Sugar's $40,000 Hiccups Could Spark Major Reforms

Smallholder farming replaced sugar plantations when the Australian-owned Colonial Sugar Refining Company (CSR) left Fiji in the 1920s, and for many years it provided a reasonable livelihood for some 23,000 mainly Indo-Fijian farmers, 21,000 mainly iTaukei seasonal workers (most from inland villages), rentals for iTaukei landowners, multiple downstream earnings in the sugar towns of the West and North, and made sugar the largest contributor to government revenues. Until 1988 sugar it was also Fiji's major export.

Since then almost everything has gone downhill. Leases and the sugar industry have become political footballs. Between 1997 and 2002 only 48% of leases were renewed and it has got no better since.  Government is at odds with the FLP and the smallholders association it dominates. World sugar prices have dropped resulting in small margins and less investment in weedkillers and fertilizers. Production per hectare and sugar per cane tonne have declined. The Indo-Fijians smallholders are ageing as their children have left the farms or emigrated. Few iTaukei have taken up the formerly leased land which now lies idle. The Coup resulted in the EU and the Commonwealth withholding large sums of money targeted to assist the industry.  The mills were old, maintenance had been neglected, and replacement parts from India proved next to useless. There have been suggestions that at least one mill experienced sabotage attempt.  Floods have twice ruined field crops. The rail line from Sigatoka to the Ba mills is no longer used. Carrying cane by truck has been unreliable. The millers claim  they have to close down for lack of cane. The truckers claim they wait for hours for their trucks to be unloaded.

The most recent development is that the ongoing disruption to sugar cane supply at the Lautoka and Rarawai mills has the Fiji Sugar Corporation seriously considering taking over the transportation system and some of the harvesting next season.

FSC executive chairman Abdul Khan said that "rather than transportation being in the hands of 12-15,000 farmers, FSC could control the supply coming in a more co-ordinated manner.

"Another issue that plagued the industry this season was the difficulty in enticing cane cutters to the fields, so rather than relying on cane cutters alone, we are looking at increasing mechanical harvesting where possible. Obviously we can't go totally mechanical due to issues with terrain in some areas but this could be addressed by getting tractor-driven harvesters such as those used in Australia."

Mr Khan said disruptions at any of the four mills resulted in huge costs to the FSC, with each stop-start costing up to and in excess of $40,000.

Meanwhile, crushing at the Penang Mill in Rakiraki ended on Thursday and stakeholders will meet today to discuss tentative dates for Lautoka and Rarawai. "Due to the supply issues, we are not sure about actual crush termination dates, however, Lautoka could be closing anywhere between mid to late November while Rarawai is looking likely to be sometime in December," Mr Khan said.

This is not the first time the viability of smallholding as a modern farming practice has been questioned in Fiji but it could well be time for changes far more radical than mechanisation and FSC-controlled trucking.

The  major obstacle to change, as usual, is political. Taukei have been advised by some of their leaders not to participate in the Land Banks, that provide guarantees to leasees and leasors, and would allow large scale mechanization on suitable land.  And one Indo-Fijian leader in particular will do anything to disrupt any Government plans for change.  

-- Crosbie Waslsh


rusi said…
what about the regimes previous sensational claims of 'sabotage'. Don't hear much of this anymore...wonder why? They have had six years to address issues and yet we are still hearing them moan about the EU money they feel they are entitled to. Are they still going to blame the previous governments after all this time?

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