Sugar harvest in Reunion
Although the island of Reunion makes us think of a tropical holiday paradise, local agriculture is primarily devoted to the growing of sugar cane. As the sugar harvest gets into full swing, we visit France's leading sugar cane producing area.
Imported into Reunion during the 18th century, sugar cane plantations now occupy 24,000 hectares, more than half the island’s available farmland. This grass plant originating from Melanesia, a robust type of reed, particularly rich in sucrose, enjoys ideal growing tropical (warm and humid) conditions on the island.
The scale of sugar cane production on the island of Reunion is supported by a local economic and industrial policy squarely centred on sugar production. If sugar beet occupied the same share of cultivated land in mainland France, France would be, in theory, capable of supplying two thirds of world sugar production!
Moreover, sugar cane production, also called “key crop”, is resistant to cyclones and therefore offers farmers a guaranteed income. Sugar cane served as foundation for an original diversification of agricultural practices, enabling farmers to supplement their activities.
A busy year
The sugar harvest on the island of Reunion starts with the arrival of the “cool” season, around the beginning of July. The harvest spans more than twenty weeks until the end of November, involving more than 3,800 plantation workers around the island.
Because of the island’s hilly topography, the cane plantations are located in coastal areas, a green “necklace” decorated with pink “pearls” that runs around the island during the flowering season from April to May. These features explain why two harvesting techniques continue to co-exist in the region: traditional hand-cropping and mechanised cropping, which can only be used in fields large and flat enough to accommodate the machines, a sort of combine harvester adapted to sugar cane. The sugar cane, cut with a machete or using a combine harvester, is cropped rather than lifted, unlike sugar beet.
Cropping is performed for four or five years running. Six to seven year cycles are also possible before yields drop too far. The roots are lifted and new cuttings planted. The cane plant reproduces itself via stems that grow from cuttings.
The core of this stem, 3 to 5 metres high, contains a store of sugar. During the harvest, after the leaves have been removed,only the stem, selected by size, is kept. It needs 10 to 12 months to regrow. The “white end” (top of the plant), low in sugar (it contains mainly non-sugar or sugar reducing components, such as glucose and fructose), is also discarded.
Once prepared, the sugar cane is transported to the island’s sugar processing plants. Using a technique called “milling/soaking”, the cane is milled and soaked four or five times in a row by milling tandems. The sugar juice obtained is reheated, with added lime, allowed to settle and filtered before the final crystallization stage.
Large-scale seasonal activity
Sugar cane production has an important social role to play, providing work for a large labour force and generating a total of15,000 jobs.
The entire sector has been developed to take advantage of this raw material’s co-products and to supplement sugar production. Alcohol(rum and punches) is produced using molasses, while the bagasse burned by the island’s two thermal power plants supplies45% of electricity consumed. Lastly, due to their sheet scale, the areas given over to cane production play a decisive environment role, helping protect the land from erosion and recycling carbon dioxide.
From year to year, through each cool season and sugar harvest, the desire to transfer the know-how and traditions of sugar cane cultivation remain, more than ever, an unchanging priority for Reunion. It’s a way of guarding one of its most precious treasures.