The history of the sugar industry in Guyana was the focus of an exhibition the National Trust hosted Friday to mark International Day for Monuments and Sites. The exhibition, held in the foyer of the National Cultural Centre, showcased the important role sugar continues to play in the socio-economic development of Guyana.
The sugar industry began in the 1600s when the Dutch West India Company sent settlers to establish plantations along the Pomeroon River. As the first peoples of Guyana, the Amerindians lived mostly in the impenetrable interior, the plantation owners at first imported slaves from West Africa to supply the labour required for sugar cultivation.
The first consignment of sugar produced in Guyana was dispatched to Holland in 1661. Thousands of slaves were imported each year as plantations expanded. An estimated 100,000 slaves worked on the plantations by 1830.
With reports of the deplorable and inhumane way the slaves endured on its colonies, Britain decreed the abolition of slavery, and most slaves abandoned the plantations when they were freed in 1838, resulting in the collapse of the industry. Most former slaves resorted to subsistence farming, and by 1848, only 20, 000 Africans were still working on the sugar estates.
Faced with the prospect of a complete collapse of the sugar industry, the plantation owners looked abroad for labourers.
Indentured servants were contracted, first from Portugal and China, and then India, which would become the most important source of immigrants. About 240,000 indentured East Indians were brought to British Guiana between 1838 and 1917, the date when indentureship was abolished.
The influx of labour saved the sugar industry, but the imported labour changed the ethnic makeup of the colony. Most East Indians remained in the colony after completing the terms of their indentureship. Their descendants, along with later immigrants from India accounted for more than half of the population when Britain granted independence in 1966. Those who worked on the plantations long struggled for better working conditions.
Pivotal in the drive for worker’s empowerment was the Enmore strike which started on April 22, 1948. It was a struggle for sugar workers to win respect from the sugar producers to recognize a trade union in which the sugar workers had confidence and to bring about substantial changes in housing and other social and working conditions in the sugar industry.
The Guyana Sugar Corporation (GuySuCo) was formed in 1976 when the Government nationalized the industry and merged the sugar estates operated by Booker Sugar Estates, Tate and Lyle and Jessels Holdings.
For the first time in its history, the people of Guyana were in charge of their industry and the industry moved forward under its new management with constant changes.
At the beginning of the new century and in the face of a dwindling labour force and high cost of production, efforts to modernize the industry took root.
Semi-mechanisation commenced, as lands were gradually being configured to accommodate machines as in the case of some of the estates, where cane loaders are utilized to fill the punts with freshly cut cane. There is also now a gradual increase in the use of mechanical harvesters to harvest the canes.
According to GuySuCo, these two machines will significantly increase production output and reduce the cost for production. The new Skeldon Sugar Factory is the industry’s best example of its move towards modernization. It is one of the most technologically advanced and largest sugar factories in the Caribbean, capable of producing over 100, 000 tonnes of sugar annually. It also uses bagasse, a bi-product of crushed cane, to produce electricity, some of which is passed on to the national grid for consumers in Berbice.
The Corporation’s future is focused on the production of over 450,000 tonnnes of sugar annually. Of this 80,000 tonnes will be direct consumption packaged sugars. Project Gold (the Enmore Packaging Plant) is already on its way and its completion in 2011 is expected to launch a range of value-added cane sugar products, including branded and private labeled packaged sugars to the Caribbean and the rest of the world.
Chief Executive Officer of GuySuCo, Errol Hanoman said the sugar industry is Guyana’s main socio-economic and agricultural heritage. Hanoman noted that the contribution of the industry to Guyana has been immeasurable and that its evolution over 300 years ago to present reflects progression from slavery and indentureship to workers’ empowerment, nationalisation and modernisation.
Hanoman noted that more than 20,000 sugar workers benefited from the sugar industry’s labour welfare fund under which workers were able to acquire house lots and also from the establishment of roads and the supply of potable water and the provision of health care.
Workers were also able to access loans to construct homes and assist communities in times of need. He also noted that the industry played a major role in sports and placed much emphasis on cricketing skills.
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