“Now is the time to walk the talk…

Interview: Kreepalloo Sunghoon – Alliance of Sugarcane Planters Associations

…surely, Government cannot subscribe to the warped approach of the LMC-BDO Report, so typical of a bygone era…”

 “No planter sells his land with a cheerful heart, because he is fully aware that the property his forefathers shed blood, sweat and tears to acquire will never return. This is the social and cultural drama unfolding in contemporary Mauritius”

Small planters in particular have been instrumentalised throughout the history of sugarcane cultivation in Mauritius. It has been an uphill fight across centuries to give them a fair treatment against dominant sugar lobbies. It seems even at the dawn of the 21st Century, marginalizing them is still the norm. Planters – especially small planters — are revolted at the corporatization of sugar profits to the benefit of a few mill owners and to their utter detriment, as seen in the Landell Mills-BDO report submitted for implementation to the Authorities.

There have been singularly courageous planters who have stood up from time to time to fight the injustice of corporate dominance of the sector. This week, we have picked up one among these, Kreepalloo Sunghoon, a long-time crusader of the small planter community, who is also the Secretary of the Small Planters Association and one of the founder members-leaders of the Alliance of Sugarcane Planters Associations. He is a former chairperson of the Small Farmers Welfare Fund and currently sits on the Mauritius Sugar Syndicate Executive & Selling Committee. Here are his scathing views on the unfairness of the whole situation, capable of sending small planters to final extinction…

* « LMC is to agriculture what Goldman Sachs is to Greece… the LMC-BDO Report is a blatant, outright fraud… Many of its measures are specific to a particular mill. The report is nothing but the business plan of this mill… » Very hard-hitting words — almost verging on defamation – to convey the views of the Alliance of Sugarcane Planters Associations (ASPA) on the LMC (Landell Mills) report in a paper submitted to the High Level Implementation Committee (HLIC) on July 30. Is it that bad that it should be rejected altogether? What’s wrong with this Report?

Let is be said without ambiguity. The measures proposed in the latest LMC-BDO report are fundamentally flawed, partisan and unsustainable. This report will go down in history as one of the most mean-spirited attempts to deprive the sugar cane planting community of its hard-earned acquis, thus reducing it to a state of subservience to certain corporate players of the sector. It is therefore not surprising that leading trade unions representing workers of the industry have also totally rejected this report that insidiously introduces the coercive WTO concept of single undertaking which aims at unilaterally making all the acquis of the planting community and workers obtained through past hard-fought battles, now conditional to their acceptance of the new set of measures.

By what distorted logic can the acquired rights of sugar cane planters and commitments made by Government to the planting community and workers now become a bargaining chip for a trade-off loaded against the sugar cane planters’ interests? We refuse to be short changed in any way whatsoever. Surely, Government cannot subscribe to such a warped approach so typical of a bygone era. Last week, we made our total opposition to the report abundantly clear to the HLIC members and also drove home to them that our presence before the committee did not in any way imply a softening of our position regarding the LMC-BDO recommendations.

* One can see very clearly from the ASPA’s paper that sugar cane planters do not hold in high regard the competence and track record of Landell Mills and whoever, consultants or otherwise, who would have come together to come up with the latest report. « …these are the same people that were behind the MAAS 2006 and the MAAS MTR 2010 and are now driving the New MAAS 2015. The impact their recommendations have had on the sugar cane industry is telling… (10,761 planters have given up on their sugar cane cultivation, and 36,621 Arpents of Cane Area have been lost or abandoned) » There must be more than one reason for this worrisome state of affairs, and it wouldn’t be fair to lay all the blame for all this mess at the door of the alleged LMC-BDO combine, isn’t it?

The matador thrusts his silver sword in the bull’s heart only after the bull has been hooked many times behind the shoulder by other toreros. Our sugar cane industry is like a bullring and the fight had been smouldering on for a long time. Had ASPA not brought it out in the open, it would have remained confined to hushed boardrooms before planters being once again put before a fait accompli. You are therefore right: the rot did not happen overnight.

The tragedy, however, is that it came about mainly as a result of producer-funded institutions such as the former Mauritius Sugar Authority and the Control and Arbitration Department of the MCIA (previously the Cane Planters and Millers Arbitration and Control Board) miserably and repeatedly divesting themselves of their key responsibilities. Reform has transformed the former sugar industry into a new sugar cane industry, with the current industry framework however keeping an overwhelmingly sugary flavour of which planters have had to bear the brunt. Amazingly, sugar, despite plummeting prices, still accounts for more than 90% of a planter’s gross cane proceeds at a time when, just to take one example, power producers are making a killing off bagasse-fired energy sales. From a regulatory perspective, no significant initiative has been taken to ensure a more equitable distribution of the sugar cane industry’s global revenue. Thirty years after it was first determined, our bagasse price still hasn’t been reviewed up anything close to market price. This is criminal.

