APNU/AFC sugar estate closures led to rise in suicide, alcohol abuse

…after weekly income dropped by 64% – ILO report

A report on the socioeconomic impact of the sugar estate closures revealed that weekly household income fell by a startling 64 per cent, fuelling an escalation in alcohol abuse, crime and suicide in affected communities.

Director of UG’s GREEN Institute, Dr Thomas Singh

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) launched its findings on Thursday, giving an in-depth analysis of the challenges faced by sugar workers and thousands more in the secondary network. Funded by the Organisation’s Caribbean Resilience Project, the study was conducted by Director of the University of Guyana GREEN Institute, Dr Thomas B Singh, with support from the Guyana Agricultural and General Workers Union (GAWU).

Finance Minister, Dr Ashni Singh

A section of the report states, “At the household level, there could have been compensating increases in economic activities outside of the sugar industry, and there could have been an increase in the number of other persons within the household who engaged in income-earning activities after the closures. The focus group data, however, confirmed that weekly household incomes had also fallen dramatically by 64 per cent, from an average of $32,238 to $18,450 after the closures.”

UN Resident Coordinator Mikiko Tanaka

It added that the overarching factor, which played a very important part in the livelihoods of laid-off persons, was the “sheer dominance” of the sugar estates in the economies of the communities surrounding each one.

Despair, hopelessness
“The incomes, the rhythm of life of individuals and the communities, the aspirations of families, the opportunities that existed for alternative employment, the types and successes of business ventures, the services available in the community – every single thing seemed to depend on the functioning of sugar estates.”
Dr Singh underscored that from his findings that workers affected by the closures had more leisure time, resulting in the “prevalence of excessive alcohol consumption in rural communities and in the sugar belt”. Suicide and crime rates also took a leap.

The closed Rose Hall Estate

“Career aspirations of children were shattered. Suicide, alcohol consumption and crime increased in each of the affected communities, as perceived by the respondents in the focus groups. As mentioned before, incomes fell significantly so livelihoods were not sustained after closures,” he vocalised during the launch.
Meanwhile, the report added, “An increase in crime is not unrelated to an increase in substance abuse itself, but beyond that, many of the factors that lead to an increase in substance abuse also led to an increase in crime. This includes the loss of income, unemployment, and the despair and the seeming hopelessness that arose in the households and communities after the closures. These things undermine the very social capital from which workers, their families, and communities could have benefited as they learnt to deal with the closure of estates in a manner that would sustain their livelihoods.”
The 2016 downsizing of the sugar industry by the former Administration saw the dismissal of 5160 workers, including 1889 from Skeldon Estate and 1531 from East Demerara Estate. Dismissals from the Wales and Rose Hall Estates both numbered below 1000.
To the extent that persons were able to find employment, all workers had to bear their own transportation costs, the highest being at Wales. Weekly transportation costs amounted to an average of $1200 or 6.5 per cent of weekly household income.
“Many of those who did find new jobs were employed on a part-time or seasonal basis. The highest continuing unemployment rates among the respondents in focus groups, occurred at the Wales and East Demerara estates, at 60 per cent and 55 per cent respectively. The unemployment rates among the respondents drawn from the Berbice estates were lower, with Skeldon and Rose Hall unemployment rates pegged at 12.5 per cent and 20 per cent respectively. In Rose Hall, many of the laid-off workers found part-time work.”

Recommendations from this study included diversifying the industry to produce cellulosic ethanol, adopting renewable energy mediums that would contribute to the realisation of the country’s commitments under the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and ensuring sustainability.
“The particular “advanced-biofuels” investment that is being proposed for the sugar industry could co-exist with any proposal to use natural gas to generate power, as the cellulosic ethanol that will be produced would be in the nature of “off-grid energy” that will be used largely by the transport sector that itself could be expected to grow as the economy expands. Additionally, consideration could be given to developing a biorefinery to produce ethanol and other high-value chemicals from lignocellulose, both as a strategy for reducing costs and also for further diversifying the industry,” the document outlined.

Biorefineries would make use of bagasse and other kinds of biomass, allowing for the production of several commercial-scale, high-valued co-products that will enhance the profitability of the core cellulosic ethanol facility.
The guidelines provide specific options on how to formulate, implement and monitor country policies and sectoral strategies towards environmental sustainability, the greening of enterprises, social inclusion and the promotion of green jobs in accordance with national priorities.

Value-added products
Meanwhile, Senior Minister with responsibility for Finance, Dr Ashni Singh expressed that the industry has sustained generations of Guyanese and was still integrally linked to sugar production. With sugar woven into the fabric of the village and rural economy, he said the decision to close the estates was an “ill-considered” and “unconscionable” act against thousands of people.
As such, Government is working to restructure and reopen the industry, with considerations for value-added production. Moving away from the low value-added bulk sugar, he expressed, would require additional investments in packaging plants and producing high-quality sugar to meet the packaging standards.
“We expect that this plan will seek to restore some measure of socioeconomic balance in the sugar belt, including through recapitalisation of the industry, promoting products diversification of value-added production as well as agro-energy,” the Minister said.
Dr Singh further explained, “Amongst the key elements that we’re considering within this plan would be the redirecting of GuySuCo’s efforts towards a more optimised product mix, moving away progressively from the current low value-added bulk sugar market and towards more value-added production. The industry sees a potential for a quadrupling of sales from packaged sugar, which, of course, is much more valued added…This, of course, will require some investment in packaging capabilities at Blairmont and Enmore.”

United Nations Resident Coordinator Mikiko Tanaka indicated that this study now brought context to the need for stakeholder consultations and the effects of policy-making on the population.
“It is heart-breaking to read the painful consequences of commodity market fluctuations and sugar estate closures that have impacted workers and their families, economically, socially, and personally. The study offers many lessons for policymaking and implementation in economic diversification and social services. It underlines the importance of stakeholder consultation and engagements in decision-making,” Tanaka said.
Director of the ILO’s Caribbean Office, Dennis Zulu said his organisation remained committed to ensuring that the recommendations of the report are implemented. (G12)