JIS News

Minister of Agriculture, Dr. Christopher Tufton, has commended the 67-year old All-Island Jamaica Sugarcane Farmers Association, for its contribution to the agricultural sector.
Speaking at the 62nd Annual Conference of the Association, at the Jamaica Pegasus Hotel in Kingston, on September 30, Dr. Tufton noted that as an organisation representing sugarcane farmers, over such a long period, “you clearly would have been part of the evolution of the industry over those many years. You’d have seen the opportunities, you’d have seen the challenges, you’d have been part of those opportunities and challenges, and clearly your contribution has been quite significant.”
He noted that over the last 10 years, the private sugarcane farmers, approximately 9,000, have contributed on average, 45 per cent of total sugarcane production to the industry. In terms of the wider industry, he said that sugarcane cultivation contributes up to 18 per cent of agricultural employment, and represents four per cent of the overall labour force. “In terms of employment, the data suggests that overall, there is some 38,000 persons directly engaged (and) accounts for another 100,000 indirectly linked to the activities of the industry,” he informed.
“The industry spans a critical geographic mass as well as population, linking some 32 political constituencies across the country. I don’t think we can identify another sector that has or is contributing as much to the development of Jamaica, and in particular the development of rural Jamaica, as is the case with the sugarcane sector,” he added.
He noted however that change, though difficult, is necessary in order to ensure the sustained development of the industry. “We must all accept that in a case, where we have an industry that has existed for such a long time, that has touched the lives of citizens of an entire country directly or indirectly, and that has helped to shape and mould the culture, the behaviour of a people, it is very difficult to advocate and to get a ‘buy in’ by all stakeholders for radical change in the way we go about doing things.
Dr. Tufton stated that, “change is always difficult, but in this context, there is no doubt about it, it is even more challenging. But the truth is, we are confronting perhaps for the first time, the most radical change and challenge necessary to advance the development of this very critical industry.”
He noted that the variables such as the advantages of guaranteed markets and guaranteed prices, the advantages of a level of ‘protectionism’, which once allowed for a level of predictability in the industry, are being severely challenged. “As a consequence, it is forcing upon all of us, whether as Government, as cane farmers, or as processors, an intense level of reflection, and a need for action towards change. I know it is difficult. I have sat in several meetings, had several levels of discussions with the critical stakeholders, the workers, management, the union reps, the cane farmers and I know that a lot is being required based on the norms of the past, but the truth is, it is necessary.”
He said that despite the change necessary, he did not sense any major resistance from those involved. “During my one year as Minister of Agriculture, I have spent more time discussing sugar and sugarcane, than perhaps any other sector within agriculture, and I must say that overwhelmingly, the response that I have received from all the critical stakeholders, is that they recognise the challenges that they face and they are prepared to attempt to work towards overcoming those challenges to take advantage of the opportunities that could lie ahead.”
Dr. Tufton cited the challenges as having to do with efficiency in terms of what is done and how it is done. He noted that the country produces a pound of sugar for an average of 26 cents, while in other countries where efficiencies are better, they are producing at 15 cents a pound, and in some cases 12 cents a pound.
“We are told that we are to come in at least at between 15 and 17 cents a pound. It’s going to require efficiency and changes. It is going to require a change in the way we do things, if we are to achieve that level of efficiency. I am told that the data indicates that on an average, we are producing in terms of yields, 62 tonnes per hectare, and we need to go up to about 77 to 80 tonnes per hectare,” Dr. Tufton informed.
He noted that the change necessary, required the redoubling of efforts towards securing a sugarcane industry that focusses on much more products than sugar, “that focusses on more than just the commodity that we are traditionally accustomed to and that focusses on a market place that is going to demand a lot more in terms of efficiencies. And this is why the option that we have chosen to exercise.to explore partnership within the sugarcane industry, to engage capital, to engage management, technology, to engage all the variables that are necessary to drive that critical objective of producing a more efficient sugar cane crop and to add value through technology, to provide or to produce a wider range of product options.”
“The truth is that given where we are today, given the challenges that exist in the environment, and given the fact that the Government has traditionally been the key driver of the industry by virtue of it owning a majority stake in the activities of the industry, the limitations of Government in terms of resources, would not allow us to be the driver that is required to transform this very critical industry,” he added.
This he said, against the background of ongoing negotiations to turn over ownership of the country’s state-owned sugar estates to the Brazilian company, Infinity Bio-Energy Limited.
Meanwhile, Chairman of the Association, Allan Rickards, in an interview with JIS News, also endorsed the need for change, and informed of resolutions which were passed, including a request that the Ministry of Finance and the Public Service, remove General Consumption Tax (GCT), from all farming equipment for the industry, and a rebate be given on fuel.
“We also passed a resolution that is requesting a rebate system, that is the tax now charged on diesel to the sugar cane sector, we want it rebated so that they get a relief on the cost of tilling and harvesting,” he added.
The Association’s members also approved a resolution requesting relief on certain types of debt. “We also are requesting that farmers be put on the same footing as the new owners in terms of debt whereas they receive debt, free factories. Farmers need to go forward with relief from debt that is over seven years old, debt that is to the Sugar Industry Authority and Jamaica Cane Product Sales,” he further informed.
Among other resolutions passed at the conference was a change of the organisation to the Jamaica Sugar Cane Growers Association. It was also agreed that branch associations be rationalised and that only one branch will be at each sugarcane factory.