* There also appears to be a tinge of disappointment in the paper of Alliance of Sugarcane Planters Associations (ASPA) regarding the political establishment wherein it is stated that the Terms of Reference of the LMC-BDO study would have been « sidetracked » to allow for the interests of « contractors – millers, refiners, distillers, power producers – taking centre stage » over those of planters. It goes on to state: « Whether such a dramatic turnaround should have occurred as a result of the landslide defeat of the previous regime at the last elections, we do not know. » Do planters feel politically let down?

How can we not feel let down when all our calls for a review of the price of bagasse have fallen on deaf ears? How can we not feel let down when our molasses is still being sold for a paltry price? How can we not feel let down when strategic decisions detrimental to the interests of a whole community are still being made behind its back? The historical community of sugar cane planters indeed feels politically orphaned.

Our countrymen keep on forgetting that sugar cane was at the origin of the island’s human settlement. Cane has been part of the landscape for so long that people no longer see it and have become indifferent to the plight of those cultivating it. No wonder politicians too have become blissfully oblivious to the core problems facing planters. A glimmer of hope however remains. The Prime Minister has publicly stated that he will not allow the sugar cane planters’ community to wither away. Certain sections of the Government Programme 2015-2019 point in this direction. Now, when these revolting recommendations of the LMC-BDO report are on the table, it is the time to walk the talk, we believe.

* But it would seem it was not any better under the previous Labour Party-led governments, since according to the statistics brought out in the ASPA’s paper those 10,761 planters who have given up on their sugar cane cultivation, did so as from 2006 to 2015 when the MAAS 2006 and the MAAS MTR 2010 were being implemented. If politicians cannot be counted upon to further the interests of the planters’ community, there is a case for a better organised and more vocal body to do just that, isn’t it?

After so many unfulfilled promises and false dawns, we have resolved to take our destiny in our own hands. The Alliance of Sugar cane Planters’ Associations was set up in response to this state of affairs. For the first time in the annals of the industry, nine registered planters’ organisations have joined forces to stand up together in defence of the planting community’s cause. Industry stakeholders have taken good note of our arrival on the scene. As one of the major players in this business, we are prepared to toil hard to ensure cane growers reclaim their rightful place at the heart of the industry.

* What are the options available to the sugar cane planters and their Alliance if the current government were to proceed with the implementation of the recommendations of the LMC-BDO study? Would this also signal the end of the planters’, especially the small planters’ community?

When we met the new Minister of Agro Industry for the first time last April, some time after the draft LMC-BDO report had been tabled, we told him in no uncertain terms that the measures contained in the report would, if implemented, spell the end of the sugar cane planters. The Minister was quite positive and reassuring in return, but we will not naively believe that the battle is already won. Whilst we favour transparency, communication and dialogue, others – and we know who they are – are working behind closed doors. In any case, this is never going to be a walkover. We are determined to fight those feudal forces to the end.

* There could be more than an economic attachment that binds sugar cane planters to the lands they have tilled for so many decades, there must be an emotional connection that has developed as well over the years for these lands have allowed them to grow out of poverty and achieve their ambitions for themselves and their families. Yet we are told that real estate promoters are eagerly going round in the rural areas to buy up those lands that have been abandoned by the small planters – even the small holdings. Will the economics of pure money-making have the last word ultimately?

Things fall apart when the centre does not hold. Failure to correct the economic imbalance causing prejudice to planters has opened the door to predators from outside ready to gorge themselves on poor farmers’ misery. No planter sells his land with a cheerful heart, because he is fully aware that the property his forefathers shed blood, sweat and tears to acquire will never return. This is the social and cultural drama unfolding in contemporary Mauritius that will leave many more ugly scars in its wake unless swift corrective action is taken to address the root cause of the problem.

* What explains that Mozambique is currently negotiating with Coca Cola to sell its sugar production of around 450,000 tonnes employing 150,000 workers whereas we seem to have no clue about how to give a new and more profitable lease of life to the local planters’ community?

