7 Jun 2013

Bainimarama's sugar management disputed

5:13 pm on 7 June 2013

Fiji's Prime Minister, Frank Bainimarama, has told a meeting of the International Sugar Council in Nadi the government is sparing no effort to revitalise Fiji's sugar industry.

The industry is a major economic driver for the country, producing a jobs for 200,000 people.

Commodore Bainimarama says land that had fallen fallow is being replanted and more long-term leases are being renewed.

Two weeks ago, he announced what he called a record payout to cane farmers.

He says Fiji is on the right path with long-term goals to increase production and diversify the sugar industry.

But the general-secretary of the Labour Party, Mahendra Chaudhry, says the regime has overseen the worst performance of the sugar industry on record.

He says sugar production has fallen from over 300,000 tonnes in 2006 to 150,000 tonnes in 2012.

Mr Chaudhry told Jamie Tahana why he blames Bainimarama for the decline.

MAHENDRA CHAUDHRY: A number of factors have caused the decline. One, for instance, is the frustration that the farmers have felt in the past six years. Their industry institutions were dismantled by Bainimarama quite arbitrarily. The farmers as of now do not have a voice in the running of the industry. The industry is run totally by the Fiji Sugar Corporation and by the Sugar Ministry - that's one thing. The second is of course the younger generation do not take to cane farming, and we have cases where farms have been abandoned. In the last three years the sugarcane prices have been so low that it has simply not been a profitable occupation.

JAMIE TAHANA: Would a non-military government have been able to prevent that happening?

MC: Yes, of course the industry was run under an act which provided for equal representation and decision-making by the government and the millers. But the farmers have been totally removed. The farmers organisations, the unions, have been more or less dismantled by Bainimarama. And this has caused a lot of frustration amongst the farmers. So we can see that with declining prices and the election of the younger generation to engage in the sugar industry and generally the instability that the country has been facing in the last six years has led to a decline in the morale of the growers. And these are the root causes of such a sharp decline.

JT: But the price would have been falling regardless, wouldn't it? Would the industry have declined anyway?

MC: No. Actually under his watch, before we used to make a tonne of sugar from 10 tonnes of cane. But these figures were badly affected the last 4 years when it took 14 tonnes of cane because of milling inefficiency to make a tonne of sugar. Now, this caused huge losses to the industry, running into hundreds of millions of dollars. So the price fell from something like $60 or $65 per tonne of cane to $45 per tonne of cane in 2010. And it has just recently picked up because we've been able to get back to 10 tonnes of cane per tonne of sugar. So the tonne of cane to tonne of sugar ratio is very important and this is where the problem was.

JT: You also say this government lost the industry a lot of international funding.

MC: Yes, this is true. When the sugar reforms were brought in. The EU approved the programme for Fiji. We should have assisted the growers to the tune of something like $400 million under the Accompanying Measures Programme. Now because of political development, negative political development, because of a take-over and Bainimarama's refusal to conduct elections in 2009, as he had promised, this funding was suspended. So the industry in the last six years has lost access to that particular assistance.