[Marxism] sugar article
michael at ecst.csuchico.edu
Sun Aug 28 17:50:31 MDT 2005
The Caribbean faces prospect of a life without sugar
August 14, 2005
By Richard Lapper
As they trudge back from a morning spent clearing irrigation ditches on
the banks of the Demerara River, the exhausted workers from La Bonne
Intention, a government-owned sugar estate in Guyana, look like a
defeated army. A few miles away in George?town, the down-at-heel capital
of the poorest country in what was once known as the British West
Indies, trade union leaders talk of treachery.
Two months ago, the European Union announced its intention to cut the
price it pays for the sugar produced in Guyana and 17 other poor
countries from the Caribbean, Africa and the Pacific by 39 per cent over
the next five years, plunging the depressed industry into even deeper
"We feel that we have been betrayed. We have been telling them and a
fearful mood has developed. They see their jobs are at stake," says
Komal Chand, the leader of the union that represents 20,000 Guyanese
Across the Caribbean, Peter McConnell, whose family-owned Worthy Park
sugar estate is considered one of the most efficient in Jamaica, is also
anxious, arguing that the cuts put the future of his company in doubt.
"As things stand, we have two crops left if these cuts go through," he
The EU price cuts, which could be confirmed in November, would still
leave its sugar prices at roughly double the world price. But they could
severely damage the industry in the Caribbean. As well as Jamaica and
Guyana, Belize could be badly affected, while it could mean the death
knell for the smaller sugar sectors in Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago,
two other former British territories.
Reductions to the EU sugar price are part of a broader market
reorganisation demanded by the World Trade Organisation, which upheld a
complaint by Brazil -- one of the world's most efficient sugar producers
-- that the price support was unfair. EU sugar-beet farmers are also
angry at the impending changes.
That the cuts will have such an effect on former British colonies,
however, is a bitter irony at a time when the UK is leading
international action to alleviate poverty. Guyana was one of four
countries in the Americas to benefit from the debt relief initiative
offered by the Group of Eight leading industrial nations and championed
by Gordon Brown, Britain's chancellor of the exchequer. But Guyana's
potential benefits from that deal -- a reduction of between $8m and $9m
in annual debt service -- would be swamped by the loss of up to $40m a
year in sugar income. Jamaica, the most populous English-speaking island
in the Caribbean, has a more diversified and prosperous economy but as
many as 40,000 people still work in the sugar sector.
Nor is the sugar price cut the only blow to the region's agricultural
exports. The WTO ruled this month against EU plans to protect the
Caribbean banana industry. Exports from Jamaica and tiny island states
such as Grenada, St Lucia, St Vincent and Dominica are expected to be
Caribbean producers have long struggled with adverse economics of scale.
More efficient sugar growers in Australia, Brazil and Thailand, and
banana farmers in Latin America, have been able to keep down their
production costs through sheer scale. Whereas Brazil and Australia can
produce raw sugar for less than 7 US cents per lb (ú124 per tonne),
Guyana's most efficient factories can produce sugar at about 18 cents
per lb and costs elsewhere in the Caribbean can be much higher. In some
Jamaican state-owned factories, costs are as high as 40 cents per lb,
about five times the world price.
Not surprisingly, production has been falling in many parts of the
Caribbean. Four decades ago, Jamaica produced 500,000 tonnes of sugar.
Output last year fell to 124,000 tonnes -- the worst figure for 60 years.
Some argue that the region can absorb the loss of the sugar industry
because of economic diversification. Prospects for Barbados, for
example, have been transformed in the last two decades by tourism,
property investment and financial services. In ?Trinidad, a boom in
natural gas production has put the now tiny sugar industry in the shade
and helped the economy grow at nearly 6 per cent a year over the last
Many islands have tailored their tax and regulatory regimes to try to
develop offshore financial sectors, which have continued to expand in
spite of efforts by the EU and the US to clamp down on suspected money
laundering and restrict what they view as tax shelters for their nationals.
A steady stream of remittances -- repatriated earnings from West Indians
living in the US, Canada or Europe -- represents a growing contribution
to local spending power. Above all, the Caribbean's proximity to the US
has helped nurture a tourism industry that continues to flourish in the
face of the industry downturn that followed the terrorist attacks in the
US of September 11 2001. Operators are confident they can survive
measures such as Washington's plan to require Americans to carry
passports when they visit Caribbean destinations from next year. A large
majority of Americans do not hold a passport.
