Friday, October 19, 2018
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Sweeter sugar
Daniel Vásquez
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Sugar industry undergoes restructuring with benefits for economy and environment.

After two years of reorganization, the changes in Cuban sugar industry are having a favorable impact on the product’s competitiveness and the environment. Trees are planted where cane previously was grown, residual waters are being used more wisely and toxic emissions are being reduced.

The government decided to carry out a profound restructuring of the sugar sector in 2002 due to low sugar prices in the international market, cost increases in supplies and inefficiency of mills that produced sugar at a very high cost.

Sugar has lost its place to tourism as Cuba’s main source of income. In 2003, sugar production was 2.2 million tonnes, in contrast with 1970, when output reached 10 million tonnes.

With the restructuring, inefficient dependencies were closed, leaving 71 sugar companies open of a total of 142 — 14 molasses plants, 25 sugar plantations, 13 distilleries and 11 factories of torula (a sub-product with a high protein content that is used for feeding cattle and chickens .

The closure of the sugar mills was very painful for those who depended on output of the product to survive.

"It makes me very sad to know that the mill will not grind (sugar cane) again and we will have to look for other jobs when the country’s situation is very difficult," a sugar worker from Camaguey said. "The town grew around the mill and we have spent on whole lives moving from mill to mill."

The sugar harvest that began in December concluded in early June with a total production of 2.5 million tonnes, 324,000 tonnes higher than last year.

Vice president Carlo Lage said that although efficiency levels in this sector "were higher in almost all areas, the response is still lacking," as production was lower than the 2.6 million tonnes expected. Lage said that production failed to reach the projected level because in the eastern provinces, hit for more than a year by a severe drought, the volume harvested declined from the minimum of 54 tonnes per hectare planted foreseen in the restructuring plan.

Nevertheless, the recent harvest saw a reduction of costs, an increase in sugar quality — more competitive in the international market — and the generation of energy by the mills themselves.

After the restructuring, half of the lands previously used for planting sugar cane were switched to farm and forestry production. Last year, 7,300 hectares (18,772 acres) of forests were planted on these lands, double the number in 2002.

The Ministry of Sugar holds 2.18 million hectares (5.38 million acres): 818,000 hectares (2.02 million acres) are planted with cane, 736,200 hectares (1.82 million acres) contain forests and fruit and 594,800 hectares (1.47 million acres) agricultural crops other than cane. More than 70 percent of the total of lands are of the best category.

Currently only 30 percent of the arable land in Cuba is planted with sugar cane. Nevertheless, close to 20 percent of this area is planted with two varieties that have been cultivated for more than 20 years, with the subsequent deterioration, genetic erosion (when the plants start losing their characteristics) and the loss of properties for which these varieties were selected.

The complete lack of rotation or crop alternation and the use of chemical products like weed-killer, substances to speed up ripening and fertilizers, have had a negative impact on the biodiversity and beneficial organisms, said economist Santiago Rodríguez Castellón of the Center of Cuban Economic Studies of the University of Havana.

Another problem caused by the industry is the emission of residual liquids by mills, refineries, torula factories and distilleries, official reports show.

The sugar industry and its derivatives generate 230,000 cubic meters (8.1 million cubic feet) of residual waters per day, affecting the aquatic biodiversity in marine ecosystems and river basins of social and economic importance.

Nevertheless, in the last five years a significant effort has been made to raise the economic benefit of residual liquids and solids, through use and recycling in feeding animals, irrigation, improvement of lands and energy, Rodríguez Castellón said.

The decrease in the volume of water utilized in the industry and increase in area benefited by irrigation with residual waters from sugar output reduced the effects of pollution by 40 percent in the last three years, said Rodríguez Castellón.

In the last five years, the indices of water use have fallen from 1.69 cubic meters (59.7 cubic feet) per tonne of sugar milled to 0.72 cubic meter (25.4 cubic feet), with a savings of 34.9 million cubic meters (123.2 billion cubic feet) that have not been extracted from the sources of supply.

The use of residual liquids in irrigating cane in 2003 saved US$398,400 in purchases of fertilizers, 24,800 pesos — an equal amount in dollars according to the official exchange rate, although in state exchange houses the exchange rate is 26 pesos to the dollar — for water not extracted from the source of supply and the generation of 23,000 tonnes less of polluting discharge.

Of the mills that produced sugar in 2003, 49.3 percent used their residual waters, benefiting 21,629 hectares (52,534 acres).

Rodríguez Castellón said that the emission of gases — mainly from the burning of cane — results in deficient air quality in several localities on the island, although in the last two years burning of cane has been reduced by 10-12 percent, with the subsequent reduction in erosive processes and increase of organic material in the soil.

The installation of 17 turbo-generators in the 2003 harvest, the modernization of the cauldrons and other measures of savings and control have reduced the consumption of conventional fuel from 287 kg to 134 kg per tonne of sugar produced, with a notable reduction in carbon dioxide emissions. 

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