Fri | Jan 19, 2018

Letter of the Day: The fall of King Sugar

Published:Saturday | April 2, 2016 | 12:00 AM
This file photo shows a state-of-the-art cane harvester in operation at the Monymusk sugar estate owned by Pan Caribbean Sugar Company.


Not very long ago, sugar was the king of Jamaican agriculture. Today, it is lying on its sickbed and, like a feeble, old man, walks with the aid of a cane. All the financial medicine injected into it over the years will not stop old age from causing its death.

The turkey buzzards seem to be hovering around, waiting for the end, and even Chinese medicine has failed, but Doctor Government is going to try one more time.

Before bauxite and tourism, sugar ruled the realm, with banana as its closest assistant.

The industry was the biggest employer of labour and the mainstay of the communities around the estates. It not only contributed economically, but served to develop community sports, health, and other amenities. Many cricket, football and athletics teams developed around the estates.

Sugar was responsible for bringing African, European and Oriental people to the region; responsible for the slave trade; and made some people paupers and some millionaires. Many people would like to see the back of the industry but have yet to come up with a suitable alternative.

The sugar industry climbed to its peak in the mid-1960s, when more than half a million tonnes of sugar was produced. The industry did not stay on a plateau but started its descent right away, and now it struggles to make a hundred thousand tons.

It should be noted that since Independence, at least 13 sugar factories have closed or scaled down. The largest factory, Frome, used to produce close to a hundred thousand tons annually. Today, it struggles to do one-third of that.

Next in line is the Monymusk factory, which once also manufactured granulated sugar and had a good irrigation system for its fields; now it has an even lower production level. This decline has taken place in spite of modern machinery that has been installed since the 1960s.



Many problems plague the industry. Some of these relate to depletion of soil, since some have been growing canes for centuries and not yielding the tonnage as before; drought; climate change; the availability and cost of irrigation water; disease; and outdated cultivation methods, labour and management issues, to name a few. Then there is low productivity, some caused by questionable management practices; obsolete equipment and uncertain markets; illicit fires; and workers' unions that still operate in 1930s mode.

Driving on Highway 2000 or the Old Harbour Road, one readily notices the stunted growth of canes or once-thriving cane fields now in ruin. Another noticeable fact is that some of the best cane-growing lands are replaced by housing schemes. This is especially true of the Bernard Lodge and Innswood areas.

We can't eat our cake and still have it. The heir to King Sugar's throne seems to be a young princess called aspartame (which may not be equal to health as cane sugar), assisted by imports from countries which are better at producing sugar than Jamaica.

The final question, however, is, if sugar dies, will future generations of Jamaicans know what good rum tastes like?