With the crush set to start in May, Fiji was looking forward to getting its sugar industry back on track through reforms and mill upgrades—its eyes set on a complete turnaround in just two years. But floods that devastated cane areas in January have pushed that plan back by a year, at least, while the industry is in a mad rush to repair infrastructure damage before May.
Infrastructure damage alone is estimated at US$7.65 million with plans currently under way to try to get roads and rail back online to support cane transportation. Damaged cane is expected to be around 300,000 metric tonnes, or about 27,000 tonnes of raw sugar with an estimated value of US$15.3 million.
The next harvest is now seen coming in at 2.1 million tonnes of cane rather than 2.4 million tonnes as previously expected.
What’s worse is that FSC officials say there’s nothing that can be done to prevent damage from floods. The 2009 flood, which is one of the reasons the industry had been in the state it was before January, only damaged about half the cane that this newest flood damaged and caused a third of the sugar revenue losses, meaning that recovery could take that much longer and be that much burdensome.
On the cane side of things, farmers who lost 50% or more of their cane due to the floods were given access this week to interest-free loans from the Cane Development Revolving Fund but the entire fund itself is only US$5.1 million and won’t be available for farmers who had significant damage but didn’t reach the 50% mark.
The National Farmers Union estimates that it will take at least three or four years, rather than just the one year that the FSC is hoping for, for cane farmers to get back on their feet due to extensive losses not just in cane and machinery but in household goods as well. About 1,400 people nationwide have become homeless as a result of the floods with a total of US$17 million in damage. The national government has pledged the same amount will be diverted from low priority projects in the national budget to go towards helping flood-hit areas recover quickly.
The NFU’s general secretary says that farmers are already highly indebted, putting much of the blame on mill inefficiencies, and says that they can’t be further burdened with more debts and loans, even at zero interest. Before cane gets replanted, farmers are seeking help in clearing the flood damage. That in itself is taking a lot of time and resources that could be better used for replanting but can’t yet happen. An early third cane payment is being sought to help reduce the immediate financial burden but that hasn’t yet be approved.
Farmers in the Western Division along the Nadroga-Rakiraki corridor will also receive a reprieve this year as their 2012 annual rents are waived at a value of US$192,529. Landowners will be compensated for the same value from the Committee for the Better Utilization of Land (CBUL) initiative to ensure that they don’t suffer as a result of the lost rents.
Though the landowners are protected, the cane labourers are not. With the destruction of 300,000 tonnes of cane, labourers are concerned there won’t be enough work for them and that their dire financial situations will get even worse. Reports from labourer neighbourhoods show the extent of damage on already poor areas with personal belongings such as mattresses and refrigerators buried in mud between houses, some struggling to get enough food for themselves and their families.
Donations from around the world, from the Lions Club to the country’s national air carrier, have been directed towards the Western Division to help sort out communities and assist with food packages, with direct support given to families and NGOs. But even though the main floods began back in January, wet weather continues to be a menace throughout the country this week, with flash floods expected in the northern regions including in Labasa while rain continues in the Western Division.
In a bit of irony, with all of the hubbub of late regarding increased consumption of Fairtrade sugar in the UK, Fijian cane farmers are expected to jump for joy that two new associations in the Western Division will soon be granted Fairtrade certification for their sugar. That translates to a US$34 per tonne premium but farmers won’t be getting that cash. Instead the funds will go towards community projects such as health care facilities ands schools. Perhaps it should go towards flood clean up as well, but then again, it may not show up in time to help until the next flood.