Editorial | Addressing our sugar woes

Sugarcane farmers rest during harvest at Qalitu, Lautoka. Picture: REINAL CHAND/FT FILE

It is encouraging to hear Sugar Minister Charan Jeath Singh talk about the need to address problems faced by our sugar cane farmers.

He believes there is a need to do this if the industry is to be revitalised.

A collaborative approach, he said, is being encouraged to ensure the advancement of the industry.

He was speaking to the Lautoka Mill Area Committee, where he urged members to ensure issues pertaining to the industry were addressed in the best interest of all those involved.

Now despite the opinion of naysayers about the death of the industry, Mr Singh said the Government was still keen to see it bounce back.

It wanted to see an increase in cane production.

Once the backbone of the country’s economy, our sugarcane production has not been overwhelmingly encouraging over the years.

In January this year, Mr Singh noted that the Fiji Sugar Corporation crushed a total of 636,818.99 tonnes of cane and produced 62,541 tonnes of sugar in the 2022 season.

In the face of that, mill manager Michael Fauktofon said at the time, their records showed a huge improvement compared with 2021 where production dropped by 50 per cent of last year’s total cane crushed.

He also raised the issue of maintenance and repairs to the Labasa Mill which was forecast to total about $4.5 million.

Mr Singh spoke about encouraging farmers back to the industry.

However, for that to happen, their problems, he said, should be heard and dealt with.

The Government, he said, was now actively putting their words into action, one of which was the re-establishment of industry committees and sub committees.

The role of these groups, he said, was aimed at bringing farmers, millers and the Sugar Industry Tribunal together to meet and address issues.

We accept there are many issues facing the industry.

Challenges faced by our farmers have long been an issue of contention also.

And they range from the cane price, the loss of cane cutters, to challenges many face in terms of delivery and the impact of breakdowns at the mills.

For the industry to be revived, there has to be concerted effort to get these issues addressed urgently.

This is where we ask whether we have the political will to go the full yards.

In comparison, a report last year noted how a $592,900 Australian Coalition Government grant was set aside to help sugar exporters there diversify into new, high-growth markets by reducing trade barriers and lowering price-distorting subsidies.

It was designed partly to provide research and analysis to support international and bilateral trade negotiations and improved access to key existing markets.

Minister for Agriculture and Northern Australia at the time, David Littleproud, said the grant would help the industry effect its five-year strategy to increase market access and reduce trade barriers.

He spoke about access to high-value markets, which placed a demand on information and analysis.

We may not be able to compare ourselves to Australia, however, it is important to note the attention placed on the industry.

In 2017, the Australian Renewable Energy Agency had briefly touched on a few important issues as well.

There was a shift to seek ways to convert sugarcane trash into biofuels which could be used in transportation.

There were discussions at the time about using this to fuel trucks and machines that help carry the process.

On the homefront, we wonder whether discussions are on about diversification as well, and how the industry can benefit from this.

Again, it is encouraging to note the plans we have.

That’s a positive start.

Farmers have suffered for so long.

The challenge now is putting our plans into action.

We also reflect on the lessons learnt at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic about putting all our eggs in one basket.

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