WHILST sugar remains the ‘sick man’ of the economy, the government has so far ensured that it is not a ‘dead man’. Sugar’s intended death was well planned and carefully executed by the Coalition Government. Grinding estates were closed instead of remaining operational and despite promises of rehabilitation and capitalisation works to be undertaken, nothing was done.
The plan to suffocate and strangle the sugar industry to death was well orchestrated during the five year in which the Coalition was in government. At first the Coalition made it seem as though they were interested in the survival of sugar. During the 2015 Election Campaign, Leader of the AFC, Khemraj Ramjattan, had said that, “we are not going to close the sugar industry… we will make that industry profitable again… it creates so much employment directly and indirectly….” Then they held a sugar conference at the Arthur Chung Conference Centre in August 2015 where they emphasised the importance of the sugar industry to the economy. At this conference the erstwhile ‘champion’ of the sugar workers, Mr Moses Nagamootoo, had said that, “Government will not abandon sugar in troubled times… the focus is to make sugar work. We have too many workers who stand to lose with the collapse of the industry. This government will not allow sugar to sink.” Subsequently, the Coalition sponsored a Commission of Inquiry which provided a 10-year plan to make the industry viable without the closure of any of the estates. But thereafter, the Coalition conjured a White Paper which provided for the ‘right sizing’ of the Industry – a euphemism for the closure of four estates and the dismissal of over 7,000 employees.
This was not all. After the closure, the Coalition allowed the closed estates to rot and decay and assets stolen or sold for peanuts to friends and families. These assets include billions of dollars in standing canes, infrastructures, punts, machinery and equipment, factories and buildings. Now the replacement of these will take a lot more finances in capital investments. The former Minister, Mr Winston Jordan, had promised that these estates will be kept in ‘moth ball’ conditions to ensure they are attractive to investors. But the opposite happened.
Even this was not all! A $30 billion Bond was secured in July 2018 and Mr Winston Jordan was adamant in his commitment and had made it clear that it was “to rescue GuySuCo… so that GuySuCo can come back on its feet…we will try to push as fast as possible to get it out of its struggles.” Ironically, it is common knowledge what is done to take a ‘struggling animal’ out of its ‘struggles’ (a shot to the head). This bond was secured more than one year after the closure of the estates and was supposed to be used for: capital injection, support infrastructure, upgrades at Albion, Blairmont and Uitvlugt Estates and to develop new co-generation capacities to support estate operations and sell to the national power grid. The plan would have also entailed the production of plantation white sugar as a value-added product for the local and Caribbean market where there is a great demand and a lucrative market as such. But alas! More than $17 billion was spent and none of the above was achieved.
However, history is a great teacher. This is not the first time that the PNC had attempted to decapitate GuySuCo. In the 1970s the PNC saw that sugar was very profitable and devised a scheme to get its hands on it. Then in 1974 the sugar levy was introduced which ‘creamed off’ the profits and the PNC invested in harebrained ventures and indulged in massive squandering. The Sugar Levy took off from 55 to 85 per cent for every dollar for every tonne of sugar produced and sold in excess of a given price range. After the nationalisation in 1976, this continued under the PNC Government and during this period no capital investments were done in the sugar industry and it was only about routine maintenance and replacements of worn out parts of machinery and equipment. There was no vision for the longevity of the industry.
The PNC nor the Coalition as it is called now, was ever interested in the survival and progress of the sugar Industry or the agriculture sector as a whole, which it sees as the PPP support base. Today, the industry and the agriculture sector as whole is facing both the ‘pandemic’ unleashed on it by the Coalition for five long years as well as the fallout from the worst flood in Guyana for over 40 years. But under the PPP Government it is recovering from both. It is a miracle that the sugar industry is still not only standing, but fighting its way to surmount these challenges. At this point the industry needs all the support it can get. This government has shown that it is committed to the progress of the entire agriculture sector and not just sugar and those who are criticising the support for the sugar industry must acknowledge the billions of dollars of cash relief given to the rice industry, the cash crops and the livestock industry. Everyone in this country has received some sort of cash relief since this government took office. It is not just sugar.
In conclusion, I wish to remind ourselves that the sugar industry is resilient and even after the worst flood in decades, Estates such as Albion, are already in the process of rebuilding. Sugar will live on and progress under this government.