A taste of Caroni


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Category: Trinidad Economy Date: 23 Feb 03


The first time I got a taste of Caroni (1975) Ltd, I was a student, home for the holidays, avid to see a Trinidad about which I knew nothing.


My parents had moved here from Tobago while I was in the middle of studying journalism in England. And before that, there was India. With the naÔve enthusiasm of a rookie, I fired impatient questions, who, what, where, when, why about this place to my busy father. I wanted to see the cane fields, the sugar cane arrows described by VS Naipaul, Sam Selvon and Derek Walcott.


Desperate for some peace, my father called the Opposition Leader Basdeo Panday (presumably because he was more accessible than the prime minister) practically pleading with him to show his daughter around. Basdeo Panday referred my father to the ideal person who would pick me up the next day.


That person turned out to be an incredibly animated, energetic woman called Hulsie Bhaggan with fire in her voice and the idealism of the hopeful and ambitious. In her well-used pick-up vehicle it seems like we bumped through every inch of Central Trinidad for hours or perhaps it was over several days ó to Carapichima, where semi-literate women were forming cooperatives, to Brechin Castle, past cane fields where I insisted on having a photo taken, to see a friend of hers who turned out to be Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj, to a meeting where Caroni workers were jeering at Joe Pires and Winston Dookeran who were trying to save the workers from the fate they face today.


Later, much later, of course, I met the (late) brilliant economist Frank Rampersad, chairman of Caroni and his wife who told me about the threats he got when he put out his plan for Caroni (1975) Ltd. I saw her recently and she said: ďFrank was trying to make the farmers diversify, become self-sufficient, but they thought he betrayed them. Iím glad heís not around to see this.Ē


As a jaded journalist today considering the fate of Caroniís 7,800 sugar workers, 4,000 administrative, citrus, rice, beef production, dairy and distillery workers, 6,000 farmers who supply cane to the company, and the simple calculation that if each of them were bread-winners of a family, some 64,000 people will be affected, I canít help feeling sad for this community of descendants of indentured labourers, for a simple, tight-knit, relatively poor agrarian community still tied to the land.


So here are the jaded facts.


The market price of sugar at present is $US239 per tonne. We produce it at about $US679 per tonne. At the end of 2007 the European Union, which buys our sugar will no longer be able to offer us quotas and we will be competing in the world market.


Between outstanding loans and government subventions, Caroni gobbles some $400 million per annum from our coffers. That, divided by the number of employees and cane farmers, works out to about $25,000 per person per year.


The company sits on 70,000 acres of land and pumps a huge amount of pesticides and fertilizers into our eco-system.


It is almost impossible to make a strong case for Caroni as an independent sugar producer. In its existing state Caroni is simply not viable.


The best person to have created a bridge between old, rural India and modern Trinidad would have been Basdeo Panday when he was Prime Minister, because nobody understands the sugar workers like he does, but he couldnít be bothered because they loved him in their simple, blind way, anyhow. He didnít have to work for their votes. Not much different from all PNM leaders, from the eminent Eric Williams to the fortunate Patrick Manning, who have barely glanced at Morvant, Laventille, knowing their people are behind them any which way ó but mostly, like the sugar workers, poor and frustrated.


How do we preserve this community?


The Frank Rampersad plan for Caroni was based on a VSEP package for all workers that included an option to lease Caroni lands at market prices strictly for agricultural purposes. This, if implemented, will ensure employment for workers directly involved in planting cane, and their dependents. The farmers could choose to plant whatever they want ó either for local consumption or export.


Business advice (not funds) can be given to the trained transport and machine shop workers using their VSEP to start small businesses in transportation and equipment rentals.


Caroni can set out land leases for companies who wish to lease agricultural land to produce crops for export.


The factory can be used strictly for refining sugar from the farmers, and one would assume that at the existing price they pay the farmers (US$170) per tonne, there may be scope to compete with world prices.


Finally, lands designated as non-productive lands may be developed for housing or other purposes, or light industry. The management of this should be put out to tender rather than be handled by Government or quasi government organisations such as the National Housing Authority or the old Industrial Development Corporation both of which have appalling implementation records.


Why werenít these plans implemented?

Clearly, no PNM government was going to lay itself open to the charge of giving land to the non-PNM supporters.


Secondly, from the Opposition at the time, there was the fear that the PNM would use the lands made available for housing to create political strongholds.


These political bogeymen still exist, but can be banished by kicking the squatter regularisation in the East-West Corridor into high gear and ensuring systems are put in place so artificial voting pools arenít created.


An entire community is at stake here. With a little imagination, and with a lot of management, the world so carefully constructed and preserved these 157 years can survive, mutate and mesh into this country of ours. Because no amount of VSEP can give a man a sense of self. Only communities and jobs can do that.


The alternatives of alcoholism, worthlessness, rage and dereliction are breeding grounds of crime and poverty reporting rather than great literature.

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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur