FOR WHAT IT’S WORTH: Give sugar a break!
EVERY TOM, DICK AND HARRY is having his say on the sugar industry. Over the years there’s been no shortage of consultants’ reports. But as Dwight Eisenhower said “farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil and you’re a thousand miles from the corn field”.
In fact, if the money paid to many of these consultants had been used to make positive changes, the industry might be better off today.
But amidst all the recent talk, I would rely on comments by people like Patrick Bethell and Richard Hoad, who’ve actually “got their hands dirty” and made a living from agriculture, rather than armchair philosophers with time on their hands.
One of the latest arguments for closing the sugar industry is that sugar is bad for you. Aren’t most things bad for you if not consumed in moderation? Another argument is that Hawaii has closed its sugar industry. Shouldn’t that be an advantage?
There are those who keep harping on the fact that taxpayers shouldn’t be expected to support the sugar industry. Don’t our taxes routinely support a highly inefficient public transport system? A Ministry of Potholes? A hospital that terrifies many, including me? A solid waste management system that has collapsed? A sewerage system that threatens our health and our tourism industry? Support to the sugar industry is insignificant compared to these.
Funding social programmes
In any case, Government is only repaying what previous administrations took from the industry to fund social and infrastructural programmes.
Furthermore, hasn’t Government paid large sums to bring half-empty planes from South America for the tourism industry? And all kinds of giveaways to attract visitors? Many would have us believe that agriculture should be sacrificed for tourism. But is tourism as lucrative as it seems, bearing in mind its high use of foreign exchange and the fact that much of the foreign exchange “earned” never reaches Barbados?
But no matter what logic is used, the sugar industry will continue to be a “whipping boy” because of its history. The stigma of slavery is difficult to shed and is part of the problem with attracting bright young minds.
Michael Ray asks what benefits are derived from the subsidies to the sugar industry and who the beneficiaries are.
Well, the benefits are not only foreign exchange earnings (reduced as they are now) and jobs (direct and indirect), but, just as importantly, maintaining a countryside that tourists would enjoy visiting.
Will visitors continue to come to Barbados if the beaches are polluted, roads are riddled in potholes and the countryside is a forest of cow itch? We don’t have to speculate about it, it’s obvious from the abandoned CLICO lands in St John.
As to the direct beneficiaries of the present subsidies, in case Mr Ray thinks the private sugar farmers are the sole beneficiaries, he should be advised that the Government organisation, Barbados Agricultural Management Company (BAMC), receives a major portion and contributes much less raw material than the private farmers.
My observation is that BAMC is a “top-heavy” organisation, rife with bureaucracy which consumes funds better used by its productive departments like the Agronomic Research and Variety Testing Station and for purchasing and maintaining farm equipment.
As far back as 2011, Government was advised that sweeping changes were needed in BAMC, but I doubt if anything was done. Is it true that BAMC’s staff complement is the same now that sugar production is 7 000 tonnes as it was when production was 60 000 tonnes?
The sugar industry has had problems from its inception in the 1600s – like drought, competition and unfavourable exchange rates, among others. But its biggest problem has been that it’s controlled by government through a number of laws which aren’t in the interest of the industry.
I also have to say, though, that just like in the 1600s when owners “took their feet off the pedal” at times and suffered the consequences, in more modern times there has been complacency, with owners surrendering representation of their interest to those with no financial stake in the industry. Fortunately, this has been corrected.
Thankfully, Government, in spite of its shortcomings, seems to understand the value of the industry and continues its support. Positive results are evident from driving around the country. The sugar cane industry can succeed.
• Dr Frances Chandler is a former Independent senator. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org