It must be remembered that the closure of the Wales Sugar Estate was only revealed a year ago by this newspaper and the Government grudgingly conceded the grim truth after a month of stonewalling. Information about the fate of the estate and its workers was forced out of the Government in dribs and drabs with the Agriculture Minister not even having the decency to face the workers for months to apprise them of their plans beyond the “closure”. The shock was even more palpable since an extensive Commission of Inquiry (CoI) into the sugar industry; commissioned and accepted by the Government, did not recommend any closures of estates.
Dr Clive Thomas, Chairman of the Guyana Sugar Corporation (GuySuCo) and a member of the CoI, promised that farmers’ cane, which supplied a third of the Wales factory intake, would be transported to Uitvlugt Estate. He said, “… already the mapping of transport for the canes is underway; engagement with potential cane farmers has started; and logistics are being developed.”
A road was necessary since there was no direct route to transport canes from the backlands of the West Bank of the Demerara River to the West Coast Estate. To construct one across the intervening Canal Polders would be a billion-dollar undertaking. However there has been no mention of the status of this road and harvesting of the farmers’ cane will soon begin for the 2017 “first crop”. Farmers are in danger of having their entire investment literally go down the drain.
As to the fate of the 1700+ workers, the Government announced most would be “retrenched and paid off,” while, according to Chairman Thomas, “Discussions are also afoot to see how many workers (and where) can be absorbed at Uitvlugt.” Earlier this month, it was announced that 650 workers from the cane cutting/harvesting gangs would be transported to Uitvlugt to harvest that estate’s canes. Since Uitvlugt has not embarked on any increase of its present cultivated acreage, it is not clear how all these workers will be absorbed.
But it is possible the Government always knew the point was moot, since many of the identified workers are balking at the time it would take to cover the 22 miles to Uitvlugt via the Public Road and then the unknown distance to the particular fields to be reaped. These workers are demanding to be “paid off” but those who were already retrenched have complained their moneys have not been forthcoming.
And this raises the question that was the elephant in the room from the time the closure of Wales was admitted: where will the retrenched workers find employment in an economy that is shrinking faster than a cheap suit? Dr Thomas had promised, “…the closure of Wales is immediately linked to the commencement of diversification programmes envisaged to begin in October coming this year (2016). Some of these programmes involve lands for workers to engage in peasant cane farming and lands for their farming other crops as well. There are also programmes to seek to determine the commercial feasibility of alcohol production and aquaculture by GuySuCo at Wales.”
We are well into 2017 and none of the abovementioned programmes have been unrolled and since the Government has followed through with the abandonment of cane harvesting on the 14,000 acres that was under the control of Wales, these are now quickly reverting to “bush”. If the Government is serious about producing ethanol at Wales, the cost of clearing the bush and reintroducing sugar cane will be unnecessarily prohibitive.
Last year, the Government also announced they were converting 500 acres of cane fields to cultivate rice and they were retaining the mechanical tillage equipment to extend this further. But this too appears to be an empty promise since the last rice crop came and went without any paddy being produced.
We cannot emphasise enough the enormity of the tragedy unfolding at Wales and the entire West Bank Demerara to which the estate acted as an economic anchor. The Government must be made to keep their promises.