Connecting global processes and local outcomes: the case of Nambour and sugar

Posted by Michael Woods, 3 December 2014

The wide, sun-baked streets of Nambour, a rural town two hours north of Brisbane close to Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, are quiet today. There are a few cars that have strayed off the main highway to the north, and a few more turning into the new Coles supermarket at Nambour Mill Village. Twenty years ago it was very different. Then the streets throbbed during the latter part of the year with the noise and dust of the cane trains, snaking down the middle of the road taking fresh-cut sugar-cane for crushing at the town’s Moreton Central Sugar Mill, and the name of Nambour was inextricably associated with its iconic product, raw sugar. That all came to an end on 4th December 2003 when the mill finished crushing for the last time, after 107 years of operation, the media following the mill owner’s in attributing the mill’s demise to global conditions, as ABC Television’s 7.30 Report put it: “With poor harvests, falling world prices and growing competition from Brazil, the owners of the mill at Nambour – Bundaberg Sugar – say the Sunshine Coast operation is no longer viable”.

I have been studying the case of Nambour and the Moreton Sugar Mill for the last few weeks as an example of the local impact of globalization in rural regions, and presented the early findings at the Agrifood Conference in Sydney last week (see the powerpoint presentation here). It is a commonly held assumption that globalization processes, such as trade liberalization, corporate mergers and the development of new markets, have potentially severe implications for rural industries and the localities in which they are based, yet there is relatively little research that examines in detail how global actions reverberate to the local. As part of the GLOBAL-RURAL project we are investigating this connection, and as with other aspects of the project, we are doing so using the lens of assemblage theory.

To recap, to describe the global sugar industry, or the town of Nambour, as an assemblage, is to see it as a collection of diverse components and to emphasize its relationality and contingency. Following Manuel De Landa, an assemblage can be understood as comprised of components with both material and expressive (or symbolic) roles, held together by processes of territorialization, given meaning by coding, and defined by its exterior relations. This approach provides an analytical framework which in this case can be used to investigate the sugar industry as a series of shifting, interconnected and overlapping assemblages.

Thus, the explanation for the closure of the Moreton Sugar Mills starts with the global sugar assemblage, which includes all the components involved in turning sugar cane and sugar beet growing in fields, into the sugar spooned into a cup of coffee: the cane, beet, raw sugar, refined sugar, mills, refineries, storage, transport, packaging, branded products, labour, consumers, capital, corporations, regulatory institutions, and more. Historically, the shape, or territorialization, of the global sugar assemblage was fixed for much of the 20th century by bilateral agreements through which major sugar consumers secured supplies from preferred producing countries, such as Britain’s imperial preference system with commonwealth countries. These bilateral agreements were underpinned by tariffs, subsidies and preferential prices, such that in the late 1980s only a minority of sugar was traded at the supposed world market price.

However, the territorialization of the global sugar market was under pressure from external factors: geopolitical changes such as Britain’s entry to the European Economic Community (ending the imperial preference system), and the collapse of the Soviet bloc undermining the Cuban sugar industry; but also the re-coding of sugar in popular culture from a luxury to an unhealthy food. As sugar consumption accordingly decreased in the west, producing countries turned to still-expanding markets in Asia, competing to negotiate new bilateral agreements and shifting the territorialization of the global sugar industry eastwards. At the same time, the volume of sugar circulating as a commodity in the global sugar assemblage increased with heightened production in Thailand and especially Brazil, where changes in domestic policy had switched more sugar back into international markets. The consequence was a global over-supply of sugar and a fall in the world market price for sugar from over 40 US cents per pound at the start of the 1980s to less than 10 US cents per pound at the end of the 1990s.

Australian sugar industry map from HoyleThe shifting shape of the global sugar assemblage and the depreciating value of sugar created challenges for national sugar industries or assemblages, including the Australian sugar industry, which was unusually exposed to global market trends with over 80% of its raw sugar production exported. The territorialization of the Australian sugar assemblage is distinguished by a high level of regulation, including until recently a monopoly structure in which Queensland Sugar acquired almost all raw sugar when crushed and acted as a single-desk exporter for the industry. Similarly, supply was controlled by a system of ‘assignments’ that assigned cane-land to a particular mill with production quotas for canegrowers and mills. The assignment system produced a segmented spatial territorialization, with the assigned areas of each mill extending sequentially down the north-eastern coast of Australia, but limited competition between mills and between growers (map from Hoyle (1980) The Spatial Structure of the Australian Sugar Industry).

