IN THE cool crop season starting later this month, a 70-year old man can be found on a small sugar cane estate in Inverness, in the Princes Town countryside, boiling sugar cane juice in old copper kettles to make the same ancient method used by artesan villagers in India, the land of his ancestors.
He is Ved Seereeram, former Citibank managing director and retired financial consultant.
A few hired labourers help cut the cane on the ten-acre plot, part of a 100-acre parcel bought by his father when the old Scottish Inverness estate was cut up and sold off.
The workers place the cane in a crushing mill purchased by Seereeram from India and the juice goes into large copper kettles.
Seereeram, whose parents sent him to study at a secondary school in India when he was a young boy, takes over from there. He watches over the boiling kettles until the juice turns into jaggery, an organic sugar in which the molasses is retained, and then throws it out onto trays, after which it is transferred to moulds.
“It is a very ancient practice in which almost everything is done manually” he told the Express Business.
He sells the jaggery, which he said has several medicinal benefits, to a small health market in Trinidad.
“The solid jaggery is wholesaled at $15 for half pound blocks.
“In liquid form you pay $20 for 150ml and $40 for 360ml bottles.”
All the molasses in jaggery is retained and therein lies the health benefits, Seereeram explained.
“It cures a sore throat and the flu. It’s good for fevers and jaundice, strengthens body’s organs, heals wounds and lowers cholesterol. It provides natural energy.
“It has no simple sugars and diabetics can therefore enjoy it without worrying about soaring blood sugar levels.”
Jaggery is used as a basis in many Ayurvedic medicines, Seereeram said.
His jaggery business is small scale, at present, but he plans to expand.
“About ten tonnes of cane will give you about one tonne of jaggery.
“I have set a target to process 200 tonnes and am now expanding the fields to yield 200 to 250 tons per annum.”
By mid-January, Seereeram’s present crop of cane will be ready for harvesting and he will hire a few more workers to supplement the two regular labourers he has.
He does not burn his cane. “Workers cut the cane fresh and carry it to the crushing mill which produces the juice.
“I use wood and bagasse to light the fire under the kettles to boil the juice.”
► Light at the end of the tunnel ◄ Light at the end
of the tunnel
The sugar industry in T&T was shut down in 2003 under the Patrick Manning administration, throwing some 8,000 workers onto the breadline. Thousands of cane farmers were also put out of business.
Fields across central and south Trinidad were abandoned. Cane arrows from uncut stalks danced in the wind only whispering tales of the lives of the labourers who toiled in the fields.
Mills ground to a halt, lorries laden with blackened stalks rolling through traces vanished from the landscape. The sweet, pungent aroma of burning cane filling the air during crop time disappeared. Sugar cane famers opted to go into other areas of work.
Seereeram began the revival of his deceased father’s abandoned sugar cane estate four years before the shutdown, around the same time he left his job at Citibank.
He planted cane which he supplied to State-owned sugar company, Caroni (1975) Ltd.
After the closure of the industry and the loss of his market he continued to plant cane, this time producing jaggery and searching out his own market.
“When adversity strikes, life becomes adventurous,” he said.
He knows of one other former cane farmer in Barrackpore who saw his work on the Inverness Estate, bought a small mill and began producing regular sugar. But that business didn’t last long.
“As far as I know, there are no other sugar cane farmers in Trinidad.
“A few people cultivate small patches of cane to make cane juice.”
Since the closure of the sugar cane industry, he has been pleading for its revival, in a more modern way than previously, but his pleas have fallen on deaf ears.
So, when Opposition Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar announced in October, on the campaign trail in the runup to the local government election, her plan to restart the industry, Seereeram saw a light at the end of the tunnel.
“Since 2007, I had asked Basdeo Panday (former prime minister and UNC political leader) to look at restarting the sugar industry.
“He did make a pronouncement on the platform at the time but nothing was done.”
He said he found it “very courageous” of Persad-Bissessar to later document a plan for the revival of the sugar industry (in her budget speech), should her party return to power.
“I welcome her idea wholeheartedly. I started producing sugar more like a hobby but I need to commercialise now.”
Seereeram said the restarting of the sugar industry “has to be done”.
To justify his call, he posed what he said was a very simple question.
“When you run out of foreign exchange, where are you going to get money to buy sugar? That’s all I’m asking.”
Hundreds of businesses and industries depend on sugar to manufacture their products and will collapse if there is a shortage of sugar, he said.
Seereeram referred the Express Business to an August 2012 presentation he did titled, “Recommencing the Sugar Industry”. The model for the revived sugar industry he outlines in it resembles Persad-Bissessar’s plan.
But he said he held no consultation with anyone.
He noted, however, he has published several articles on his ideas and did not know who read it.
In the 2012 paper, Seereeram said there is a need to establish a conventional sugar factory producing regular sugar to satisfy the needs of the local market.
Annual local sugar demand is approximately 80,000 tonnes and all is imported with zero local employment, he said.
“When you produce your own sugar, a tremendous amount of foreign exchange is saved.
“The current market price is US$0.25 per pound or US$560 per tonne (TT$3,528). “The cost of current imports is equivalent to US$44.8 million ($282 million) yearly.
He said, previously, all sugar factories were government owned, with sugar cane supplied by Caroni and private farmers.
“There were heavily subsidised prices from the European Union and the cost of production and the cost of farmers’ canes were too high.
“There were transport and logistical problems, overstaffing, low levels of efficiency and no added value products.
“The industry was heavily subsidised by government and employed over 10,000 plus farmers.”
A new sugar industry, he said, should be a private/public partnership, with government providing land for farmers and duty-free and tax concessions.
The private sector should provide capital for the factories and the operation of business.
For those who have a phobia about sugar cane planting and its connection to slavery and indentureship, he said the new industry should be highly modern with mechanization at all stages, from land preparation right down to milling.
Sugar cane estates should include, among other things, integrated livestock farming and intercropping and there should no zero wastage.
Bagasse from the crushed cane can provide paper for a paper mill and livestock feed and even a biodegradable replacement for Styrofoam, Seereeram said.
Opposition Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar said if her party returns to power a state-of-the-art sugar manufacturing cooperative at Usine Ste Madeleine, a former sugar factory in Princes Town, will be established.
“This new sugar company will purchase sugarcane grown by private farmers at market-based prices and will produce organic raw sugar and products like jaggery for sale to domestic and export markets.
“Investors will be required to fully finance the building of their sugar manufacturing plants. The government will provide all the necessary support required to fast-track implementation of investors’ plans, as well as the necessary land or tax incentives.”
Government will retain a minority equity position in the proposed manufacturing facility in exchange for the land provided, she said.
Nirvan Maharaj, president of the All Trinidad General Workers Trade Union, which represented former sugar workers, said there are number of people skilled in the sugar industry who will be happy for employment.
He said former pan boilers formed an association and keep in close contact.
He said he could not comment on Persad-Bissessar’s plan, however, since he needed more details on the logistics.