Stop manual cutting of cane in Jamaica, Cuban official urges

Stop manual cutting of cane in Jamaica, Cuban official urges

Socialist giant stepping up production again after many years of slump

BY HG HELPS Editor-at-Large

Saturday, August 15, 2015

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HAVANA, Cuba - Manual cutting of cane is not the way for Jamaica's sugar industry to continue if it is serious about becoming profitable, one senior Cuban official has said.

Rafael Suarez Rivacoba, the Director of International Relations for AZCUBA Group, which manages the affairs of the sugar industry here, suggested that it was a waste of time for workers in the Jamaica sugar industry to be using machetes to cut cane in this day and age. Instead, he is suggesting that if sugar producing companies in Jamaica want to reduce their overhead costs and realise profits, they must move towards mechanisation.

"If a country's sugar industry is going to develop, the manual cutting of cane has to stop. Cutting cane is very tough and cane is a very hard crop," Rivacoba told the Jamaica Observer in an interview here.

Instead, Rivacoba believes in complete mechanisation of the industry, insisting that field operations should be done by using combine harvesters, even if it means that some people would lose their jobs as manual cane cutters.

"There is no money to be made by putting people in the field to cut cane," he said. "Cuba and Australia are among the first sugar producing countries to use combine harvesters in their field operations. Our operations are now 100 per cent mechanised, as manual cutting of cane stopped by the middle of the 1980s.

"Right now, we are working with a Chinese company to jointly produce more combine harvesters and we are importing some machinery from Brazil," he said.

The opinion is not likely to go down well with some Jamaican sugar cane interests, who are steeped in tradition that cane cutters should be the ones chopping cane plants with machetes for milling.

Only recently, the jobs of several cane cutters at St Thomas Sugar Company were made redundant, as the company, which is managed by the Seprod Group, attempts to streamline its operations and boost efficiency. Reports have suggested that the majority of the workers will be rehired as contract workers, meaning that the system of manual harvesting will continue at that, and other estates, all of which have been privatised in recent years.

Jamaica's overall sugar production fluctuates annually, but averages around 150,000 tonnes in recent years, falling short of set targets most times.

The matter of non-mechanisation of the Jamaican sugar industry's field operations in particular, has been a thorny subject since the 1970s, when special interests suggested that combine harvesters, used by many countries of Europe and North America to reap various crops, ought to be introduced into mainstream agriculture in Jamaica, starting with the sugar industry.

But boardroom verbal clashes between those for and against resulted in the status quo of hand chopping of cane remaining intact.

Members of Parliament who represented workers in sugar cane producing communities also strongly objected to any move to mechanise the industry, as it would mean displacement of jobs for several thousand cane cutters, many of whom, the politicians argued, would not be in a position to do anything else.

Rivacoba maintained that any refusal to mechanise the industry would result in organisations involved not making profits.

In Cuba, the industry has reached a position of self-sufficiency. The island has managed to run its 56 sugar factories efficiently and the industry has been increasing its annual production in recent years, following a huge slump in the 1990s.

At one time, up to the 2002-2003 harvest, Cuba had 156 factories in operation. Close to two million hectares of land were under cultivation. Production, which at one time stood at up to eight million tonnes, dipped with the shutting down of 100 factories and the land used to grow the crop dropped to 800,000 hectares spread across 13 of the 16 provinces which produce the commodity.

Cuba for years enjoyed preferential markets and even had sugar quotas of between three and four million tonnes for the United States market alone. Before the Revolution in 1959, sugar formed 90 per cent of the island's exports

Between three and four million tonnes were shipped to the US alone, but after 1959 things went on a downward path, despite the efforts of the then Soviet Union, China and countries in Eastern Europe to fill the breach. Even without US purchases, sugar continued to be the main economic earner for Cuba during the 1960s and 1970s, but the bombshell collapse of the Soviet Union during the 1990s dug a hole in the fortunes of the Caribbean island.

"We not only lost some of our markets for our sugar, but we also lost traditional markets for fertilizers, pesticides and other products," Rivacoba said.

But things are stepping up again. Four years ago Cuba produced 1.2 million tonnes of the sweetener. It was then that authorities decided to start increasing cultivation, which has been working at achieving a 15 per cent growth per year for the last three years. Now, two million tonnes are being pushed out by the 56 factories.

Despite the low output, compared to what obtained decades ago, the industry's crushing capacity is enough to produce up to four million tonnes in any one crop.

"We have the space to grow," Rivacoba stated. "In four to five years we calculate to produce up to another five million tonnes, but again, that all depends on the international price being paid for sugar."

The crystal is now trading at an average US 11 cents per pound on the international market.

As part of the industry's self-sufficiency here, energy is derived from the burning of cane waste, known as bagasse, with steam being produced in boilers, which then goes to a generator to produce electricity. Therefore, the sugar industry does not have to be substituted by the State, as it depends on exports and domestic sales to pay the bills and realise a surplus.

This also comes despite another humbug, as only 10 per cent of the land under sugar cultivation is irrigated, posing challenges if there is inadequate rainfall between the reaping season that runs from November to April.

"We are looking for foreign capital to produce more and more energy," Rivacoba said, underlining the fact that although Cuba as a country depends on imported oil, none is used in the running of the sugar industry.

"We in Cuba's sugar industry need to produce more power to be injected into the national grid," he reiterated.

And although at least one sugar factory in Jamaica still uses the colonial method of horses, donkeys and mules to help with transportation of canes, that is a thing of the past for this country, which relies on truck and rail carts to move cane around

Cuba also refines sugar but for the domestic market only.

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