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Last Updated: Monday, 9 January 2006, 16:00 GMT
Island essence dissolves with sugar
By Duncan Bartlett
BBC, St Kitts

Last year on a small Caribbean island, more than 4% of the population lost their jobs. After centuries of sugar cultivation, St Kitts decided to end production, leaving the people to put their faith in tourism for an upturn in their economic future.

Worker registration board with tickets in it
More than 1,400 people lost their jobs when sugar production ended

A dormant volcano dominates the skyline of St Kitts.

What it is called depends on who you talk to.

A government official insists it is called Mount Liamuiga, a name first used before the land was settled by Europeans in the early 1600s. But many locals still refer to the volcano as Mount Misery, a title given to it by the slaves who were brought from Africa to toil on its slopes.

Their job was to harvest sugar cane for their British and French masters.

For more than 350 years sugar was the dominant industry on the island.

Now the business - and the sugar cane - is dying.

The government reluctantly admitted it is impossible to make money from sugar as prices fall on the world markets.

So in July 2005 it decided to close the business.

'The last trump'

I met Cedric Liburd, the agriculture minister whose solemn duty it was to go to the island's main sugar factory to make the closure announcement.

Where there's life there's hope
Everton Delaney

He told me some of the men who worked there cried when they heard the news.

Other people spoke of their sadness at hearing the sound of the factory horn for the final time last summer. "The last trump," somebody jokes.

To my surprise, that factory where the sugar cane was processed remains open, though inactive.

I found a ghost train there.

Railway carriages which once carried the sugar from the fields are browned by rust, while the remains of last year's sugar crop rots inside them.

Yet inside the plant's decaying buildings it is still possible to pick up the faint scent of sugar and molasses from the old machines.

I also found a few people still on shift.

"Why are you here?" I asked Everton Delaney, who has been in the sugar business for 37 years and now spends his day pottering around the factory, trying to stop it from collapsing.

"The government is looking for someone to buy this business," he replied. "Maybe it will re-open one day."

"So you think there is a future?" I asked him.

He fell silent and looked at the ground.

"Where there's life there's hope," he eventually replied.

Run-down and neglected

Outbuildings at the sugar factory
St Kitts used to be called the Sugar City

The sugar fields themselves, which stretch over most of the island's open land, are becoming corrupted by weeds.

In places, brambles stretch almost to the top of the plants and will soon choke them to death.

An expert on sugar gave me a grim biology lesson as we toured the island.

Sugar is a grass, he explained, and those feathery flowers sprouting from the cane are known as arrowheads. They are turning silver, which shows it is ready for harvest.

But no one will chop it down this year.

He also explained that because of a lack of human care, the roots of the sugar are losing their grip on the island's thin volcanic soil.

When it rains, the water streams through the fields, taking the soil with it.

There is a risk of landslides. Warning signs have been put up on the roads: "Disasters - swift, sudden, deadly - be prepared."

Tourist trade

Prime Minister Denzil Douglas
Denzil Douglas was re-elected for a third consecutive term in 2004

At its height in the 1970s, the sugar industry on St Kitts employed 2,500 people.

Now that number is fewer than 20.

Tourism is the big hope for the island's economic future.

At a beachside bar, I asked some of the former sugar workers and their families about their new jobs.

One woman told me she works at the casino at the Marriot hotel. At least the sky is always bright inside the casino. It is painted on the ceiling in a trompe l'oeil.

The illusion of grandeur is supported by Italianate arches around the roulette tables and slot machines.

The ruling political party on the island has used a photograph of the Marriot's imposing design on its posters, next to the grinning face of prime minister Denzil Douglas, who takes pride in bringing the US company to the island.

All aboard!

The Marriot chain's colossal marketing budget helps draw in guests. But other hotels on the island are struggling to attract visitors.

Take the Rawlins Plantation Inn, built from the ruins of a 17th Century sugar cane plantation, perched on the slope of the volcano.

As I crossed its immaculate lawn, I was hit by the perfume of tropical flowers: hibiscus, plumbago, African tulip, flamboyant.

Yet every guestroom was empty and the dining room was deserted.

The owners have invested millions in the inn and need to recover their money. A one-night stay costs as much as 350 ($620).

Other visitors arrive by cruise ship.

I saw the world's largest ocean liner, the Queen Mary II, sail into port at the capital city of Basseterre, a dainty little town of pastel-painted wooden buildings.

The sweetness has left the island
Former cane cropper

The boat brought hundreds of wealthy tourists to spend the day on the island.

Most of them returned on board to take their lunch and they were all gone by sunset, as the boat headed onwards to her next Caribbean destination.

Some tourists leave with bottles of Belmont rum, distilled on St Kitts.

Nowadays, the drink is made not from local sugar but from molasses imported from abroad.

In a rum shack overlooking the harbour, I order a shot in a plastic cup and talk about sugar with the other drinkers.

One former cane cropper swallows his rum in a single gulp and lays the cup on the counter.

"Since the sugar's gone," he says, "the sweetness has left the island."

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday, 5 January, 2006 at 1100 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Country profile: St Kitts and Nevis
02 Nov 05 |  Country profiles
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15 Dec 05 |  Country profiles


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