Sun | Oct 25, 2020

Ronald Thwaites | Sugar industry’s unfinished business

Published:Monday | August 10, 2020 | 12:08 AM

Two years ago, less one month, I moved a motion for the House of Representatives to “examine the present and future viability of the cane and sugar industry in Jamaica”.

The Government, who sets the agenda for Parliament, has not found time for us to complete this exercise – the same for many similar motions. Now the legislature is about to be prorogued, so the matter will die. Who cares?

The expectation that it is worthwhile for one to try to develop sound policies and pass good laws was what moved me, and I am sure others, to enter representational politics, that most arduous and dangerous profession. Failing to even stimulate a reasoned discussion on vital sectors of the Jamaican economy and society may be a personal disappointment, but that, actually, is the least of our problems.

Because as everybody should know, the cane and sugar sector is at a stage of near-terminal ‘pop-down’, affecting tens of thousands of persons, while the Government hasn’t a clue, the Opposition is silent, lands are being grabbed, and whole communities are experiencing the loss of the only livelihood they ever had.

NO TAKERS FOR AGRICULTURE

As an aside, I recall enquiring of a male high school-leaving class in St Thomas how many aspired to a career in cane, sugar or any other aspect of agriculture. There were no takers – there were blank faces and a few sneers. Most were excited about migration and operating a taxi, while others enthused about a job in the security industry, unashamedly so “I can get to fire gun” or “kill criminal”.

There is a minister who salivates about growth in the agricultural sector. Of course, that is much better than a decline. But he fails to mention the abysmally low base from which that marginal uptick is being calculated.

In short, as regards cane and sugar, there is no plan for recovery, diversification or decent burial. And members of parliament, probably a third of whose constituencies are affected by the fortunes of the industry, appear not to be concerned, at least not in the forum where their input ought to have influence. Why?

But, of course, it doesn’t have much influence. Parliament has become (was it ever different?) the constitutional nuisance chamber which Cabinet has to manipulate. That body, generally overawed by a prime minister who determines the fortunes of membership, determines most everything, swayed as they often are by a small coterie of bureaucrats who filter information in and out, largely as they see fit. So much for participatory democracy.

So what are the prospects for cane and sugar? With Appleton closing and Monymusk mothballed, it really is left up to Worthy Park and Frome, if at all the latter can be revived. This sounds to me like an importer’s paradise. There is no resolve to prevent duty-free processed sugar from ‘sweetening’ the supermarket shelves; molasses ships in easily and ‘plantation white’, once thought to be the panacea, is no longer seriously spoken of.

WESTMORELAND BEARING BRUNT

Westmoreland, once a proud parish, is now pitifully weakened by the loss of tourism and the decline of sugar.

Some time ago, I had asked for the full agreements between the Government and the Chinese sugar interests to be tabled so that we could at least know who got what, why the present decline has been allowed to occur, and whether there is an escape clause. It hasn’t reached us yet.

So as everyone of influence becomes preoccupied with elections and COVID-19, the decline of the sugar industry will be ignored for longer. Who will promise to impose tariffs on imported sugar and, even if done, what would be the consequence on local prices?

And about the land divestment and diversification. I recall Minister Audley Shaw saying that there was a long line of investors ready to lease, produce and export. But where are they now when we need them most? And who can have any more confidence in the land bank, Sugar Industry Holdings, after Bernard Lodge, Golden Grove, Holland, and God knows where else?

It would be more convincing if the prime minister were able to identify massive green (of course!) shoots in agriculture to signal economic resurgence, rather than pointing to the import-ridden construction of $25-million studio apartments.

Just to fill out the picture, the resolution on the Order Paper immediately following the one on sugar calls for “a cost-benefit analysis on the Jamaican bauxite and alumina industry in order to determine the prudent and efficient use of this diminishing natural resource”. This, too, remains undebated.

HOW MUCH IS JA EARNING

So, who knows how much Jamaica is earning from strip mining our soil under the ‘profit-sharing’ arrangements we have with foreign companies? I can’t recall hearing a word on this during the boring Budget Debate which was just concluded.

Having neutered Parliament’s consideration on how we can earn more foreign exchange, the oxygen of the economy, who has the recovery plan? What will we do to stop the exchange rate sliding while food prices soar?

On what information should the electorate rely to make their decision, which will so profoundly affect our whole future? And what is the texture of our parliamentary democracy and constitutional order that allows us to avoid such pressing realities as sugar and bauxite?

At least Michael Manley’s rod foretold the massive social revolution of his tenure. What are we to expect of those – dismal failures so far and leaving behind so much unfinished business – who seek to impress with the fashion statements and the duplicity of ‘5-in-4’ and ‘1.5’?

Ronald Thwaites is member of parliament for Kingston Central. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.