Trade: 'Reform must be humane, fair and equitable. We too have a right to live'

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The Independent Online

Eighty-year-old Gianter Sunyassy has just one wish: to change the mind of every European who reads this article.

"You ought to be more humane. If you remove sugar, you erase us out of existence," he says. "Sugar is the foundation on which this beautiful land is built. If it sinks, everything else sinks."

Mr Sunyassy has witnessed the rapid transformation of Mauritius from a "wretched wasteland" to a middle-income country seen as a jewel of the Indian Ocean because of its first-class hotels, pristine beaches, lagoons and coral reefs which attract more than 700,000 tourists a year.

From his two-acre sugar cane plot, which has fed and educated his six children and 25 grandchildren, Mr Sunyassy is adamant he has made his contribution.

But he and 30,000 other small planters in Mauritius, who produce 35 per cent of the sugar-cane crop, will have to abandon their plots if the proposed price cuts that would make their operations unviable are implemented.

Mauritius is particularly vulnerable to the proposed EU reforms because it depends on a single crop. With virtually no other natural resources, the economy has revolved around sugar since the island was discovered by the Dutch in 1639. Isolated geographically, with no scope for viable manufacturing due to huge distances from markets, prone to cyclones and hurricanes, sugar remains the key.

Despite attempts at diversification, a majority of the 1.2m population depends directly or indirectly on the sugar-cane exports. Around 40 per cent of the Africa-Caribbean quota - about 500,000 tons - comes from Mauritius, earning the country €200m (£140m) annually.

The information and financial industries are still in their infancy, and the textiles sector severely depressed due to Chinese dominance.

Abandoning the sugar plantations would have other perverse effects.

The cane fields prevent soil erosion and act as a buffer against the contamination of the white sand beaches by foreign objects. If sugar plantations are abandoned, there will be massive erosion, which could destroy the island's pristine beaches and the main tourist attractions.

Sugar cane is a resilient crop, not easily uprooted and washed away by hurricanes and floods. For decades, it has limited the impact of natural disasters.

For Nunkoo Rattan, another small planter, the meeting of the EU agriculture ministers is a matter of life and death. "Reform must improve and not destroy. Reform must be humane, fair and equitable. We too have a right to live," he says.

Mr Rattan, 70, argues that the Sugar Protocol is a textbook example of how trade is the best tool for poverty alleviation in poor countries, compared to aid handouts that don't always trickle down to the under-privileged.

If the industry is destroyed by the proposed cuts, he says, the country will be destroyed as well. He and the other small planters will have to queue for government aid, placing an added responsibility on the European taxpayer.

Dhaneswaree Soowambhur, who feeds her family of four from her $100 monthly wage as a cane cutter sounds even more forthright: "I don't want to see my country and myself in misery again. Shove it [the price cut]."

The growers' concerns are shared by the government here. Arvin Boolell, the agriculture minister, dismisses the EU's proposed reduction as "a xenophobic approach to business".

"It's the magnitude of the price reduction and the lack of significant accompanying measures to protect poor countries from the aftershocks that will destroy small countries like Mauritius," he warns.