This territorialization provided the Australian sugar industry with the flexibility to respond to annual variations in demand, but could be unhelpfully rigid when it came to coping with major structural changes in the global assemblage, requiring competitive advantage to be found in its exterior relations. As such, when Australian lost its major export market with British entry to the EEC, it became an advocate for the liberalization of the world sugar market in order to gain access to the EEC and the USA. By the same coin, however, Australia dismantled the import tariffs that protected its own domestic market for sugar, against fierce opposition from canegrowers who considered themselves betrayed by the government. The gamble was that losses in the domestic market would be offset by growth in overseas markets. As labour costs in Australia were significantly more expensive than in its major competitors, the competitive advantage for Australian sugar rested on productivity, technical innovation and proximity to emerging Asian markets. Yet these advantages were not inviolable: technological innovations in particular are portable and replicable, and could be transferred into other assemblages, including the Brazilian sugar assemblage.

Brazil’s share of the world sugar market increased from 8% in 1981 to 21% in 2001, whilst Australia’s share decreased from 22% in 1993 to 15% in 2001, with some major markets such as Singapore switching directly from Australian to Brazilian sugar. By the late 1990s, the growing opinion in the Australian sugar industry was that it could not compete with Brazil on price. The loss of world market share was compounded for the Australian sugar industry by the continuing low prices, and by another exterior factor – poor weather that depressed the Queensland sugar harvest in 1998 and 1999, thus reducing the volume of sugar passing through the assemblage and into the world market. As the new century started, the Australian sugar industry was perceived to be in crisis, with reterritorialization required that its was accepted not all canegrowers or sugar mills might survive.

As one of the smallest mills in Australia, by volume of sugar produced, the Moreton Sugar Mill in Nambour was clearly vulnerable to industry restructuring, with its capacity for survival constrained by the shape of its assemblage. In common with the other Queensland sugar mills, the Moreton Mill assemblage traced the milling process, comprised of cane-land, cane plants, growers, cutters and cutting equipment, cane trains, mill buildings, milling machinery, mill labour, raw crushed sugar, and waste and by-products. Its territorialization was determined by the assignment system that created interdependency between the growers and the mill, and spatially expressed in the map of assigned cane land and the skein of the cane tramways that transported the cut cane from the fields to the mill. The rigidity of this structure, the absence of competition, and the fixed capital costs of the tramway and mill equipment meant that profitability could only be increased by raising production and the volume of sugar processed. The mill switched to 24-hour operation during the crushing season in the 1980s, but beyond that increasing production was reliant on extending the assigned cane land, and here the Moreton Mill assemblage faced a problem.

Assigned cane landTramway system

Maps from Alcorn and Dunn (1997) Moreton Sugar Mill: Sweet Heart of Nambour

The geographical location of Nambour on the Sunshine Coast meant that cane land could be detached from the Moreton Mill sugar assemblage and attached to competing assemblages that coded it with greater value, including other agricultural commodities, but also development for housing or tourism which ‘alienated’ the land from future cane-growing. A report in 1987 calculated that an additional 8,170 hectares of cane land would be required by 2000 to ensure the viability of the land, but that this figure could only be achieved by protecting suitable land from conversion to other uses. This protection was afforded by the mill buying some land directly, but primarily through zoning regulations with cane-land subject to a minimum subdivision size. This prevented cane-land being developed for housing, but not necessarily its conversion for other uses.

The long-term viability of the Moreton Mill assemblage was therefore constrained by the materiality, arrangement and adaptability of its components, but was ultimately defined by its exterior relations, including its geographical location and competition from other local assemblages; the reterritorialization of the global sugar assemblage and fluctuations in the world market price for sugar; and, crucially, the coding of Moreton Mill and the sugar it produced in the corporate assemblage of its owners.

