20 December, 2018

Fairtrade is working to sweeten the deal for sugarcane farmers in Fiji

A sugarcane farmer in Fiji
by Astra Rushton-Allan

Sugarcane may not be the first thing that people associate with the tropical vistas of Fiji, but on the country’s two main islands of Viti Levu and Vanua Levu, sugarcane, or dovu in Fijian, has been embedded in the landscape since the late 1800s.

In fact, the sugarcane industry has had such a profound influence in Fiji that at one point it was the driving force behind the nation’s economy. While tourism is now the country’s largest source of revenue, the social and economic significance of sugarcane should not be underestimated, as the crop continues to impact the lives of more than one fifth of the population. Sugarcane is the fuel that keeps much of Fijian society running.

Since 2011, Fairtrade ANZ has been working with Fiji’s three Fairtrade certified cane producer associations; Labasa Cane Producer Association, Lautoka Cane Producer Association, and Rarawai and Penang Cane Producer Association. These associations now represent all of Fiji’s sugarcane farmers.

In recent years, Fiji’s sugar industry has experienced some big challenges. In 2017, the rules of the international sugar market changed drastically when the European Union decided to withdraw its preferential market for sugarcane and shift towards sugar beets. The move has come as a massive blow to sugarcane farmers across the African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States, including Fiji. 

For Fiji, the European Union's quota system had benefited farmers greatly by ensuring that much of the sugar coming out of the region was absorbed into European markets. Now, without stable export opportunities, the sugar industry in Fiji is having to make some serious adjustments and farmers are left to manage their production against this shifting backdrop. 

Combine this removal of secure market linkages with the string of devastating cyclones that hit between 2012 and 2016, destroying homes, crops and threatening many farming families, and you can see why the state of affairs for Fiji’s sugarcane farmers has been particularly tough. 

These challenges have amplified the important role that Fairtrade certification can have in creating stability for farmers, who often have little sway over the big decisions that directly impact their livelihoods. 

A sugarcane farmer in FijiFairtrade sugarcane farmers receive a Fairtrade Premium of USD 60 per tonne of sugar. To date, Fiji’s three Fairtrade cane producer associations have earned a total of USD 21.4 million in Fairtrade Premium. This money has contributed to upgrading farming equipment, the purchase of new vehicles for transporting sugarcane to the mill, and subsidies for farmers to help them keep the cost of production sustainable during crushing season. 

And it is not just the farmers who benefit from the Fairtrade Premium but also the wider community, as the earnings are often used to fund important local projects.  On Vanua Levu, a needs assessment conducted by Labasa Cane Producers Association revealed that nearly half of their members did not have access to a reliable water source. This made it clear where the Fairtrade Premium should be spent, so the association made the decision to invest their Premium in a variety of water projects, including the digging of boreholes and providing water tanks.

This year, with support from the Pacific Community (SPC), a development agency focused on strengthening regional priorities, Fairtrade ANZ has been leading market research and offering tailored producer and industry support. This work is part of an effort to help Fiji’s sugar sector adjust to these new supply chain developments.

Fairtrade ANZ Chief Executive Officer Molly Harriss Olson explains, “the partnership between Fairtrade ANZ and SPC is easing some of the pressure placed on Fiji’s sugar industry as a result of changing trade policies, as well as creating opportunities to explore new international markets for Fairtrade certified Fiji sugar.”

With the roots of the sugar industry so strongly ingrained in the lay of the land and the lives of the people who farm it, there are plenty of reasons to ensure that sugarcane production remains a sweet option for farmers across Fiji. 

The current project was made possible thanks to a partnership between the Pacific Community (SPC), through the European Union (EU) funded “Fairtrade Association Capacity Building and Farming Advisory Support Project”.

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