February 26, 2007 / 5:10 PM / 13 years ago

Cuba scrambles as sugar harvest drags amid rain, heat

HAVANA, Feb 26 (Reuters) - Cuba has begun mobilizing cane cutters and will extend the sugar harvest from April into May as rain, hot weather and organizational problems jeopardize plans to produce around 1.6 million tonnes of raw sugar.

Two months into the harvest, mills are operating well below expectations of 80 percent of potential and yields are well below the 11 percent or more that had been planned, national and provincial reports indicated.

“We have some delays in plans due to rainfall. Also, some resources arrived late,” Sugar Vice Minister Juan Godefoy said in an interview on national radio last week.

The provinces of Villa Clara, Camaguey, Las Tunas, Holguin and Granma, due to produce close to half of this year’s output, were particularly affected, Godefoy said.

Temperatures have dropped and drier weather set in over the last week. But some worry that the El Nino phenomenon could produce unseasonable humidity and rainfall during the entire December-to-April dry season when sugar is harvested, lowering yields and slowing mechanized harvesting.

Central Camaguey province reported at the weekend 4,700 macheteros would be mobilized this week in hopes of increasing the flow of raw material to mills.

“The goal is to increase harvesting and thus processing at the mills ... which has averaged 58 percent since the harvest began in early January,” the local Communist party weekly, Adelante, reported.

In neighboring Ciego de Avila province, cane cutting plans were reorganized to cut cane in May due to the need to extend the harvest, sugar reporter Juan Varela told the official Radio Progresso on Saturday.

“There is more cane than last year, but not as much as some think. It is a shame that at this moment not all the mills are using the cane they have well,” Varela told the same radio station earlier in the week.

The Sugar Ministry reported there was 28 percent more cane than in 2006 and plans called for output to increase by 32 percent due to improved mill operations.

Meanwhile, two of Cuba’s largest mills, eastern Las Tunas province’s Guiteres, with a capacity of more than 100,000 tonnes, and neighboring Holguin province’s Urbano Noris, remained closed Monday; the first due to unusual moisture in the fields and second due to repairs, provincial radio reported.

The sugar Ministry last reported that 43 of 49 mills scheduled to be open by March were grinding.

Cuba hoped this season to launch a new era for sugar, once its most important industry, after a 15-year decline from 8 million raw tonnes produced in 1990 to 1.2 million tonnes in 2006 which was one of the lowest on record.

With sugar and ethanol prices rising, the government decided last year to reinvest in sugar after a downsizing that closed more than half the country’s mills and reduced plantations by 60 percent.

Cuba consumes a minimum 700,000 tonnes of sugar per year and 400,000 tonnes are destined for a toll agreement with China.

Cuba has imported some low-grade white sugar over the last few years, but is not expected to do so in 2007 unless it proves necessary to meet contracts.

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