Despite such optimism, the collapse of sugar would hit the islands hard.
The commodity has helped bind communities together. As Diane Abbott, a
British Labour MP of Jamaican origin, puts it: "The crop has a hold over
the imagination out of proportion to its economic importance." Sugar
played a role in the independence movement. The nationalist parties that
emerged in the region in the 1930s and 1940s -- and came to office in
the 1950s and 1960s -- were partly based on sugar workers' trades unions.
Trade protection, in the form of ?guaranteed prices and markets offered
by Britain in the aftermath of the ?second world war, provided the funds
for a social welfare system stronger than that in neighbouring Latin
American countries, helping to underpin political stability.
Today, in many rural areas, sugar estates and sugar factories -- whether
privately or state-owned -- provide not only jobs but health clinics,
social clubs and sports facilities.
The state-owned Guyana Sugar Corporation employs more than 20,000
people. The company maintains a network of health clinics and social and
sports clubs. "It is a social arm of the government. If sugar
disappears, it will have a huge impact," says Nick Jackson, the
corporation's operations director. "There is basically nothing else."
Guyana's sugar industry also helps pay for an elaborate network of
drainage and irrigation that protects the low-lying country from
flooding. "The systems are completely integrated with sugar," said
Bharrat Jagdeo, the country's president, in a recent interview with the
Financial Times. "If we didn't have sugar we would have flooding every
year. People don't understand what it means to our communities."
In Jamaica, the government ?estimates that 200,000 people are dependent
on the crop. Worthy Park, Mr McConnell's estate, runs a clinic, operates
the local fire engine and ?provides facilities for football and cricket
Politicians across the region fear that joblessness would cause a
significant increase in crime. The risk is particularly significant in
Guyana and Jamaica, both of which have been rocked by an upsurge in
drugs trafficking and gun crime in recent years. The Caribbean is a main
trans-shipment point between cocaine production areas in Colombia and
dealers in Europe and the US.
During 2002 and 2003, Guyana was rocked by a surge in violence and 28
policemen were killed in gun battles, more than the total losses
sustained in the force's previous 160-year history. Jamaica's murder
rates have risen to more than 20 a week, the fourth highest in the
world. The decline of some sugar areas has led to the growth of
"inner-city conditions" in formerly peaceful rural towns, says Gilberto
Scott, an adviser to Jamaica's public security ministry.
"Within a 15-mile radius of here, we are the only source of income,"
says Mr McConnell in Jamaica. "Without any doubt, most of these
uneducated subsistence farmers will resort to [growing] marijuana."
Caribbean governments are trying to see what can be salvaged of the
sugar industry. In particular, the region is pressing the EU to allow a
longer transition to the new price level than the five years on offer.
Payments -- known in EU jargon as "accompanying measures" -- are also
being sought to cushion industry restructuring.
Yet there are doubts about the EU's commitment to help. Only ú40m ($50m)
is on offer -- at least for the first year after the price cut takes
effect -- and that must be divided among the 18 ACP countries. "They [EU
officials] admit it is woefully inadequate," says Derick Heaven,
executive chairman of Jamaica's Sugar Industry Authority. "We fear that
. . . the money will simply be used for further studies. We are saying
we have been studied to death and we don't want to be studied again."
Jamaica's government wants the sugar industry to diversify away from raw
sugar and into by-products such as ethanol, rum and refined sugar, as
well as using bagasse -- waste material produced when cane is crushed --
to generate electricity. Karl James, chairman of the Caribbean Sugar
Association, is optimistic that Jamaica can take advantage of an ethanol
export quota allowed under the Caribbean Basin ?Initiative, a series of
temporary trade concessions extended by the US in the 1980s. But within
the industry there is scepticism. With the high production costs at
Jamaica's five government-owned sugar factories, there seems little
chance that those can survive without subsidy.
