(Second in the series on sugar, originally published in 2008)
In the world of cooking, “sugar” is not just any old sugar: there’s white (refined) sugar and there’s brown sugar. And there’s not just “brown sugar”: in the words of the aficionados, “When you are looking for a brown sugar the word unrefined is vitally important because some alternatives are just white sugar plus colouring. Demerara is a traditional unrefined sugar, produced so as to have larger and crunchier crystals than granulated sugar.” Another declares, “Demerara sugar is a raw sugar that has been purified. It comes from Guyana and is a dry, coarse-textured amber sugar that has a toffee-like flavour.”
While the second description at first glance appears to simply be an extension of the first, in that explication lays the possible salvation of the sugar cane industry in the Demerara Plantations. The first statement describes the brown sugar that is found in most supermarkets in the developed world and extolled for numerous positive contributions to dishes including their healthiness, retailing for several US dollars for a pound. But only the second mentions that “Demerara Sugar” comes from Guyana. Why this distinction is important is that in reality, companies from almost every sugar-producing country in the world ship packaged brown sugar to the lucrative developed markets and blithely dub them “Demerara Sugar”.
“Well!” you may sputter, in righteous indignation as a patriotic Guyanese, “This is cheating!” And it is, but we’ve allowed the cheats to get away with it for so long that they don’t even give it a second thought today. However, if we want to not only save the Demerara Plantations but to also utilize their annual 100,000 tons of production to generate more profits than the rest of the (about to be expanded) industry, it is high time that we begin to reclaim our property – the name “Demerara Sugar”. The commendable initiative to build a packaging plant at Enmore for our “Demerara Gold” will generate far more revenues and profits if we are able to prevent some of the present fake Demerara Sugar from occupying self space in, say, European supermarkets. And there is a route to that happy eventuality becoming reality.
For some decades now, Europe led the way in carving out the right to use a particular name for a product that came from a specific region – and became associated with the name of that region – such as “Bordeaux Wine”. By 1995, it was able to have it incorporated into the WTO Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) as “Geographical Indications (GIs)” protection. The latter were defined by Article 22(1) as “indications which identify a good as originating in the territory of a Member, or a region or locality in that territory, where a given quality, reputation or other characteristic of the good is essentially attributed to its geographic origin.” Initially utilised only for wines, it was extended to include other foodstuff: “Florida” for oranges “Idaho” for potatoes “Washington State” for apples etc. So why not “Demerara Sugar” for brown sugar from Demerara, Guyana?
Booker Tate, (hired in 1990 when the GI issue rose to the fore) and the Strategic Plan of 1998 for the industry both stressed increased overall total production and mentions possible packaging of our sugar Demerara Gold only for Caricom and local markets. None of the proposed certifications mention GI’s protection. Implicitly, it appeared to be seeking to protect the value of the “Demerara” name through the trademark route.
A trademark “is a word, symbol, or phrase, used to identify a particular manufacturer or seller’s products and distinguish them from the products of another for example “Coca Cola” and “Pepsi”.” While there is nothing wrong with pursuing this option, it does not have to be at the expense of ignoring the GI’s window of opportunity. Creating a brand name takes time and while we can boast about ours being the “real thing”, it will be very expensive and time-consuming to move the fake Demerara Sugar off the lucrative supermarket shelves in the developed countries.
At present, two issues are being debated in the TRIPS Council under the Doha mandate in reference to GI’s: creating a multilateral register for wines and spirits; and extending the higher (Article 23) level of protection presently applying only them, to other products. GI’s for Article 23 products are absolutely prohibited if they do not originate in the designated place. It is not necessary to show that there is a risk of confusion or unfair competition to prevent such uses, as required under Article 22 TRIPS. A multilateral system of notification and registration for the geographical indications for wines and spirits in Article 23.4 strengthens protection for this category. Our exclusive right to market our sugar as “Demerara Sugar” would obviously be buttressed under this regime.
There are presently three proposals on the table and the one advocating extension is supported by several sugar producers who are abusing the Demerara name such as India and Mauritius. Rather ironically, “they see the higher level of protection as a way to improve marketing their products by differentiating them more effectively from their competitors’; and they object to other countries “usurping” their terms.: They can be hung on their own petard. The EU has always supported extension of protection and its latest proposal reaffirms this position even beyond the scope of the one mentioned above. Guyana would be well advised to negotiate in tandem with them (within the EPA regime?) while simultaneously breaking into their markets.
We raised the issue of our position on GI’s in Parliament in 2003 and were advised that it was being handled by the Caribbean Regional Negotiating Machinery (CRNM) – the same group that delivered us the EPA. They had issued a paper on GI’s in 2002, but I am not aware there was any follow-up activity. For instance, since the WTO agreements specify that GI’s must be used in conformity with the law of the country of origin (re-application of the law of the country of origin) have we enacted the necessary legislation? Since the negotiations on GI’s are still ongoing within the (stalled) Doha timetable, we still have time to get our Act together so that we may have another arrow in our bow to save the Demerara Plantations.
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