Moreton Mill had been an independent, locally-owned company until 1976, when it was bought by Howard Smith Ltd, a Queensland conglomerate with shipping and mining interests as well as another sugar mill. It was sold again in 1988 to Bundaberg Sugar, the largest sugar producer in Australia, with eight mills in Queensland. In 1991, Bundaberg Sugar was subject to a hostile takeover by Tate and Lyle, the world’s largest sugar producer, who subsequently sold it on to Finasucre, a Belgian family firm, in 2000. The last change in ownership shifted the parameters of discussion about the mill’s future. Although both were transnational corporations with distant headquarters, there was a perception locally that Tate and Lyle were large enough to carry a loss-making mill, but that the smaller Finasucre would not be prepared to do so. With the volume of production at Moreton Mill still not sufficient to return a profit with low world prices, the company proposed in May 2002 to charge cane-growers a levy of AUS$1 per tonne to subsidise the losses. When the growers rejected this proposal, the company announced that the mill would close at the end of the 2002 crushing season, later granting a one year extension to allow cane-growers to explore alternatives (but with cane-growers paying the mill to crush their sugar in 2003).

However, the closure of the mill in December 2003 is not the end of the story. As we argued from our previous DERREG research, the outcomes of globalization for a rural locality are determined not only by the direct impact of globalization processes, but also by the response of local actors. From an assemblage perspective, the closure of Moreton Mill had removed a critical material component from the assemblage and cut its most important exterior relation, but other components still existed, albeit with their material role questioned. To keep the local sugar industry alive, these components needed to be rearranged in a new functioning assemblage, or attached to an alternative existing assemblage. Three possibilities were explored by local actors.

First, some cane-growers were able to detach from the Moreton MIll assemblage and attach their land to the Maryborough Mill assemblage, transporting their cane by road to the latter mill, 150 km to the north. Yet, the cost of road transport meant this was only viable for a small number of growers and dependent on market prices (10 growers in the Nambour area are still supplying Maryborough Mill in 2014, as reported by ABC Rural yesterday).

Second, a group of cane-growers sought to re-code their product and attach the Moreton Mill assemblage to the global ethanol assemblage. Switching to ethanol required the introduction of a new processing plant to the local assemblage, but as the sugar cane still needed to be crushed, it also required the revival of Moreton Mill. The growers’ cooperative formed to develop the ethanol option accordingly tried to buy Moreton Mill from Bundaberg Sugar, but they refused to sell, thus preventing the ethanol assemblage from becoming operational.

Third, an initially more successful initiative re-assembled the land, growers and cane in a new venture producing sweet cattle feed – branded as ‘Cow Candy’ – for markets in Korea and Japan. This assemblage was not dependent on the Moreton Mill site, developing a new purpose-built plant on the edge of Nambour, but it did require capital and almost foundered when government funding was withdrawn, only to be rescued by Chinese investment. However, the business plan relied on components behaving as coded, and when some components failed to do so – technical problems creeping into the processing equipment and poor weather hitting cane production – the money ran out, forcing the business to close in 2010.

With options for keeping the sugar assemblage operational in some form exhausted, attention turned to dismantling the assemblage and enrolling its components – particularly the cane-land – into other assemblages. A land suitability study was commissioned that assisted the process of conversion by identifying other economic uses for the former cane land – in effect re-coding the land, and individual growers converted to turf-farming, farm forestry and other activities. The most lucrative alternative, however, remained selling the land for housing development, yet for most growers this option continued to be blocked by the zoning regulations and the minimum subdivision size. Indeed, the zoning of the cane-land was reaffirmed by the South East Queensland Regional Plan in 2004, the year after the mill closure, no longer to protect the sugar industry but in response to concerns about the urbanization of the Sunshine Coast. Only a few exceptions were eventually allowed, such as the evocatively named Cutters Ridge estate in the village of Bli Bli, under construction in 2014.

