Arsonists burn Jamaica cane

KINGSTON, Jamaica – Millions of dollars have gone up in smoke as the Government’s plan to divest the island’s five state-owned sugar factories remains in limbo.

Although one factory went back into production last week, the long wait to harvest the crop has caused a major financial setback for some cane farmers. Frustrated persons have also lit fields, destroying many acres of sugar cane.

Firefighters were kept busy during most of the Christmas season, controlling as many as 66 illicit fires in cane fields in Westmoreland alone.

Several acres of cane land were scorched and nearly $22.5 million in damage recorded by the Savanna-la-Mar Fire Department between December 1 and January 8.

Sucrose content

Now, some farmers are expressing concern that the long wait to harvest the crop might have affected its sucrose content.

“As it grows and gets older and older, it loses sugar content,” explained farmer Andrew Williams.

He runs a 50-acre farm and is not certain how much sugar he will be getting from this season’s crop.

“At some point, you might have to cut it down and plough it under,” he said.

The farmers say this is the first time harvesting has been delayed for such a long period as they usually start between mid-November and early December and it’s hurting the parish.

“Normally, I could have started (reaping) in December and it affects not only the farmers, but it affects the merchants, everybody,” explains farmer Delroy Daay.

The Gleaner understands that harvesting of the crop was delayed to administer repairs to critical equipment at the Frome factory.

The factory should have been divested, along with four others and Petrojam Ethanol Limited, to the young Brazilian outfit Infinity Bio-Energy by December 31, 2008, after an original September 30, 2008, deadline was missed. But the signing of the agreement was delayed for a second time for unclear reasons. The Government now says negotiations will be completed by January 31.

Infinity is facing serious financial challenges due to the global economic slowdown and figures from its annual report show that its net losses grew tremendously during April to September last year.

While some farmers have been able to sell some of their sugar cane to rum producers Appleton in neighbouring St Elizabeth following a go-ahead from Government, some say the relief came too late. It came two Fridays ago when farmers had already lost an estimated $16.8 million.

They add that many are still counting their losses as the cost to haul the cane to Appleton is high. Farmers now pay more than $800 per tonne to move the cane there.

Some small farmers cultivating between 10 and 20 acres of sugar cane lost everything to arsonists.

“Not even one joint left,” said 63-year-old cutter Martin Henry as he described the state of some farms in the parish. “A slackness a gwaan inna Westmoreland.”

Daay lost five of his 70 acres of cane to arsonists. That is between $350,000 and $500,000 of his $4-million investment.

Left in limbo

“We are left in limbo and everybody is tense now,” Daay added. He contended that the Government should have put in place a contingency plan, as it should have foreseen that it was not going to meet its intended deadline to divest the companies.

Farmers like Marvin Salabie lost 40 acres of cane, worth more than $5 million, to the arsonists just before Christmas. He has 600 acres in planted cane.

“You have workers who are anxious and don’t know the consequences, so them light cane because them feel that work needs to be done,” he said.

“He is blaming the Sugar Company of Jamaica for moving too slowly to arrest the problems at the Frome sugar factory.

“Nobody has explained anything, but from what I observe, SCJ never wanted to pump any more money in the factory because it thought the divestment would have taken place and the Brazilian firm would have done the repairs,” he said.

However, the SCJ has denied that charge.

President Richard Harris says the company had trouble sourcing the equipment it needed.

“Every year, we go through the painful process of refurbishing the factory. Most of the parts are from overseas and we had delays in shipping and in the receiving of some of these parts. These issues, combined, prevented us from starting before today (Friday),” he said.

“It (the lack of repair) has very little to do with the delay in Infinity taking over,” he added.

There has been no talk of compensation, except to allow farmers to haul their cane to Appleton.