Sugar cane is thought to be indigenous to the islands of the South Pacific. It was found growing in Fiji by the early European discoverers and settlers. Fijians grew sugar cane for chewing and they are known to have used the juice for sweetening food.
Because of sugar's importance today, many people are often surprised to learn it was the second choice to cotton when early Fiji planters decided which crop would bring them the most money.
Cotton production in the United States slumped during the civil war of the early 1860's and world markets opened to new producers. Prospects for cotton growing in Fiji looked bright. Cotton enterprises in Fiji began to fail when the civil war ended and American plantations began to recover.
- 1862: first sugar produced in Fiji was made on the island of Wakaya by Mr. David Whippy.
- 1870: The sugar had displaced copra as the country's main export-the position it has held to this day. An early boost to the sugar industry came from Ratu Cakobau, who was worried about a decline in Fiji's economy because of internal strife and cotton's failure.
- December 1871: Ratu Cakobau offered 500 pounds sterling for "the first and best" crop of 20 tons of sugar produced from locally grown cane.
- 1872: Brewer and Joske erected a small experimental sugar mill in Suva, followed by a larger mill a year later. About 640 acres of cane were planted on the site now largely occupied by the City of Suva.
- 1879: British Government brought indentured laborers from India to work on cotton, coffee, sugar and other plantations. Most of them stayed on when sugar became the main crop and more Indians came to Fiji until the indenture system ended in 1916.
The Indian migrants had the right of a free journey back to India, but the majority chose to stay in Fiji. Today, most of this country's cane growers are descendants of those early indentured laborers.
Fiji's first sugarcane was grown on the plantation system. Many small mills - 34 at the industry's early peak -were erected on the larger islands in high rainfall areas. These small mills were unprofitable because sugar content of cane was low and manpower for the plantations was scarce. Only the four CSR mills survived and others closed down.
- 1916: plantation workers became very scarce. To solve the labor problem, several schemes were tried before the small-farm system was developed. Indian farmers were settled on farms averaging 4.05 hectares, with the farmer and his family doing most of the work.
The Colonial Sugar Refining Company, a well established Australian company, started in Fiji in 1880, and it brought more resources and experience than previous entrepreneur. CSR's first mill commenced operating at Nausori in 1882 and closed in 1959. In the following years four more mills were established
- 1886: CSR’s Rarawai Mill on the bank of the Ba River.
- 1894: Labasa Mill on Vanua Levu.
- 1903: CSR's largest mill commenced crushing at Lautoka
- 1926: Penang Mill, founded by the two Wilmer brothers in 1881 at Rakiraki was acquired by CSR from the Melbourne state Company
They are on the drier side of the two larger islands where conditions are more suited to sugar production.
CSR established the cane-breeding Agricultural Experimental Station:
Agricultural experimental organization is now a part of the FSC and is known as the Sugarcane Research Institute of Fiji.
- 1961: CSR Company Ltd formed a Fiji subsidiary, South Pacific Sugar Mills Ltd
- 1972: The Fiji Sugar Corporation was incorporated in Fiji by an Act of Parliament in 1972 to take the milling activities with effect from 1 April 1973.
- 31 March 1973: SPSM Ltd shares were offered to the people of Fiji and only a small number (2%) of shares were purchased by the public. Following an award by Lord Denning on the sharing of proceeds with growers, which was deemed to be unacceptable,CSR Ltd withdrew from the Fiji sugar industry. Government bought CSR's interest in the company for $10 million.
At present, of the 43,267,016 fully paid shares, the Government owns 30,239,160 shares, and the rest are owned by statutory bodies, local public companies and individuals. The government therefore owns a majority share (69.8%) in the Corporation.
The Corporation is the largest public company in Fiji. It has a Board of Directors appointed during the Annual General Meeting and is the policy-making and governing body. The Corporation is predominantly managed and staffed by Fiji citizens. CSR continued to act as Fiji's sugar marketing agent overseas unti1 1976, when the government formed the Fiji Sugar Marketing Company Ltd to handle marketing activities. The company has its Head Office in Lautoka.
With the farmers wanting more say in the industry decision-making, Government decided on reforms within the industry. The Sugar Industry Act of 1984 restructured the industry. It established three new organizations, namely the Sugar Industry Tribunal and the Sugar Cane Growers Council.
It also established Mill Area Committees as an advisory body on local sugar matters. The Tribunal deals with the contractual relations between farmers and FSC, and any disputes and differences within the industry. The Sugar Cane Growers Council specifically deals with the farmer's interests. The workers in FSC have their trade unions to represent their interests.
One of the major functions of the Sugar Industry Tribunal is to establish and regulate a master award to control the contractual relationship between FSC and the cane farmer. The master award came into effect on 23rd November 1989 and has now replaced the sugar cane contract. Independent arbitrators who have set the contract terms in the past are Britain's Sir Malcolm Eve (later Lord Silso) and a British judge, Lord Denning.
Soon after the takeover, FSC embarked upon the expansion of Fiji's milling capacity. The four factories are capable of manufacturing more than 500,000 tonnes sugar per season. Some consideration has been given to a further increase in mill capacity towards a target of 600,000 tonnes sugar a year. Such expansion would require substantial capital investment at Fiji's four sugar mills.
One of the biggest sugar expansion projects undertaken in the Fiji sugar industry is Seaqaqa cane development scheme, where over 5000 hectares were brought under cane by 1980. This project cost $22 million and has accommodated 800 Fijian and Indian farmers. Funds were borrowed from the World Bank to help finance the project
The government recognizes the problems of economic dependence on one crop. It has among other measures, encouraged tourism in order to diversify the economy. However, tourism is sensitive to a number of factors, and its contribution to the economy is somewhat less than sugar.