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Jamaican farmers face bleak future as EU axes cap on sugar beet production

Jamaican farmers face bleak future as EU axes cap on sugar beet production

Posted by Shanelle Weir on February 25, 2015

There is a photocopied sign above the desk in the one-room office of the North St Elizabeth Cane Farmers’ Association that reads: “Plan ahead: it wasn’t raining when they built the ark!”

The association represents 564 smallholders growing sugar cane on the hilly margins of the Appleton rum estate in south-west Jamaica – and last week many of them were crowded into this office explaining exactly how their crisis-planning efforts were going.

The forebears of these men and women have been raising and cutting cane here for four centuries, back to slave days, and for nearly all of that time, the sentiment of that office motto would have looked absurd: for the small sugar producers of Jamaica, downpours of one kind or another have never stopped, and there has been precious little time for ark-building.

The last couple of years in “St Bess” have been an exception to that history. The farmers can talk of record production levels, good sugar yields and the first Fairtrade premium – a £39 per tonne bonus paid through a contract with Tate & Lyle – which they have invested in new truck-loading equipment as well as healthcare and education grants.

As ever, however, a flood of bad news is coming. Like most of the bad news this part of the world has ever received, this shift in fortunes has been made in Europe.

From the end of next year a change in EU policy will likely force these cane farmers and hundreds of thousands like them across Jamaica and beyond out of traditional work and into subsistence poverty.

The change is the end to the existing cap on European sugar beet production, which will flood a sugar market already, in anticipation, experiencing historic low prices.

The removal of the cap is part of a drive among finance ministers to curtail long-term arrangements assisting former European colonies in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific (ACP countries).

Under fierce lobbying pressure from multinational sugar processors – Coca-Cola, Nestlé, Mars – the EU argues that the reform is made in the spirit of freer markets and better value for the European shopper. (The market will remain, more free for some than others, however. Beet sugar grown intensively on rotation on European farms will, under the new arrangement, still be subsidised by every taxpayer on the continent at around £18 per tonne.)

In his office in Kingston, George Callaghan, chief executive of the Sugar Industry Authority in Jamaica, calls the change in EU policy an “earth-shattering event” for the island.

He predicts that the price farmers are receiving for cane (£390 per tonne) will be cut by 40% in 12 months, well below their break-even point.

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