Small farmers face global challenges in Mauritius

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Traidcraft has been sourcing speciality sugars such as muscovado and demerara from Mauritius for many years. The country is hugely dependent on the sugar trade and is set to lose out with the EU’s deregulation of the sugar industry. Alistair Leadbetter looks at the challenges looming for Mauritian farmers, and how the Fairtrade model is helping the industry adapt.

Mauritius is a small island to the east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean.  It is well known for its beautiful beaches, luxury hotels and thriving tourist industry but sugar has long been an important part of the island’s economy. Sugar was introduced into Mauritius by the Dutch in the first half of the 17th century but became a major industry on Mauritius in the middle of the 1700s, when it was controlled by the French.  All of the labour came from slaves and indentured workers.

The British took Mauritius from the French in 1810 and went about further expanding the sugar industry, shipping in 400,000 indentured workers from India over the next one hundred years. The descendants of this immigrant community define modern-day Mauritius: today nearly half of the population is Hindu, making it the country with the third highest Hindu population by percentage in the world after Nepal and India.

Sugar is cultivated on 80% of the island’s arable land and most of the sugar that is produced is exported to the European Union.  This dependence on growing sugar cane, encouraged for centuries by Mauritius’ colonial rulers, is a huge risk and is all the more problematic now that the EU has decided to end the preferential trade agreements that aided the development of the sugar industry in the first place. From late October 2017, the EU sugar market will be liberalised and there will be more sugar coming from Europe’s own beet farmers and also from large sugar producing countries such as Brazil. Another huge unanswered question is whether Mauritian sugar farmers will have to pay tariffs to export sugar to the UK after Brexit.

Mauritius’ production costs are high due to its low milling capacity, its short milling season and the low level of mechanisation that is possible due to the rocky nature of the land. The subsidies given to the EU sugar beet farmers make competition even harder. In the face of such challenges, the Fairtrade premium is crucial to the sugar farmers of Mauritius. The sugar farmers use the premium to benefit their cooperatives, their communities and also to support their farming livelihoods. Many cooperatives subsidise transport costs and harvesting costs, as well as seeking to invest in diversification and improved farming techniques.

The European Union, as part of its deregulation of the sugar industry, developed an “accompanying measures” program which was intended to assist countries dependent on the EU sugar trade to adjust. There is some degree of anger and frustration on the part of sugar farmers that I have spoken to on the island that these projects tend to focus on other areas of the island’s economy and not directly on the sugar farmers.  The farmers see that the rockiness of their fields is a problem that if addressed through “derocking” would allow them to be more productive and efficient.  However, the government, predicting a decline in sugar production, has seen that there is little requirement to improve efficiency in this way and would prefer to direct funds elsewhere.

In the face of this, the Fairtrade certified farmer cooperatives are still active and are focussed on growing their businesses. Invan Ramsamy has borrowed money from his cooperative to invest in an irrigation project which he believes can increase his yields by up to 50%.

“I borrowed 1 million rupees and the rates were very good compared to the rates given by the bank.  I will repay the money over four years and they are offering me 10% simple interest calculated every year rather than the bank’s rates which are 12% compound interest.  This project is really a pilot project for the cooperative too.  This is a way to increase our yields.”

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Punchu Sooriadeho is the secretary of L’Esperance cooperative which has around 200 members.

“With the premium we have bought a bell loader [for lifting cane onto the lorries], we have built these offices, a hall which we use as a kindergarten and we have subsidised transport and the agricultural inputs for the members and provided compost.  We also support the more disadvantaged members of our community by giving them free fertilizer, maintaining their cane and arranging the harvest for them.  We want to use the premium to hire a full time teacher at the kindergarten.”

“Without the Fairtrade premium we could not survive and things would be very difficult for the farmers. We know that we have to diversify so that we don’t just rely on sugar cane.  Some farmers are also workers helping during the harvest and this helps them earn more money.  We are also going to look at eco-tourism as another way of helping us diversify and we are thinking of maybe opening a sugar packing unit sometime in the future”

“It is hard to know what will happen in the future.  Sugar is so important for us – it helps with the CO2 from the traffic and so what will happen to the pollution without the sugar?  It also helps protect the land from erosion.”

Mauritius’ smallholder sugar farmers are committed to their land, and to producing sugar within the Fairtrade system which has seen the farmers and their communities benefit and prosper.  Whether they can do this in the face of liberalised markets and a market flooded with sugar produced from enormous plantations remains to be seen.

Alistair Leadbetter is Traidcraft’s Supplier Support Coordinator.