There was a time in Barbados, certainly up until about the mid-1980s or thereabouts, when great excitement always surrounded the start of the annual sugar cane harvest.
This was so not only for sugar workers and their immediate families, but also for countless others not directly connected to the industry. For example, village shopkeepers who eagerly looked forward to doing more business over the three or four months of the crop –– which always meant a lot more money would be in circulation.
Nowadays, harvesting of the sugar crop begins with hardly a whisper, as happened this past week. Except for a few news items in the mass media, the long trailer trucks transporting cane along certain roads to the lone Portvale Sugar Factory in St James and the occasional sight of reaping under way in a cane field, there are few other signs to remind us the crop is on.
Gone are the days when droves of workers would be seen from Monday to Friday with sharp bills and cutlasses heading to the cane fields early on mornings, or making their way home late on evenings. In those days, lorries, tractors with trailers, and mule carts –– the main modes of transporting canes to the many factories then in operation across the island –– were a common sight on virtually every major road with the sides littered with cane that fell off and was crushed by other passing vehicles.
Gone are the days too when the sweet aroma of boiling cane juice, going through the stages of sugar manufacturing, filled the air in communities close to factories. Another common sight back then too was of children sucking cane by the roadside or pulling miniature trucks and tractors with trailers filled with cane peelings. They had made these toys from pieces of wood, discarded metal food containers, metal soft drink stoppers and twine.
The disappearance of these aspects of Barbadian life associated with the sugar crop is sure confirmation of the decline in the importance of an industry which, for most of Barbados’ 400-odd-year history after British colonization in 1625, was undisputed “king” of the economy. In the 18th century, sugar generated so much wealth for Barbados that it was the richest British colony, ahead of the British North American possessions that today are part of the United States.
To be called a “sugar baron” back then, a title given to many British expatriate plantation owners in Barbados, was similar to being described today as an oil magnate or business tycoon. The ugly side of sugar, however, was that its great wealth was produced through the heartless exploitation of enslaved Africans, the foreparents of the vast majority of persons making up the population of Barbados and other English-speaking Caribbean countries today.
Devastated by high production costs, financial challenges resulting from fundamental changes to trading arrangements which made exporting to Europe unprofitable, loss of interest by farmers and recurring drought as have been the case this year, sugar output has steadily declined in recent years. This year’s crop is expected to yield the lowest ever production of around 8,000 tonnes, compared with 65,000 tonnes almost 20 years ago.
Three years ago, Government announced plans for the construction of a modern factory to support sweeping transformation of the industry from producing just primarily raw sugar for export to a wider range of products with higher value added. However, with the total acreage of land under cane cultivation in sharp decline, and with dwindling confidence within the farming community about the industry’s future, some observers have started to question the viability of the Government’s plan, including some sugar workers themselves.
For obvious sentimental reasons, many Barbadians have expressed a desire to see the industry retained in some form, but the factor of declining confidence does not provide much cause for optimism.
Because of essentially similar challenges, neighbouring St Kitts, which too used to be a major Caribbean sugar producer, had to do away with the industry altogether a few years ago. Whether sugar overcomes the present challenges in Barbados to survive or just continue on a path to its inevitable demise, one thing is certain. Sugar has carved for itself an indelible place in Barbados’ history as a defining influence on our development as a nation.
Needless to say, the next few years will be critical in sealing the industry’s ultimate fate.