Friday, July 25, 2014

Touring the Remains of Taiwan’s Sugar Industry (Taiwan Business Topics)

Several of the world's poorest countries are dependent on sales of a single agricultural commodity, among them Burundi (the livelihood of 55% of the population is tied to coffee) and Malawi (tobacco represents over 70% of export revenue). It is hard to imagine nowadays, but Taiwan was once in a similar situation.

Just before and for years after World War II, sugar was the mainstay of its economy. Sugarcane, a species of grass that reaches about two meters in height and slightly resembles bamboo, has been grown in Taiwan for at least as long as Han Chinese have been present on the island. The Japanese, who ruled Taiwan as a colony between 1895 and 1945, nurtured the local sugar industry. By the late 1930s, sugar plantations covered almost 170,000 ha, a fifth of Taiwan's farmland. Cane was grown from Linkou in the north to Hengchun at the southern tip, on the east coast as well as throughout the western lowlands. One in seven Taiwan households had some connection to the industry.

At its peak in 1950, sugar accounted for 73.6% of the ROC's exports by value. But since the 1970s, due to competition from Brazil and other producers, Taiwan's sugar industry has been in unstoppable decline. The number of active refineries has fallen from 49 to just three.

The growing, transportation, and processing of sugar have left a lasting physical imprint in almost every part of Taiwan, however. More than a dozen shuttered mills are still extant, and hundreds of kilometers of railway tracks laid by sugar companies remain in place...

This is the first of three articles I wrote for this year's Travel & Culture Special, published by the American Chamber of Commerce in Taipei. To read the whole piece, go here.

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