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A sugar revival in the works

by Barbados Today
10 min read

By Kimberley Cummins

In late August this year, news emerged that sales of Barbados-branded sugar were booming across North America, Europe, the Caribbean and West Africa.

There was adulation as director of the West Indies Sugar & Trading Company (WISTCO) Chris Docherty boasted that this upward movement was a direct outcome of significant investment by his company. WISTCO was established in 2008 as a partnership between the Barbados Agricultural Management Company (BAMC) and players in the private sector, to further develop the sugar industry on the island. 

Docherty said the entity has spent the past 15 years positioning Barbados sugar as a premium brand under the “Barbados Reserve” trademark and, as a result of this, Barbados sugar was generating a buzz once more. He revealed that it is now sold across Trinidad & Tobago in major supermarkets. In the United States, it was promoted in 500 Winn Dixie stores across five states in December 2020, has now also been added to the list of products offered on Walmart’s website, and was expected to be available nationwide from September this year.

“Meanwhile, since 2019, WISTCO has doubled the number of UK stores that sell Barbados-branded sugar to over 1,000 locations and now also supplies sugar to the largest premium chocolate manufacturer in the UK, with listings across Harrods, Fortnum & Mason and Waitrose,” WISTCO revealed in a press release in August.

“As part of the development of links between Barbados and West Africa, WISTCO is finalising negotiations with the largest FMCG distributor in the country, in conjunction with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, for distribution of the Barbados Reserve brand into major Ghana retailers.”

In Barbados, until WISTCO was established all brown sugar was imported. Since then, however, the company has taken credit for the reversal of this state of affairs, replacing half of all imports with Barbados sugar – saving foreign exchange and adding an estimated $3 million annually to industry income.

This development comes after more than three decades of sugar’s decline in importance to Barbados. In fact, in an Inter-Development Bank (IDB) 2016 analysis of agricultural policies in Barbados, it was noted that while agri-food exports’ share of total exports was about 33 per cent, those exports consisted mostly of spirits and processed food, with primary agriculture’s share of total exports under 2 per cent in 2014. Alcoholic beverages – traditionally rum, a by-product of sugar – primarily still accounted for the major part of export revenue among food and agricultural products. On the other hand, sugar exports had been steadily declining, and while sugar was still the biggest export revenue earner among non-processed agricultural commodities, its share of total merchandise exports decreased from 6 per cent in 2007 to 0.8 per cent in 2016.

This was a stark contrast to just a century earlier, and up to the 1950s, when sugar reigned as king of the Barbados economy. During the period from the mid-17th through the mid-19th century, sugar became the most important commodity in the world. As a result, the tropical climate of the Caribbean islands in which the crop flourished became the strategic centre of the Atlantic World and was vehemently defended and fought over in European conflicts throughout the 17th and 19th centuries.

In 1627, the English landed on island and during the pursuant colonial era, the economy was marked by a pattern of family-run plantations and by a diversity of products, specifically cotton and tobacco. However, around the 1640s, realizing they were unable to compete with the superior tobacco being shipped from Virginia, the plantation owners began the search for a more profitable export crop. Sugar cane, which at the time was being cultivated in the Dutch-controlled Brazil, was adopted in Barbados and by 1642 its cultivation got underway here.

This period was dubbed The Sugar Revolution. As sugar production increased and indentured servants courted from the British Isles were unable to keep up with demand, plantation owners relied more and more on the importation of Africans, who were brutally enslaved, to be labourers.

Historians have acknowledged that within the short space of 30 years, about 70 per cent of the island’s forestation was wiped out and replaced by rows of sugar cane that blanketed the majority of the landscape as the British sought to industrialize Barbados with the introduction of the valuable crop. 

The Sugar Revolution was an exceptional and prosperous period for planters whose wealth was reflected in the construction of extravagantly designed Great Houses, luxurious furniture and, most of all, they acquired substantial influence in the deliberations of Parliament which ensured the favourable consideration of their interests.

At the turn of the 19th century, however, sugar’s dominance was challenged by several factors – namely, the prohibition of the slave trade by the British (1807), abolition of slavery (1834), as a well as cheaper sweeteners which became more popular among British consumers. This, coupled with stiffer Europeans tariffs on sugar coming out of the West Indies, saw sugar profits starting to wane.

 In the 2006 publication The Economic Development of Barbados, economist Michael Howard documented that upward to the early 20th century the colonies remained committed to the principle of British responsible trusteeship and agrarian capitalism. Hence, early planning devoted heavily to the finance of sugar monoculture and to the services supporting the sugar industry.

