Analysis

Sugar Industry Heading In Right Direction, Let’s Protect It

We have invested a lot in it. This is not the time for grandstanding to achieve cheap political gains
21 May 2019 14:51
Sugar Industry Heading In Right Direction, Let’s Protect It
Tonnes of sugarcane being loaded for transport.

Analysis:

Sugar and land are easy pickings for politicians when they want to grab attention.

That’s exactly what happened last week after National Federation Party MP Pio Tikoduadua moved a motion for the establishment of a bi-partisan select committee on sugar to find solutions to revive the sugar industry.

The debate that ensued touched the sensitive issue of iTaukei land tenure, the expiry of leases, their non-renewal and their impact on overall cane production.

Official records show that leases under the Agricultural Landlord and Tenants Act began expiring in the late 1990s.

Because of the heightened political tension caused by ethnic polarisation a lot of decisions made were influenced by the prevailing political environment.

Some indigenous advocates were preaching “do not renew leases”. The iTaukei landowners were advised to take back their land and farm it themselves so that they could  enjoy the same benefits as the tenants did.

Some years ago I visited some of these farms. They were lying idle because the landowners in question had no previous cane farming experience. They were simply not ready to continue the farms.

Initially,  its impact on cane production was significant. The experienced cane farmers had moved on to find other forms of livelihood.

As far back as 2008, there was an exodus of Labasa farmers looking for a new future on Viti Levu. Some of them claimed that their leases were not renewed because the landowners wanted their land back. They also alleged that some landowners were asking for more money which they did not have.

There was even a suggestion that ALTA be extended from 30 to 50 years.

By 2004 it was estimated that about 5,500 leases had expired.

Approximately 1900 farms had been taken over by landowners and 770 leases were renewed.  More than 1880 farms were lying idle and overgrown with grass.

The TLTB then started a programme to encourage farmers to return to the land.

In 2008, it recorded that 80 per cent of all expiring leases had been renewed.

The TLTB worked with the Committee for Better Utilisation of Land (CBUL) to achieve this result.

For those venturing into cane farming for the first time, they had to learn it was a business and they needed professional field advice.

The number of initiatives rolled out by the Government over the years to support cane farmers are bearing results.

If the momentum is sustained, the industry will continue to grow.

But what it does not need is political grandstanding for cheap political gains.

Unrealistic promises to the farmers and more bureaucracy would create instability in the industry and dent confidence.

The industry is heading in the right direction and we should protect it because we have invested a lot in it..
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