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Sunday, March 6, 2016

THE END OF THE SUGAR INDUSTRY IN HAWAII: Final Edition

(The Star Advertiser on Monday carried an Op-Ed by Trinette Furtado critical of the reporting by Lee Cataluna, entitled, Romanticizing Sugar Life is Pure Fantasy.  Both points of view are accurate.)

To most of the world, and Hawaii, the end of the sugar industry here means mostly nothing.  To me, it was ambivalently heart-rending.  Lee Cataluna wrote the obituary today in the Star Advertiser.


She has been covering the demise, and, for good reason, because she grew up on various plantations on most of our islands.  Lee doesn't know me because I knew her when she was adopted by colleagues of mine at the Hutchison Sugar Company, Dorothy and Don Cataluna, and haven't seen her for half a century.  He was one of the first part-Hawaiian sugar executives, grew up in Koloa, Kauai, (where my father, too, spent his early years) and went on to become an Office of Hawaiian Affairs Trustee.  He passed away in 2014.


Click on this to read a study published three decades ago reporting on the history of the sugar industry.  Actually, I've already posted on The End of the Sugar Industry in Hawaii, that was in 2013.  Sugar cane comes in many colors, but the one to the right is what is mostly grown around the world.  To summarize:
  • Sugar was first cultivated in New Guinea 10,000 years ago, which would then make it one of humanity's earliest crops.  Around 600 AD, the first settlers to Hawaii brought with them from the South Pacific several varieties of cane.
  • It is recorded that the first crop of sugar was planted by an unidentified person from China on Lanai in 1802.  He originally came to trade for sandalwood (photo to the right, in case you have never seen one).
  • John Wilkinson cultivated 100 acres in Manoa Valley in 1825, but his death killed the operation.
  • The first plantation was started in Koloa (right) in 1835.
  • The Great Mahele in 1848 paved the way for the sugar industry, for while King Kamehameha III meant well for his people, subsequent State Legislative acts (and guess who lobbied for them), ended up displacing native Hawaiians from their lands.
  • The industry took off at the time of the Civil War, when the 4 cents/pound price jumped to 25 cents/pound, which has a today value of $3.50/pound.  The current price is now 15 cents/pound, which is 6 times higher than when I first worked in the industry more than half a century ago.
  • From 300,000 pounds in 1846,  Hawaii exported 24,566,661 pounds in 1874.  Note that at peak in 1968 when I left the sugar industry, we were producing around 1.15 million TONS/year, or about a hundred times more by weight.
  • The 1875 Hawaii Reciprocity Treaty essentially gave Pearl Harbor to the USA, allowing sugar to be sold in the U.S. without any tariff.  That is King Kalakaua and his entourage visiting Washington, D.C. to bargain away part of Hawaii for the sake of the sugar industry.  The number of sugar plantations jumped from 20 to 63 in five years.
  • The early missionary families formed the Big Five (companies controlling the economy, politics and power until after WWII), grounded in sugar, gained so much prominence that in 1893 they were behind the overthrow of the Queen Liliuokalani government.  By now you should better be able to understand why a lot of Hawaiians want to reverse history today.  Good luck on that.
  • Around this period the Native Hawaiian population had declined from as high as 700,000 at the time of Captain Cook's arrival in 1778, down to 24,000, and is now recovering:
  • That is the ethnic mix of Hawaii today.
  • So in 1962 I arrived in Naalehu, the southernmost community in the USA, no TV, no radio, to work at the Hutchison Sugar Company, when sugar sold for 3 cents/pound  (but jumped to 8 cents/pound the following year, which is another story, for C. Brewer had a yield/cost/incentive plan, doubling my salary for that year, allowing me flexibility to ultimately pay the down payment to my first home) and I began my professional career in biomass engineering.
  • To quote:
At my first reception of company officials, I was the only person of Japanese extraction.  There was a sense of a time warp.  Except for a Filipino supervisor, and a Chinese factory superintendent, everyone else was Caucasian.  The leaders of the  sugar industry had remained an almost exclusively White culture.  Having just arrived from Stanford University, I actually was experienced at this ethnic mix.  The government was paternalistic, with the Plantation Manager, Bill Baldwin (below). as the father figure.  He introduced me to Pearl, arranged for me to return to graduate school, and nearly two decades later, shared an office with me in the U.S. Senate.
