The 2016 sugar cane harvest, which is expected to produce the lowest-ever output of sugar, started this week with some workers expressing concern about the industry’s future.
They called for more to be done to save the industry which for more than three centuries was the lynchpin of the island’s economy and a major provider of employment for Barbadians.
Just a few weeks ago, Barbados TODAY reported that the crop, which once generated more than 1,000 seasonal and permanent jobs, had experienced steady decline due to a drastic reduction in the number of factories in operation and also mechanization of reaping through the introduction of harvesters.
With production this year expected to be around 85,000 tonnes of cane and 7,000 tonnes of raw sugar, industry officials were also worried that prolonged severe drought conditions affecting the island will deliver a further blow to the industry.
“It has been two years of drought. The weather has been most unfavourable in terms of the crop, hence the low tonnage that we are looking at in terms of the canes that we are reaping . . . and it will also impact on the quality of the canes. That is why we can only have 7,000 tonnes [of sugar],” said General Manager of the state-owned Barbados Agricultural Management Company (BAMC), Leslie Parris, said.
When Barbados TODAY visited the compound of the former Carrington sugar factory in St Philip where canes are delivered for loading on to the large trailers to be transported to the lone Portvale factory in St James, workers expressed concern about the decline of the industry.
Against the projection that this year’s crop will be one of the smallest in the island’s history with a recovery expected next year, the workers said more needed to be done to support consistent growth of the industry.
Tractor driver of almost 30 years, Matthew Gittens, wondered about the future of sugar harvesting in the country, given what he saw as current threats to the industry.
“I think we need to save it because it is what brought us here for all of these years. We have our children and their children to come along and benefit from it,” he said.
Gittens questioned the need for a new factory if there is a continuous decline in the sugar crop.
Crane operator of ten years, Dale Bryan, said while he too has noticed that the sugar industry was “going down”, he still looked forward to harvesting time.
“We shouldn’t leave out this sugar industry. This is where part of we come from. I feel that we should put our all into it and try to find different ways to build it,” Bryan said.
“As the sugar industry going down, work in the sugar industry is hard to come by too. It ain’t that them ain’t looking for the work; it is that the work ain’t there for the people to get. So I feel if it really get a boost, I feel that a lot of people would come into play,” the crane operator added.
Clyde McClean said the industry was dying and all stakeholders should make a contribution to getting it back to where it should be.
McClean suggested that while the dry weather was partially to blame for the decline in the crop, the country must find a way to trap water during rainfall, and use it to help the industry.
“We need a lot of dialogue. I think that some of the planning was a bit poor, but if we sit down and discuss what we want, we will get back. While I agree that rainfall plays an important role, we are going to find means in storing water. That water will help us during the dry season,” McClean said.
McClean, a senior mechanic, also suggested that sugar workers at the bottom of the chain should be allowed to sit in on meetings and make suggestions to the professionals and officials that make decisions about the industry, in an effort for an improvement to be seen.
“Come back to the small man in the fields and try to find out some answers. He may come up with an idea that may be very good for us. But we gotta do something and it gotta be done now,” the mechanic said.
Mclean also noted that the industry needed to be preserved through educating the island’s future. He said that he did not see the need for a new sugar factory, though acknowledging that a modern factory would somewhat make a difference.
Meanwhile, Patrick Bethel, chairman of Barbados Sugar Industry Ltd, said while there were fewer canes to harvest this year, Portvale factory was ready for the start of the crop. Bethel expressed concern, though, about the effect of the drought.
“Things going brown. We are not having any rain. But the factory is ready. Just got to wait and see,” he said.
Parris reported that at least 614 jobs would be available this season.