Lessons from Thai sugar industry-6

By Modesto P. Sa-onoy

I’m unaware whether the Thai sugar industry has a railway system for the delivery of the canes to the mill, but I had not seen huge trailers carrying canes to the mill as we have. I also did not see cane trucks with stalks protruding out into the open. Overloaded cane trucks are common here. They move slowly in the highway and spill out some or even their entire load of canes into the road and cause traffic snarls and destroy the roads.

We had occasions when overload trucks and spilt canes caused fatal accidents. How many had died in accidents because cane trucks or spilt canes were not lighted or provided with early warning devices? We had cases where an entire load was dumped on a car and killed the passengers. What I saw in Thailand were trucks with enclosed carriages or vans that contained canes cut into short pieces.

There are three things great in the Thai cane transport system: (1) they don’t lose canes along the way and keep the highways clean; (2) the canes are free of trash thus the planters are not subjected to trash deduction; and (3) the canes are easy to crush and help improve mill efficiency. This way the growers and the millers earn while the environment is clean and the roads free from accidents.

The trucking system adopted by the Philippine sugar industry in 1963 is therefore hazardous, dirty and costly. But we cannot return to those days of cane transport by rail cars. The trains had been sold, the rail tracks dug out and sold as well, and the hardwood ties converted into furniture.

Indeed, because of the many restraining factors, it is now extremely difficult to revert to the old days when trains crisscrossed the sugar lands. The Thai system is the best way, but we must mechanize the harvesting that includes the cleaning, cutting and transporting of canes in closed trucks.

The SRA also talked of a “Sugar Fund” set aside to provide loans for growers at 2 percent interest rate. The availability of funds at low cost is always a generator of economic growth. The Philippine sugar industry did not have this privilege. The crop loans of the past carried the usual banking interest rates that at some point in time reached beyond 30%. Now they hover around 10%. The Thai Sugar Fund is therefore subsidized.

The SIDA provided P300 million annually each for crop loans and for mechanization to be drawn from Land Bank. Why are sugar planters reluctant to avail of this fund? The fact that out of the annual P2 billion available from SIDA, the SRA was able to make use only of P500 million. The remaining P1.5 billion could have started to make a difference. SRA was unable to explain this failure to make use of direly needed funds.

Thailand Society of Sugar Cane Technologists (TSSCT) in Kasetsart University Bangkok, Thailand receives an annual funding for sugarcane research at 2 Billion US dollars, SRA added in its press release.

Our SIDA annually allocates P300 million, a pittance even if we add the industry’s own research arm. We had once the Philippine Sugar Institute but that was abolished in 1976 and in its stead is a small industry funded research group, the Philippine Sugar Research Institute. When was the last improved cane variety introduced? This disparity speaks for itself on why the Philippines is behind Thailand that used to send their students here to study.

So, what will SRA do from what they learned in Thailand? Will their knowledge be shelved into the recesses of their minds as had happened many times for people who had visited the Thai industry?

Considering the situation now of our sugar industry, will we be able to reverse the trend of a once robust industry sliding down and being marginalized?

Unfortunately, the statement of SRA Administrator Hermenegildo Serafica that he is not disturbed by the declining production indicates we will not see any improvements to prevent the industry’s deterioration. However, there is hope because some planters are mechanizing but the industry will have to shrink and leave the field to them – a case of survival of the fittest.

A diaspora from the industry to more profitable real estate or other agricultural crops seems inevitable, but there is still a way.