  • Above to the right in 1968 when I decided to leave the sugar industry for graduate school, with Bill Baldwin in the middle.  The three plantations where I toiled, Kilauea, Hutchinson and Hawaii Ag, all closed down not long after I left.
  • No, that was not because of my absence, and, no, it's not that my departure triggered the beginning of the end for sugar, although the above graph certainly suggests that.  C. Brewer paid for a good part of my way towards a PhD in biochemical engineering, so I was forever indebted to them.  
  • When I returned to work at the University of Hawaii I maintained close connections and did everything I could to help them transition from sugar to biofuels and other commodities.  I failed them, but the collapse was inevitable in view of sugar prices, land values and lifestyles in Hawaii.  
I could stop here, for this posting already is much too, long, but let me conclude with why my reaction was so visceral, for the sugar industry made Hawaii and to a good degree, me, too:
  • Sugar cane can mostly be blamed for bringing slavery to the Americas.  Not the USA, but the Caribbean.   (I thought this summary to the right was interesting.  Click on it to read.) This was a tough crop to harvest, and no normal human being wanted to work in that environment.  Thus, when sugar was introduced to Hawaii,  the local Hawaiians knew better, so sugar planters first brought in Chinese laborers, who quickly left the plantation, a few establishing businesses and marrying Hawaiians.  
  • Actually that is the common knowledge.  The reality is that the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 shut off immigrants from China, so the sugar industry first brought in workers from Portugal, many with families, 16,000 between 1878 and 1911.  We wouldn't have Frank De Lima Glenn Medeiros and Shane Victorino if not for this early input.  Then came the Japanese.  Most of them were single and from farming communities in Hiroshima, Yamaguchi and Kumamoto, amounting to just around 200,000 from 1886 to 1924.  In 1900, 40% of the Hawaii population was Japanese.
  • Contrary to popular belief, more than half of them returned to Japan because life was too harsh in the industry, so some of those remaining, mostly because they couldn't afford to leave, turned to picture brides, who were cheaper.  This was not much different from back home where marriages were arranged anyway.  Plantation owners were supportive to maintain labor numbers and minimize gambling and opium smoking.  
  • Between 1907 and 1923 15,000 picture brides arrived in Hawaii, nearly a thousand from Korea, and another 10,000 to the West Coast.  There was, too, a sense that the system was just a disguise for a prostitution trade.  Most were distressed to learn that their husbands misrepresented the actual reality (including younger photos), and that they had to work in the sugar fields for 55 cents/day, cook, clean, sew and raise children.  However, these families gained culture and resilience, building the roots for what became Hawaii as we know it today.  Nisei (second generation Japanese in Hawaii) fought with distinction in World War II so that in 1950 even Issei (first generation) were given the right to vote.
  • Next Filipinos, who with the Japanese, formed unions, where strikes became prominent in 1909 and 1920.  So it was no surprise that the Federal Immigration Act in 1924 prohibited immigration from Japan.  There are now nearly 350,000 living in Hawaii, at 25%, larger than the Japanese fraction.  Thus, the sugar industry established what is Hawaii today.  We are an ethnic mix that has worked.
Can there still be a future for sugar cane in Hawaii?  As part of the broad mix of renewables,   when oil shoots up to $200/barrel, these available farming lands can be utilized by cane for biomethanol, bio-electricity and similar revenue streams, especially as sugar cane, if you use the entire plant (ethanol production has been shown to be a sham--gasification and catalysis is much more cost-effective than fermentation), is the most efficient crop grown today.

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