“It was hoped that such expansion of sugar would be based on a scheme of consolidation of factories, which would lead to economies of scale as well as increased opportunities for the development of by-products. Development of better irrigation facilities and improvements in the public water supply would assist in broadening the basis of agriculture. The 1946-56 plan allocated a mere £50,000 to industrial development, to be utilized in exploring the possibilities of and developing minor industries. Similarly, tourism received £10,000,” Howard wrote.

However, by the beginning of the 1960s, the Barbados government started to make deliberate efforts to de-emphasize its agrarian development ethos, and focus more on tourism and service industries as the driving force of job creation and revenue generation for economic sustainability. The post- Fulgencio Batista era that saw embargoes placed on American travel to Cuba was a silver-lining for Barbados. The island benefitted significantly from the fallout of tourism in the Spanish-speaking nation, with thousands of additional travellers seeing Barbados as a viable alternative destination in the region.

So that, by 1977, there was such a sharp decline in sugar production and sales that the Central Bank of Barbados, in the Financial Aspects of The Barbados Sugar Industry, report gave an overview of a sector on life support.

“Along with the phenomenon of falling prices, the cane sugar industry is experiencing increased competition from European beet sugar and substitutes such as high fructose syrup and artificial sweeteners. The Barbados sugar industry, in particular, has been suffering from declining production and rising costs in a market dominated by large producers with lower production costs.

“Sugar production in Barbados fluctuated around 170,000 tonnes annually between 1950 and 1969. By 1976, it had fallen to 102,000 tonnes. Although the acreage cultivated has been declining, reflecting the diversion of sugar land into other uses, the most important reason for the decline in production has been the steady drop in yields. If yields had remained at their average 1965/69 level (3.4 tonnes of sugar per acre), production would have exceeded 130,000 tonnes in 1976,” the report stated.

Howard further noted that sugar output continued to fall in the 1980s and 1990s, and by the year 2000, the hectares reaped were 8,700 and output just 58,400 tonnes. Additionally, increasing amounts of lands were taken out of use for sugar cane cultivation and were allocated for industrial and tourism development. Equally significant was the fact that employment on estates declined from 17,700 in 1958 to 4,000 in 1975, as workers sought better paying and less arduous jobs. Factory employment also fell from 1,436 in 1958 to 555 in 1975.

“Continued high production costs and low prices led to heavy accumulation of debt by sugar plantations. By 1986, the contribution of sugar to the GDP had fallen to a mere 2.8 per cent. The sugar industry never recovered in the 1990s, and by the year 2000 its contribution to the GDP was 1.5 per cent,” Howard observed.

That was a paltry amount when compared to the 23.4 per cent that sugar contributed to the total GDP in 1955, as indicated through records from the Central Bank of Barbados and the Barbados Statistical Service. The 2008 sugar harvest yielded some 31,600 tonnes of sugar, about 2,300 tonnes less than the 2007 crop year.

In recent times, despite several attempts made to revive the sector, sugar production continues on a downward trajectory. The hills and fields across the country sides are no longer flushed and rolling with the pale green stalks that danced rhythmically to the echoes of the winds. The machines that strangled the life out of the canes until they cried sweet tears have long been retired – at least at eight of the ten factories, with only Andrews Sugar Plantation St Joseph and Portvale in St James still holding on.

Nonetheless, in 2021, Government is still hopeful of a turnaround for the sector. In fact, Minister of Agriculture and Food Security Indar Weir is banking on a restructure of the industry, by way of the transitioning from a bulk sugar production industry to one of value chain and the establishment of an entity called the Barbados Energy and Sugar Company (BESCO), to breathe new life into the industry.

“Barbados is now poised to transform the sugar industry into a sugar cane industry, with the focus on value chain development going from sugar production; reduced production for domestic consumption, giving Barbadians the opportunity to use its own sugar rather than focus on total imported sugar and at the same time provide the rum industry with the premium side of the industry benefiting from local molasses. . . . This transformation also will result in the BAMC earning more for sugar and molasses whilst we also look at the value chain development, taking us to renewable energy, where by 2025 we shall see the BAMC becoming a profitable entity with stakeholders involved and ordinary people of Barbados given the opportunity to purchase shares in the BAMC,” Weir said. 

This article appears in the November 29 edition of the Independence publication. Read the full publication here


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