Challenging times | Sugar production and climatic conditions

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Manual harvesting of sugarcane has become a grave challenge for the sugar industry, states the 2020 Sugar Cane Growers Council report. Picture: FT FILE

In response to Sailesh Naidu’s article titled “The Sugar Industry: To Be or Not To Be,” published in The Fiji Times on February 24, 2024, we provide some important clarifications regarding the questions raised.

Firstly, it must be pointed out that according to our source, there was nobody of Mr Naidu’s description nor purported advocacy of farmers interests personally present in any of the four meetings that we held.

The matters he raised are not an accurate account of the actual consultations. It is more of a publicity seeking stunt of sensationalism and misrepresentation.

Our sugar industry, despite its many financial, production, milling and transport issues, remains the cornerstone of the nation’s economy and an invaluable source of livelihood for at least a quarter of our population, particularly the rural sector.

It is the largest component of our agricultural sector and absorbs thousands, who otherwise cannot participate in the formal commercial economy, either due to lack of skills, education or opportunities.

Cane farming coexists with the production and supply of our essential food needs, constituting an important component of our import substitution national economic strategy.

Superimposed on the multiple operational woes of the industry are also the added challenges of unpredictable climatic conditions, labour shortages, harvesting, migration of skilled mill technical staff and land lease issues.

And this is not the exhaustive list. Our response aims to address the concerns he raises in his article, offering a detailed examination of how the Fiji Sugar Corporation Ltd (FSC) arrives at targeted production figures, the delay in implementing payouts for manual harvesting, and the transparency of reporting between FSC, the Sugar Cane Growers Council (SCGC), and the Ministry of Sugar Industry (MOSI).

Regarding the targeted figure determined by FSC

IT’S important to understand that the sugar cane industry in Fiji is greatly influenced by climatic conditions, especially considering the reliance on rainfed cultivation.

The fluctuation in crop yield due to variables like cyclones is evident in past production records. Following Tropical Cyclone Winston in 2016, production dropped to 1.38 million tonnes, rebounding to 1.7 to 1.8 million tonnes by 2019-2020.

However, the adverse weather conditions of Tropical Cyclones Yasa and Ana led to a decline to 1.4 million tonnes in 2021. Despite those challenges, FSC has demonstrated resilience, enabling a recovery to approximately 1.63 million tonnes in 2023.

FSC employs a well-established assessment process from November to February, where field teams evaluate crop areas to forecast production levels. This estimation, finalised in April, forms the basis for subsequent projections for both production and incomes for all the stakeholders.

The declared crop yield in 2023 at 1.66 million tonnes highlights the importance of corroborating data sources for accuracy and reliability. Crop estimation is a combination of good judgement, data analysis , assessment of production history and also expected weather conditions.

There is no absolute science to this and it is not done from the comfort of an office or a desktop. Our staff do an actual physical survey of the fields often in consultation with farmers themselves and gang Sardars.

The decline from the projected 1.66 million tonnes to 1.56 million tonnes in 2023 is attributed largely to the reduced output in Labasa. It represents a variation of 6.2 per cent , nearly all of which is due to the reduction in Labasa.

Factors such as prolonged rainfall during the crushing season, waterlogging, and suboptimal crop establishment, particularly in flat lands and machineharvested fields, contributed to this downturn.

Remedial measures, including plot-by-plot interventions, are underway to enhance production in affected areas. Furthermore, a discernible trend of increased average annual rainfall since 2020-2021 has been observed, adversely affecting soil fertility through waterlogging, leaching, erosion, and weed proliferation.

FSC has initiated a range of initiatives such as weed management, drainage enhancement, and soil nutrient optimisation in response.

The allocation of $5million earmarked for drainage system improvements in 2023 — an industry first — reflects FSC’s proactive approach to climate change adaptation and resilience-building efforts.

Regarding the delayed $1 payout for manual harvesting

The delay in implementing the $1 payout for manual harvesting was acknowledged during consultations, with assurances from the Minister for Sugar, Charan Jeath Singh, that payments would be disbursed expeditiously, once the funds are released by the Ministry of Finance.

Regarding FSC and SCGC’s transparency in reporting to the minister

FSC consistently submits detailed weekly performance reports to the Sugar Ministry, providing comprehensive updates on mill performance and harvesting activities.

These reports ensure transparency and accountability, facilitating effective oversight and real time decision-making processes within the sugar industry. The interactions between the minister, chairman, board and operating management is almost on a daily basis and is unprecedented in its 140-year history.

While challenges persist in the sugar cane industry, including those related to climatic variability, all the stakeholders are collaborating and communicating closely, to deliver outcomes.

FSC spends nearly $3million annually deploying a dedicated team of nearly hundred staff to support the farming sector of about 10,500 growers. For every farmer the corporation spends nearly $300.

Under the new minister and board we are aiming to engender greater transparency, more community level consultations than ever before, implementing adaptive measures, and addressing operational day to day concerns.

The revival of the industry and its long term sustainability remains the highest priority for the stakeholders and the Government. It is an outrageously misleading exaggeration to suggest that the minister or our board have been misled.

Talk to any farmer’s leader, and they will confirm the level of teamwork and engagement that currently prevails in the industry, led by FSC and supported by all the other stakeholders.

In the last round of consultations , only a fortnight ago, we met nearly 350 farmers during four highly interactive meetings from Boruto in RakiRaki to Malolo in Nadi over a period of three days with both the Ministers of Sugar and Agriculture and the entire team of senior FSC, SCGC, Growers Fund and Fertiliser officials.

Except for one lone farmer in Moto Ba, all others expressed strong appreciation and support for the efforts of the ministers and the industry officials for engaging directly with them to revive the industry.

Under the Sugar Minister, we have held more than 50 farmers consultations from Wainikoro to Seaqaqa in Vanualevu and from Dobuilevu in Ra to Kabisi in Sigatoka in one year, which is 10 times more than what the previous govnerment did in its entire 16 years.

The industry is hungry for some positive support, confidence and patience as we try and rebuild, and not the constant undermining and negativity of a few ill-informed key board warriors purporting to be the new spokesman for the farmers.

• NITYA REDDY is the chairman of the Fiji Sugar Corporation. The views expressed in this article are his and is not necessarily shared by this newspaper.

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