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IF THE SUPPOSED initiative to resuscitate Barbados’ sugar industry and turn it into a modern sugar cane industry is going to be led by the Government, the country may be in for more trouble than we might have imagined.
We make this bold assertion even while readily accepting that if there is one area of agricultural business that we have demonstrated for centuries we can successfully manage it is sugar. Over the last quarter-century however, it has become increasingly clear that our current performance and our historical records are not intersecting.
All Barbadians should be flabbergasted to learn that the Barbados Agricultural Management Company, a Government entity that is responsible for roughly half of all canes (and sugar) produced here was unable to reap one fifth of the canes it grew over the past year.
Let’s put it another way: the public entity that is giving leadership to the sector and a resuscitation plan that will cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars, left unharvested more than 1 000 of the 5 000 acres of canes it grew on a number of the estates it managed.
We can’t help but ask what challenges a public entity that is certainly not a not-for-profit organisation would have been encountering that would compelled it to effectively dump one fifth of its production. And this is at a time when the volume of canes grown is at its lowest in centuries, and the harvest started so late that all involved had an extra two months to prepare.
We’re told that once the private growers, who together are responsible for another 5 000 acres, had completed their harvesting the BADMC was reaping canes at such a slow rate it did not make sense keeping Portvale, the island’s lone sugar factory, operating. To do so would have been too costly.
So how did BADMC arrive at this crisis state? And if every ounce of cane is so vital to a struggling industry, was there no way to call upon the then idle reaping capacity of the private growers for one major push on Government lands?
It now appears that with this dismal failure by the BADMC, Barbados’ 2015 sugar harvest will barely top the 10 000 tonne threshold when all the figures have been combined. This also raises serious questions about the potential for the 2016 harvest, which, based on a number of statements from agricultural officials, is supposed to be the first year in a planned sustained rise in production.
We have serious doubts about whether next year’s will be any better than this year’s with this kind of leadership from the state entity at the front of the effort. We hold the view that agriculture in general and sugar in particular can and must be a major plank in the effort at Barbados’ economic revival. We have the knowledge and experience to make it work and we have a Ministry of Agriculture that has been traditionally staffed by competent, well-trained and enthusiastic professionals, even if they have not always been led by the most shrewd politicians.
This level of bungling in agriculture is not common to us, and we therefore hope that over the next few months the country will be able to see the guts of a sensibly articulated and supported sugar cane resuscitation effort that would inspire confidence across the board.
We would wish to see the kind of intensive practical exercises that would suggest that the industry’s policymakers and managers recognise that given all that has occurred over the last two years in particular, a business-as-usual approach will not produce the results desired.