The Hindu festival of Diwali ended in Fiji a week ago. What is the principal ingredient of the mouth-watering sweets made, given and consumed then? No prizes for the correct answer. It's sugar, grown and produced in Fiji.
In 2018, Fiji's four mills produced 1.7 million tonnes of raw sugar for bulk export. Sensibly, sufficient to meet Fiji's own demand was bagged for local sale. Raw sugar is very cheap in Fiji, but if you want icing sugar, brown sugar or cubes, you need to pay three times as much for sugar imported from Australia.
Sugar cane was possibly brought to Fiji by the mysterious Lapita people, who first settled the islands three thousand years ago, then moved on. Foreign visitors in the early 19th century observed Fijians chewing the cane and using the juice as a sweetener. In 1871 Ratu Cakobau, the paramount chief, was seeking a profitable industry for Fiji following the failure of cotton crops. He offered a prize of £500 to the first person who could produce 20 tons of sugar. The first sugar mill was built the following year and Fiji has been dependent on this sticky business ever since. Indeed, sugar cane is emblazoned on the Fiji Arms (top left), along with coconut and banana plants.
Sugar supports around a quarter of Fiji's population, either directly or indirectly.
Sugar is second only to fish as Fiji's top food export
Government-owned Fiji Sugar Corporation handles sugar processing, shipping and marketing.
Substantial aid from UK, EU and the Fiji government has supported the industry through training, technical improvements and most importantly, price subsidies.
Fiji is a speck in the middle of the Pacific, too far away from export markets.
Small hilly farms and poor transport keep the cost of production high.
Ageing mills need updating to improve efficiency.
Most sugar cane farmers are Indo-Fijian, dependent on the renewal of their leases from Fijian landowners. This lack of land security reduces farmers' willingness to invest in improvements.
The EU's price support agreement has expired.
Dependence on aid threatens the industry's sustainability.
Sweet or sour?
Although the sour taste seems to overwhelm the sweet, it is impossible to imagine the landscape of Viti Levu and Vanua Levu without cane farms. Fiji's prime minister, Frank Bainimarama has said, "Our sugar industry will always remain at the heart of the Fijian economy." (30 March 2018, RNZ)
We can only wait in hope for sweet success for Fiji's very hard-working cane farmers.
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