Thu | Sep 21, 2017

Sugar crisis worse than slavery - Stanberry

Published:Friday | April 22, 2016 | 4:00 AMChristopher Serju
Donovan Stanberry

The current crisis in the sugar industry presents the greatest challenge ever to Jamaica's economic survival, according to one of the country's most senior civil servants, who insists that it also presents great opportunities for business-savvy people.

"The challenge being faced by the sugar industry right now, in my view, perhaps surpassed the challenge that we faced in slavery in the years of colonialism and is the greatest challenge yet because for the first time, we are seeing a convergence of events militating against the survival of the sugar industry," Donovan Stanberry, permanent secretary in the Ministry of Commerce, Industry, Agriculture and Fisheries, recently declared.

TIME OF OPPORTUNITY

"It's the best of times, it is the worst of times, it is also a time of opportunity, and I believe with all my heart that the sugar industry can be turned around," he said at the official launch of Farmers' Month at the head office of the Jamaica Agricultural Society in downtown Kingston, which is observed in April each year.

Stanberry said the bad situation precipitated by the loss of preferential access to European markets was compounded by a devastating prolonged drought, the result of climate change. This, he said, would require paying serious attention to rainwater harvesting and other creative irrigation solutions in order to revive the sugar industry.

Stanberry said stakeholders had failed to make necessary adjustments even though policymakers had known for at least a decade that preferential access was crumbling and everyone in the industry was aware of the timeline. Although the policy framework had been in place for some time to facilitate diversification into the many potential and existing product streams from sugar, industry players had been lax to get up to speed.

GREAT MISTAKE

He explained: "I think the great mistake that we have made, and when I say we, I don't mean Government, I mean as a country, is that we continued even when we saw the signs that the preferential markets were eroding. That has been happening from 2003. We still continued largely to send brown sugar in the belly of a ship to be refined by some refiners in Britain.

"If we go back and look at the sugar-adaptation strategy, which was promulgated in Parliament in November 2005, it clearly states that the strategy is to diversify the product base to provide other products such as ethanol. And that is why we have an E-10 mandate to deal with the energy aspect of it in terms of co-generation; to deal with things like refined sugar and specialty sugar and to provide enough molasses for the rum industry, which is still a very profitable sector of the industry."

The permanent secretary also took aim at intellectuals far removed from the realities of the on-the-ground socio-economic impact of the sugar industry and whose uninformed utterances have helped to perpetuate misconceptions.

"It was once fashionable to call for sugar to be closed down in this country, driven largely by academia because of its relationship with slavery and all the emotion that evokes. It is one thing to stay in boardrooms and in classrooms and make these pronouncements. It's another thing to go out there and live people's reality. There is no other sector that affects more people than sugar, and there is no other sector from which there is (such) a massive multiplier effect.

"Speak to the people in transportation and they will tell you; speak to the shopkeeper in Lionel Town (Clarendon) and he will tell you. Speak to the school teachers and they will tell you that when crop is in season, attendance is greater. We have to give the sugar industry, in my view, a fighting chance."

christopher.serju@gleanerjm.com