Sweet as Sugar

We need not lose sight of the fact that Mauritius was discovered, raised and peopled for the sake of sugar. For centuries, we have depended on sugar as the mainspring of our livelihood.

Through good times or bad, whether its price went up or down on international markets, whether good rains made the plantation flourish or cyclones battered the standing crop, we toiled hard and stood by it. From out of the utter poverty of people living surrounded by sugarcane plantations in the beginnings, a society with all modern amenities has now emerged, resting on the foundation constituted by sugar.

True to its nature, sugarcane has almost effaced itself to give way to numerous other activities on the island. Even though accounting for no more than 1% of GDP today, it’s still a delight to admire the green carpet it pans out before our eyes to soothe our sight wherever it hasn’t been invaded by concrete or motor cars. Not only it delights our palates at any time of the day, we keep sending its sweetness to distant shores as close as Madagascar or as far as the US.

Many of us who have our souls deeply planted in vegetation will never forget all the good our sugar has showered on everyone from the labourer in the field, the fisherman, the pauper on the street to the public official, the banker, the hawker, the poor and the rich. All our being owes a great debt of gratitude to sugar and is deeply embedded in it.

The sugar factories and simple lifestyle of our pastoral past may have disappeared today – or almost. We would still do well to draw inspiration from the slow meandering past of rivers, brooks and meadows, green fields and peaceful nature. We would err seriously to think that tourists don’t come to Mauritius for seeking that greenery and simplicity. They do.

For some years now, our sugar sector has faced serious difficulties. The EU to which we’ve traditionally exported most of our sugar started removing the market preferences we enjoyed with respect to our sugar exports since almost a decade now. As from October 2017, they will remove subsidies and sugar production quotas in the EU. That could encourage European beet farmers to expand production and change the EU’s status from that of an importer of sugar to an exporter to global markets.

We are not there yet. But there’s always the danger that an over-supplied international sugar market might depress its price. We’ve seen that for the 2014 and 2015 sugar crops, the government decided to take money out of the Sugar Insurance Fund to top up the per tonne price paid to producers by Rs 2,000.Short of this, the cost of production was higher than the price sugar fetched on international markets. We may have to harness our costs more efficiently by reorganising.

We’ve gone looking for higher incomes into special sugars, ethanol and such by-products of sugar to overcome the impact of low international sugar prices. Even efforts of this type by small countries like Mauritius can be buffeted by big global sugar producers of the world (Brazil, Mexico, Thailand, Australia, etc.) getting a more favourable access to our traditional sugar export markets through Free Trade Agreements currently under negotiation.

It would be a mistake to give up our sugar plantation and sugar production, despite its shrinking contribution to the economy. For one, a sugarcane field is an incomparably more beautiful sight to contemplate than a motorway cluttered up with an almost perpetual traffic jam. The rolling green tapestry of sugarcane fields, besides being beautiful and environment friendly, holds in store potential for a transformative future of our agricultural sector: the Swiss turned sugar (and cocoa) into the world’s most renowned chocolates.

And, for all the adverse publicity big houses have been making internationally against the ill-effects of consuming sugar, sugar consumption the world over is increasing, not decreasing. We would do well to bear that in mind and churn out the higher alternative potential from our sugar output. All it calls for is reorganisation and a new theme of development around fresh ideas.

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