Sugarcane no longer sweet for farmers
, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta | Friday, July 19 2002

F. Rahardi, Agribusiness Working Forum (FKA), Jakarta

It is not only today that sugarcane growers have had a raw deal. High levels of sugar imports, including raw sugar, is only one factor that has been detrimental to sugarcane producers. No matter how high the duties on sugar imports, this policy will not in itself improve the welfare of sugarcane growers.

Sugarcane (Saccharum officinarum L) is a commodity with a long, dark history for growers in East Java.

In 1839, the Dutch Indies colonial administration, through Governor General J. van den Bosch, issued the infamous cultuurstelsel regulation. Javanese farmers were forced to grow important commodities for export, the priority being sugarcane.

In 1890, cultuurstelsel was revoked because of strong opposition from within the administration itself. Unfortunately, the bitter taste of sugarcane continues today.

Farmers have been compelled to grow sugarcane under various schemes like the Smallholders' Sugarcane Intensification (TRI) program, Farmers' Business Loans (KUT) and so forth.

This condition is detrimental to both the public and the government. Land with technically arranged irrigation in Java is too costly for sugarcane planting, while shifting sugarcane planting to other regions such as Aceh, North Sumatra, South Sumatra, Lampung, South Kalimantan and South Sulawesi cannot be expected to meet the rising demand for sugar.

Cane sugar from Java, in the form of brown sugar, was for centuries the primary sweetener for Middle East and Europe. Sugarcane cultivation is said to have begun in prehistorical times. A Chinese traveler wrote in 400 A.D. that the cultivation of sugarcane was intensive in Java and was processed into sugar. Sugarcane, which belongs to the family of grass (Poaceae) is indigenous to Indonesia, with its original habitat assumed to be the Maluku islands or Irian Jaya.

When Dutch seaman Cornelis de Houtman docked in Banten (West Java) in 1595, he found cane sugar a popular trading commodity. Sugarcane planting had then spread to Timor, Jayakarta (now Jakarta), Central Java, East Java and Palembang. Under Dutch rule, cane sugar became a very important commodity. In 1747, Great Britain, which was at war with Napoleon's France, blockaded the trading line of cane sugar from Java. It was then that the German chemist, Marggraf, successfully extracted sugar crystals from the roots of sweet beet. Since then, cane sugar from Java has had to compete with beet sugar.

Since the 16th century, sugarcane spread to virtually every tropical region, including Central and South America. Now India, China and Australia are major sugar producers. Sugarcane has been proven to grow better in areas farther from the Equator.

Indonesia used to supply sugar to China, India, the Middle East and Europe, but today it imports the commodity, including raw sugar. Raw sugar must be processed into refined or granulated sugar before it is consumed. This could be avoided if the government was aware of our sugar industry's potential.

Other plants can be used as sweeteners. In Europe and the United States, apart from beet there is the sugar maple tree; the stevia, the leaves of which are used as sucrose, a sweetener 15 times sweeter than cane sugar but with a very low calorie content.

Indonesia also has aren, or sugar palm, coconut, lontar (Palmyra palm or Borassus flabellifer) and nipah (thatch palm or Nipa fruticans), all of which yield palm sugar. Made without chemicals, it is now trendy in Europe, Japan and the United States. Unfortunately, the government has only introduced the processing of crystalline sugar to coconut palm sugar makers in Ciamis, West Java and in Purwokerto, Central Java.

Research on the potential of nipah has yet to be followed up by technical applications. Lontar palmyra plants, which grow in dry areas, are also in need of more serious attention. Even the aren trees, the greatest potential source of palm sugar, is almost extinct because the trees have been felled for their starch.

Most of the cane sugar that Indonesia produces and imports goes mostly to medium and small-scale industries. High fructose syrup (HFS) is cheaper for industrial purposes. Indonesia's tapioca flour, exported to the European Union, has never met its quota and is mostly absorbed by the HFS and citric acid industry.

Through fermentation, cheap carbohydrates can be turned into HFS, citric acid, alcohol and various derivative products such as methanol (for fuel) and sorbitol (to produce the cold sensation in peppermint candies, balsam, etc.). Various makes of packaged solid citric extract in our market have tapioca flour, not fresh oranges, as their main raw material.

Besides tapioca, other plants that can be used to make HFS are sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batatas), ganyong (edible tuber, Canna edulis) and sago (Metroxylon sago/M. rumphii). HFS of sago should be much cheaper than the same substance made of cassava or other carbohydrates. Unfortunately, this great potential has yet to be properly managed.

In the 1980s, professor Mubyarto strongly criticized the presence of sugar mills in Java as the government continued to maintain them despite their great inefficiency. Java's sugar mills should have been relocated outside Java; or alternatives for sweeteners should have been sought.