fact that despite being in Opposition, we still managed to find meaningful solutions to overcome crises facing growers and our industry.

The Denning Award, achieved by the then NFP Leader A D Patel in 1969, which defines an equitable formula for sharing of proceeds from sale of sugar 70/30 in favour of growers is a lasting example of what can be achieved through dialogue and negotiation.

Agricultural Landlord and Tenant Act (ALTA) in 1976 that resulted in renewal and extension of all cane and agricultural leases with not a single grower being displaced, the Sugar Industry Act of 1984, achieved in Parliament in a bipartisan manner with then Alliance Government, the negotiation of  a multi-million dollar  Crop Rehabilitation Package in 1998 that resulted in cane production increasing from 2 million tonnes to almost 4 million tonnes in a single year, are just a few examples of what the NFP have achieved despite being in Opposition. In Government we can do much more.

In contrast, the current Government is applying piecemeal solutions after running down the industry and forfeiting the $365 million grant from the European Union as a result of the coup of December 2006 and refusing to stick to an Agreement with EU to hold elections by March 2009. For them clinging onto power at any cost was far too important than the livelihood of growers and the survival of the industry.

We will therefore: –

  1. Implement a minimum guaranteed price of $100 per tonne from the 2018 season—that means growers will not receive less than this amount and possibly more if sugar is sold at a good price
  2. Within two years, increase the size of the cane crop to 3.5 million tonnes that will produce a minimum of 350,000 tonnes of sugar.
  3. Retain the current subsidies being offered on weedicide, fertilizers, land preparation and planting grant but make its implementation easier and more accessible.
  4. Build a new sugar mill in Penang that was closed down by this Government.
  5. Democratise the Sugar Cane Growers Council by facilitating its elections that was dissolved by this Government.

This package will be complemented by our other policies that are certain to revitalise the industry within two years that this Government has failed to do in 12 years.

Change is coming. Change is inevitable.