Mr McConnell at Worthy Park has already diversified. His factory is
largely powered on bagasse during the harvest and earlier this year he
opened a rum distillery. He says his main prospect of increasing
productivity is to buy land and increase the amount of sugar cane that
his factory processes. Alternative crops such as bananas, citrus fruits
and pineapples have been tried without long-term success. "Any crop can
be produced in Australia, the US or Brazil and they'll be able to
under-price us," he adds.
Mr Jackson at Guysuco is more optimistic. Guyana's lower wage rates and
greater availability of land means that the industry's costs there are
more competitive. When a sugar factory financed with $167m in soft loans
from China, the Caribbean Development Bank and the World Bank comes on
stream, those costs could fall further. Ironically, Guyana could also be
helped by the industry's failure in the rest of the Caribbean, since
this would -- under the terms of the Caribbean's own free trade area --
allow Guyanese sugar protected access to the internal Caribbean market.
Even so, high levels of absenteeism and chronic shortages of managers
are undermining Mr Jackson's efforts to step up productivity. Last year
the industry lost 50,000 man-days through strikes, and 143 of the 270
senior staff employed six years ago have quit Guyana, mainly to take up
work in the US.
"There is a general malaise in the industry. People believe the industry
is going to close, so they say, 'What's the point?' " says Mr Jackson.
"The belief of people is that it isn't going to be a success."
*British business and political interest wanes*
Historic ties with Britain ought to help the Caribbean's ability to
defend its interests in London. For centuries, the island states were
synonymous with sugar and rum. Migration from there has created the UK's
second biggest ethnic minority. Hundreds of thousands of Britons have
taken holidays in Barbados and Jamaica. Yet the Caribbean has been
unsuccessful in influencing British public opinion or getting its voice
heard in government.
This weakness in part reflects the dilution of UK business interests in
the region. Companies such as Cable Wireless in telecommunications, De
La Rue for banknote printing, Diageo in drinks and British American
Tobacco retain a significant presence. But, over the last 20 years, many
other companies have shifted towards bigger and less fragmented markets.
"We used to get 30 to 40 blue-chip British companies round the table,"
says David Jessop, who has been director of the Caribbean Council, a
London-based lobby organisation that represents the region's interests,
since the late 1970s. "But the powerhouses of the British economy are no
longer in the region."
In addition, although five British MPs have Caribbean backgrounds, only
one -- Labour's Diane Abbott -- has regularly raised Caribbean issues in
parliament. Derick Heaven, chairman of Jamaica's Sugar Industry
Authority, who also served as his country's ambassador to Britain for
five years during the 1990s, says community organisation is strong but
focuses on social events -- so attempts by the Jamaican government to
organise its diaspora to lobby politically on behalf of the region's
interests have made little progress.
Ms Abbott, whose parents came to Britain from Jamaica in the 1950s, says
the UK's south Asian communities, by contrast, have a strong political
profile and have proved adept at lobbying MPs on issues of concern. "As
a government we took a position on Kashmir because constituents lobbied
their MPs," she says.
Ms Abbott is critical of Caribbean diplomats in the UK for doing little
to mobilise support, saying: "The type of people who work in the foreign
service look down on people like bus drivers. These diplomats wanted to
keep their distance."
In addition, Caribbean interests have fallen victim to trends within the
Labour party, where politicians had nurtured close links with Caribbean
counterparts such as Norman Manley of Jamaica and Sir Grantley Adams of
Barbados, who had led the region's nationalist movement. The newer
generation of Labour politicians lacks this interest. For them, the
British Caribbean community is part of a core working-class support base
for a party that has come to pay more attention to attracting socially
mobile voters. Local Labour organisations had measured carefully the
inroads the party made with middle-class voters but "didn't even keep
figures of the voting patterns of the black community", says Ms Abbott.
Meanwhile, the Foreign Office looks more at thematic issues such as
terrorism, security and drugs at the expense of a country-focused
approach -- meaning fewer staff have expertise on the Caribbean. Indeed,
campaigners think the Caribbean's economic problems would get more
attention if these connections were emphasised. Ms Abbott says that a
"rising tide of gun crime in London is absolutely tied in to what is
happening in the Caribbean".
So far, though, the case has not been made strongly enough. "We just
haven't been able to make these links clear," says Trevor Munroe, a
senator in Jamaica's governing People's National party.
California State University
michael at ecst.csuchico.edu
Chico, CA 95929
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