Thu | Sep 29, 2022

Sugar’s slow death sucking life out of St Thomas

Published:Monday | November 4, 2019 | 12:00 AMPaul Clarke and Karyl Walker/ Gleaner Writers
Jeanwald Henry, sugar cane farmer in Duckenfield, St Thomas.
The now-defunct Golden Grove Sugar Factory in Duckenfield, St Thomas.
Millburn Myrie rides past the Duckenfield sugar factory at which he worked for more than 30 years.
Michael Hamilton, former worker at the Duckenfield sugar factory in St Thomas.

The silence was deafening, the emptiness haunting. Almost an hour and a half had passed and not a single shopper had entered through the yawning doors of a modest mart in Duckenfield, St Thomas.

Sugar’s slow, torturous death has laid bare a funereal atmosphere that is stifling almost every other sector. Just ask superette owner Everol ‘Fuzzy’ Nicholson about the crippling ripple effects. Ever since work ground to a halt three months ago, he has had to lay off his two staffers – a cashier and a meat-room worker.

“This was a lively place and people from various parts of St Thomas come here and get work. It was good for business, as they would stop and buy things. Now, nothing nah go on. The cupboard empty,” Nicholson said.

The July closure of the Golden Grove Sugar Estate in the eastern Jamaica parish has put around 150 direct employees out of work, with a multiplier effect on scores of factory operators, cane farmers, cutters, harvesters, tractor drivers, mechanics, and other labourers.

Seprod shuttered its operations after bleeding losses of $1 billion annually in an industry that had fallen victim to a lack of mechanisation and an erosion of preferential trade terms. The factory, which was established in 1924, was taken over by Seprod in 2009.

A few metres away from Nicholson’s superette, a group of men, all former staffers or contract workers at the estate, gathered to start a round of board games.

“You see them? None of them are idlers, but they now have nothing to do, so they just pass the time a play two game,” explained Nicholson, adding that taxi operators have also been hit by the shutdown of the sugar manufacturer.

No hard timelines

Residents are gravely concerned about their future, having banked their survival on sugar. Seprod has revealed plans to diversify the Duckenfield lands into other crop cultivation, including cassava and coconuts, but there are no hard timelines when that project will come on stream.

Jeanwald Henry is a 56-year-old cane farmer who supplied cane to the factory. His source of income has dried up but he remains hopeful that he will find other means of feeding his family.

“It has affected the community in the most drastic of ways. However, I am trying to adjust and will stay self-sufficient in agriculture,” Henry told The Gleaner.

“Marcus Garvey said that land is the basis of power, and without it, you cannot survive. We need to get access to the land so we can help ourselves,” he said.

We just sit and count cars

The seismic financial fallout from the closure of the Golden Grove Sugar Estate in Duckenfield has stretched farther afield from the epicentre of the crisis.

About four miles (6.6km) to the east of Duckenfield lies Amity Hall, a district nestled in the hills overlooking acres of cane fields.

There, too, residents are reeling.

“We just a sit and count cars a go by,” Ryan Douglas said, as he hurriedly finished lunch.

“The whole St Thomas a feel it when the sugar factory close down. We don’t know what we going do,” he said, as a group of women who were in his company nodded their heads in approval.

The effect has also been felt in other communities such as Llandewey and Seaforth, and as even as far away as the parish capital of Morant Bay.

“People come from all over this parish to eat a food off the sugar factory,” Michael Hamilton, of Amity Hall, told The Gleaner.

Back in Duckenfeld, only two primary schools, a health facility and a post office appear to offer any signs of life. There are about eight bars in and around the little town, plus a number of small cookshops, two marts and a haberdashery. But there are fears that the sugar estate’s death will trigger the worsening of an exodus from the community that has long been happening.

“I worked at the factory not for long before it closed. But now, like many of the young people who were over there, I am looking to also leave the community,” said a distressed-looking Iyoka Reid.