You should know that Coca Cola have reviewed their global sugar procurement strategy. Instead of resorting to the services of traders, they are now favouring direct purchases from sugar producing countries. We understand that many such countries, including Mauritius, have thus been approached and invited to participate in this initiative and we trust the Mauritius Sugar Syndicate (MSS) to take, in this connection, the decision that will be in its members’ best interests. Regarding the MSS, let it also be brought to your readers’ attention that the LMC-BDO report recommends its dismantlement to allow mill owners to sell the sugar they are paid to manufacture.

The sugar industry is not the textile industry or a private firm undertaking the marketing of its own range of products. In deference to the particular structure of the sugar industry, it was judicious and made sense to have one authorized central body, the MSS, to carry out the marketing of sugar consigned to it in trust by all the producers and more importantly establish in a transparent and verifiable manner the price payable to producers from sugar proceeds. MSS holds internationally recognized expertise in sugar marketing whilst individual producers do not. It is also more trusted to establish through a transparent and carefully established mechanism a fair price; the more so as all producers sit on its board and can query and monitor its functioning.

This mechanism takes into consideration the diversity of producers and sugars produced and marketed, and pools all the value and revenue generated through marketing efforts and ensures that all producers indiscriminately benefit from it. This is even more valid today as sugar accruals (including from their corporate sugar farms) to each of the four mills and the refineries is but a fraction of the sugar milled by each mill. Without canes from the planter out growers, the mills cannot run economically. How can a mill claim to market sugar milled by it when the bulk of that sugar does not belong to it nor is the diverse range of special sugars currently marketed by MSS produced by it?

Furthermore, special sugars were developed as from 1978 by the MSS generating hundreds of millions of additional revenue annually for all producers. The MSS portfolio of buyers and the marketing premium generated from the sale of special sugars constitutes a substantial monetary goodwill and treasure trove which belongs to and must continue to belong to all producers collectively. Long standing major buyers prospected and secured by the MSS over time buy their full range of special sugars from the one body they know and trust which is authorised to export sugar, in our case the MSS. It simplifies their annual buying and marketing campaign and strengthens their loyalty towards Mauritius. Under such circumstances, how can we even consider the flawed proposal of allowing mill owners to envisage selling sugar separately which does not even belong to them especially as competition among different mills will erode and soften the marketing premium of special sugars built over the years for the benefit of all producers, as well as sugar sales prices generally?

* One of the decisions taken by the government of 2014 was to postpone the rehabilitation of planters’ lands through the Field Operations Regrouping and Irrigation Project (FORIP) 2015 programme from the funds made available by the EU for this purpose after the EU’s decision to phase out the Sugar Protocol. Would that imply that planters are considered as expendable in the view of certain authorities?

If FORIP projects across the island were put on hold at some point, it was because finances had dried out and new funds could not be earmarked before the presentation of the 2015-2016 budget in March this year. FORIP is an important project for planters, but its implementation, efficiency and impact leave a lot to be desired with cane now being planted, extraordinarily, not only in the rainy season but throughout the year. Despite the numerous representations and complaints made on this matter to the Mauritius Cane Industry Authority, the situation has barely improved. Planters are getting increasingly frustrated at the abysmal level of service received from certain authorities, in particular the ones they finance through cess. The Control and Arbitration Department (CAD) of the MCIA, for example, is today completely inept and toothless in its role as the arbitrator of the cane industry. Indeed, when the previous harvest lasted till February this year, the overwhelming majority of planters suffered a financial setback after the CAD refused to entertain an ASPA proposal to determine separate extraction rates for mostly miller-planters’ canes supplied to mills outside the normal harvest season.

The Sugar Insurance Fund Board is another case in point. Whereas, according to a recommendation made following their last actuarial review, planters should have benefited from an insurance premium waiver for the 2014 crop, the SIFB’s total lack of urgency and initiative resulted in the premium being deducted from planters’ proceeds because the recommendation had yet to be validated by concerned authorities. We have just learnt that the premium will, three months after it was deducted from insureds’ proceeds, now be refunded without any interest in the coming days.

The generally shambolic state of our service providing insitutions serves no one’s interests, and especially not those of the people manning them. The day we are out of the picture, they too will be made redundant.

* How about the planters community migrating to other (more profitable) activities and/or cultivations ? They would perhaps need to be accompanied and advised by a more empathic government and better organised associations… Easier said than done?

The grass is not always greener on the other side. Why should the planters’ community migrate to other activities or cultivations when cane cultivation is still potentially very profitable? Our analyses point to this central fact. All that is required is a few bold and fearless measures to finally make the cane industry more transparent, fair and equitable. We expect no less from a Government focused, as per Section 11 of its Programme, on laying « the foundations of a stronger economy and a fairer society ».

 

  • Published in print edition on 7 August 2015

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