DSCF3919

The concerns about urbanization of the landscape point to the final link in the chain, between the Moreton Mill sugar assemblage and the assemblage of Nambour as a place. Nambour had been a small hamlet when the mill was constructed in 1896 and had grown with the mill. Although it was never a single-industry town like some sugar towns in northern Queensland – pineapple and avocado farming also flourished, as did dairying, and there was a sawmill and a wax factory – sugar remained central to its economy. A study by geography students in 1974 concluded that “the economy of Nambour presents a fairly diversified picture, but with a heavy dependence on the sugar industry”, whilst an assessment in 1989 found that cane-growing and sugar milling supported 550 direct jobs and between 1100 and 3300 indirect jobs in the area, and directly contributed up to AUS$25 million to the local economy. As the report summarized, “The sugar industry makes major contributions to the output, income and employment in the region. It is vitally important that this contribution be maintained” (Moreton Sugar Mill Viability Report, 1989). The closure of the mill stripped components such as the sugar cane of their material role in generating employment and income, and the mill site remained bereft of this material role until it was redeveloped as a Coles supermarket creating 1,000 new jobs.

The closure of the mill also changed the territorialization of the Nambour place-assemblage. The flow of sugarcane from the hinterland to the mill was mirrored by people from the area coming into Nambour for shopping, services and employment, making it the anchor town of the district. The closure of the mill changed these dynamics, accelerating the transfer of influence from Nambour to the coastal resort of Maroochydore that was already underway as the tourism economy became pre-eminent.

Perhaps most significantly, the closure of Moreton Mill changed the expressive composition of the town. The mill, sugar and cane-fields all performed not only a material role providing employment and income-generation, but also an expressive role underpinning Nambour’s identity, as articulated in the reminiscences of a local newspaper columnist:

“The dark plume hanging over the town was not the only smoke in the air as bush fires were raging all around the district, but the mill stack was pumping out carbon, oblivious to the housewives’ cries of frustration at having their washing blackened. It was all in a good cause, they were told. The ash from the stack, and the heavy sweet smell of molasses, were the symbols of prosperity not just for the farmers, but for the whole town.” (Peter Richardson in the Sunshine Coast Daily, 26 October 2013).

The cane trains, too, played more than a material role, being given names, painted with faces and fictionalised as characters in childrens’ books. The bounds of affection with local people were such that Bundaberg Sugar floated the idea of replacing the tramway with road transport as a cost-saving measure in 2000 it was met with vehement opposition from townspeople.

As the mill closure prompted reflection in the town about its identity and future, attempts to capture the expressive role of the sugar industry for a last time were made in a film charting the ‘The Last Crush‘, a play by local writer Errol R J Morrison – The Book into the Fire – and a painting by artist James Fearnley, entitled The Last Hurrah Nambour, which hangs in Nambour Library depicting a solitary column of smoke rising from verdant landscape, supposedly as the mill operated for the last time. Other initiatives have sought to preserve the expressive role of the sugar industry even as its material presence has disappeared – canefields and cane-growers have been immortalised in murals around the town centre, disused cogs from the mill have been turned into a sculpture in the town’s new skatepark, and other pieces of machinery and several of the cane train engines have been acquired by the local museum, where they rest across the street from the old mill site. Together with the disused rails and signals of the cane tramway, these components are being re-assembled into a new heritage assemblage that local actors hope will help to regenerate the economy of Nambour.

CanegrowersDSCF3777DSCF3855DSCF3806

Adopting an assemblage methodology has helped to tease out this narrative of change in Nambour. It has illuminated the microprocesses and connections through which global processes impact on localities, demonstrating that global restructuring involves the addition, removal and mutation of components in global assemblages, responding to external pressures from the re-coding of assemblages and their components, and producing reterritorialization that changes how components relate to each other. In a global assemblage such as the world sugar industry this means that the relative position of producer nations has shifted, with implications for the components within the national sugar assemblage. As such, global restructuring impacts on local places by cutting external links and removing or changing the role of key components, yet critically, outcomes are also shaped by ways in which the capacity of local assemblages to respond to external pressures is constrained by the material and discursive nature of their components. Responding to an event such as the closure of a major employer requires the components of a local assemblage that have been lost to be replaced with new components that can perform a similar material role, otherwise the assemblage will break up, with individual components enrolled into alternative assemblages that in turn may create new expressive roles. At the same time, in cases of historically dominant industries such as sugar in Nambour, the expressive roles of components can outlive their material role, continuing to contribute to a sense of local identity rooted in past glories and repackaged for heritage tourism.

2 thoughts on “Connecting global processes and local outcomes: the case of Nambour and sugar

  1. Pingback: Reflections on a Summer of Conferences | The Global Countryside

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