The Fiji Organic Project

Article excerpt

It's a big deal when you get the Minister of Finance, the person holding the purse strings for the entire country, to open a meeting. It's an even bigger deal to have him announce that the country's sugar industry, the backbone of the national economy, will thrive if it switches to producing organic sugar.

Thirty-four stakeholders gathered on April 12 and 13 to discuss the potential of the greening of Fiji's sugar industry. The meeting, organized and hosted by The Fiji Organic Project and Sugar Research Institute of Fiji, and sponsored by the Secretariat of the Pacific Community, was a landmark occasion in the history of sugar industry deliberations, as it brought together the most diverse array of constituents that has ever convened to discuss the future of Fiji's sugar industry. Those constituents included environmentalists, tourism officials, NGO leaders, cane farmers, researchers, trade commissioners, academics, students, businesspeople, marine scientists, engineers, economists, doctors, and marketing specialists.

Fiji's sugar industry is at a turning point in its century-long lifespan. Whereas Fiji used to enjoy preferential market access and subsidized prices for decades due to the Lome Convention and Cotonou Agreement, the industry will soon be forced to compete with the likes of Brazil and Australia, as the World Trade Organization has deemed the preferential prices are unlawful under the rules of free trade. Given its small land mass and lack of mechanization, Fiji will simply not be able to compete on the world market if it is forced to sell its sugar conventionally. What Fiji needs is a niche market.

Organic can be that niche. As an industry with a growth rate averaging 20 percent since the 1990s, the demand for organic foods has expanded beyond most food manufacturers' wildest dreams. In fact, there is such great demand for processed organic foods that companies often cannot source enough organic raw ingredients to make their finished products. Food processors hate it when that happens, because it means they can't use the word "organic" on the label and are no longer able to fetch a premium price. With sugar a major ingredient of a large variety of products, from breakfast cereals to chocolate bars, there is an increasing demand for a plentiful supply of organic cane sugar.

What The Fiji Organic Project stresses is that transitioning to organic production would mean much more to Fiji than economic gain, though it would certainly bring that as well. Organic sugar cane production would also promote environmental, cultural, and social sustainability for Fiji.

Sugar has shaped Fiji's history and remains a primary source of income for more than one-third of the rural population. The sugar cane industry dates back to the 1800s, when Indians were brought to Fiji as indentured laborers. The history of Fiji's sugar industry created its present-day demography: nearly half of Fiji's population are Indo-Fijians, Fiji Islanders of Indian descent. Family and social life has been built around the small cane farms. The social and cultural fabric of Fiji's countryside is intricately interwoven with cane farming. If the sugar industry in Fiji crashes (as has been predicted if it stays on its current path), farmers will lose their land, their livelihoods, and their way of life.

At the two-day stakeholders' meeting, Randy Thaman, professor of Pacific Island Biogeography, stressed that the sugar industry is worth much more to Fiji than the income it generates. Cane farming not only provides livelihoods, it also provides housing and food for much of Fiji's rural community. Sugar cane is not the only thing grown on the farms that is vital to people's health and livelihood, Thaman notes. Family gardens are filled with other crops and trees that are grown for food, medicine, religious practices, and aesthetic beauty. …