– formation of a public company proposed
Yields from cane grown at the Wales, West Bank Demerara, Guyana Sugar Corporation (GuySuCo) Estate dropped from 68 tonnes cane per hectare (TCH) to 51 TCH between 2008 and 2015.
During that same period, private farmers increased their supply from 7,700 to 10, 200 tonnes, that is, from 31 per cent to 51 per cent of the total supply.
This state of affairs was highlighted Friday evening during an informative and stimulating panel discussion spearheaded by Moray House Trust.
At that forum it was disclosed that approximately 800 private cane farmers are engaged in farming activities at the Wales Estate which faces imminent closure. These farmers account for over 50 per cent of the estate’s cane supply.
The event was graced by speakers including former Guyana Sugar Corporation (GuySuCo) manager with 35 years of service, Jai Petam; a cane farmer with 35 years of experience, Derrick Venture; a plant foreman who has worked at the Wales Estate for 30 years, Mark Khan; and a former GuySuCo Chairman, Vic Odit.
During the forum, which was moderated by Mr Ralph Ramkarran, Mr. Derrick Venture of La Retraite/Stanleytown Cane Farmers Association, the largest cane farming unit in the area, expressed concern on behalf of his fellow farmers about the proposed plans to move canes to Uitvlugt for processing.
Major obstacles, he identified, include the proposed route, the double handling of the cut cane and the loss of sucrose content in the cane as a result. He said that when news of GuySuCo’s plans was first revealed last month, he wrote a letter to President David Granger outlining the farmers’ concerns.
Venture claimed that he has not yet received a response. The cane farmers have indicated that it is within their ability to take over the entire production of cane at Wales in time.
Mark Khan, a plant foreman at Wales Factory, challenged some of the information being circulated, to residents of the area in leaflets emanating from various ministries, and in the press.
He explained, for example, that the allegation that the plant machinery at the factory is ‘old’ is misleading as all estates, with the exception of Skeldon, have machines which are over half a century old. He asserted, too, that sugar factories are built to run for hundreds of years.
Khan, said that a recent ‘steam’ test, conducted by himself and his colleagues, showed the plant to be in good working order though there are parts that are needed. He moreover invited anyone to visit the factory for a demonstration. Khan added that there are 32 bridges on the estate all of which are in good condition. Eleven of them, he said, are made of concrete.
This can also be verified by touring the estate, added Khan. He informed the audience Friday that closing the estate will be a devastating blow. This is in light of the fact he noted that he and many of his fellow workers have mortgages and other financial commitments that cannot simply be suspended indefinitely.
Whatever transition is planned, there are likely to be significant costs associated with it, he considered.
Jai Petam, a former GuySuCo Manager, raised the question of who would fund the development of cane lands into other crops or any other diversification ventures. A conservative estimate of the cost of severance (based on 1500 workers receiving an average of $ 15,000 per week and with a service of average 15 years) would be $675 million.
The forum also saw a presentation from Mr Christopher Ram. He pointed out that all sugar industries across the world are subsidized so that the world market price is not a ‘true comparison’ for what it costs to produce sugar anywhere. He also noted that while a Commission of Inquiry report included a financial assessment and projections, no-one appeared to have undertaken an economic assessment.
Several speakers at the event agreed that this was a vital element for any plan involving such significant numbers of workers and their dependants. There are about 1800 workers employed at Wales Sugar Estate in addition to the 800 private cane farmers in the area.
In considering the way forward, Mr. Vickram Oditt, a former GuySuCo Chairman, proposed the formation of a public company, Wales Sugar Estate Inc [WSEI], with shareholders including the sugar workers, the cane farmers, the Guyanese public, pension funds, the workers’ unions and others. He speculated that if one million shares were sold at a cost of G$ 5000 each, this would raise $5 billion in capital for the venture.
Oditt proposed that WSEI would lease the estate, factory, lands and equipment from the Government of Guyana/GuySuCo for $1 per year for a 25-year period with an option to renew for a further 25 years. WSEI would not own any of the lands and therefore could not dispose of them, he added.
And according to him, the company would continue the cultivation and production of sugar and by-products at Wales and invest in the field and factory equipment necessary to produce three or four times the 2015 production.
Oditt stressed that whatever the outcome of this proposal it was vital to continue field operations at Wales throughout 2016 including: tilling, replanting and other husbandry to ensure that Wales remains a functional estate at the end of the year. He also pointed out that at present hundreds of workers are turning up to work out with nothing to do.
But Oditt asserted that there is an “11-month variety of cane that could be planted and harvested at year end to keep workers occupied and the factory productive.”
There were many other comments and even more questions from the audience at the end of the presentations on Friday. However, the most poignant were those in which several workers from Wales expressed their anguish and uncertainty.
In the interests of offering a plurality of views, Moray House Trust invited a number of stakeholders including representatives of GuySuCo’s management, its Board, several ministers and the private sector to attend the event.
Moray House Trust has noted its disappointment that “there was an apparent lack of willingness to engage, particularly on the part of those who hold public office or who are paid by the public purse.”
Moray House Trust was founded on the ethos that “a culture thrives and develops where ideas circulate and are robustly debated and interrogated.”
“On occasions such as these, the Trust hopes to provide a forum for the civil exchange of ideas and opinions. On Friday evening, thanks to all those who participated and attended, we took another small step towards that goal,” outlined a statement.
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