Sugar

Smoke over Kruger Park

Sugar

Why DO YOU LIKE TO TRAVEL? I like to learn about places, spaces and people in different parts of the world. Our adventure to Mpumalanga, outside Kruger National Park taught me something different from the usual ………….

Are you aware of how sugar is produced?

  • Do you know that the majority of sugar cane farms have very few trees remaining on them – farms can be so large they reach the horizon north, south, west and east. Also, nearby rivers are siphoned off to support constant irrigation (for example the Crocodile River bordering the Kruger National Park). Finally the fields are set alight – and during the period between planting and reaping a large amount of chemicals, fertilizers, weed killers, pesticides & hormones are used to pamper this crop.
  • Do you feel this is kind to the environment?
  • How has this and will this affect global warming??
  • Is this environmentally friendly farming? (to be fair most farming does this but I had never previously considered Sugar)

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Of course, the irrigation of sugar cane crops depends on the soil properties. For example, black soils have very good water retention and therefore require less frequent watering. It grows in temperatures ranging between 20 to 42 degrees celsius (we lived in Malelane – Mpumalanga – South Africa and I can vouch for the 42 degree heat!!!!) and grow well in humidity (which makers 42 degrees nearly unbearable and in summer farmers and their workers rise before sunup to start work in order to avoid being out in the scorching midday heat)

All about Sugar derivatives & growing
There is sugar in alcohol too

Sugar is extracted from the sugar cane plant. It is a subtropical and tropical perennial grass/bamboo family (Poaceae and genus of Saccharum) which is indigenous to India. When it is mature a stalk is typically composed of 11 – 18% fiber, 12 – 16 % soluble sugars, 2 to 3 % non-sugars and 60 to 70% water.

It is also used in the manufacture of alcohol (in case you are thinking of sugar only being in sweets, cold drinks, coating for pills etc)

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A little aside personal comment …. What hurt my feelings, for want of a better expression – is that there are mongoose families, snakes, lizards, insects, birds …. spiders….. living in those fields having a little ecosystem of their own. Then suddenly – their homes are set on fire and within 24 hours they are either dead, injured, family-less or homeless. Very very upsetting.

Another amazing thing about the living creatures making homes in the cane fields is they must cope really well with all the chemicals used from added fertilisers, inspect killers (particularly borer), weed killers and hormone sprays. I cannot tolerate insecticides, pesticides, perfumes, mold & dust and I am large compared with their tiny little bodies – how do they adapt and they look as though they are thriving!

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The crop growth is year-round. It is a long duration crop and needs to be harvested at the right maturity level. Irrigation ceases 2 weeks prior to reaping which is either done manually or mechanically. It can be cut mechanically but when it is cut manually – large teams manage burning first (which is furious, huge and fast due to a huge number of dry leaves). Then the undamaged stalks, 1 – 2 meters each, are swept up into bundles, loaded into huge trucks (lorries) and transported to local Sugar Mills to be crushed within 24 hours to avoid reversion of sucrose into glucose. The farmers work through the night (making a lot of annoying noise, the chattering is one thing but the beep beep beeping of the lorries nearly drove us crazy for 2 nights)

Walking in the sugar cane fields
A sunny day in young sugar cane fields near an old grain silo outside Malelane

The information I have written in this post has been gathered from locals, newspaper articles in local newspapers and googling. It is funny how one learns something observing it in real life. When I watched the crops just beginning to grow – I wondered if the roots were left in the soil to regrow, they are usually. Light aircraft would fly low over our home spraying white powdery mist. When rain was in the air after a hot period thousands of birds filled the sky approximately one meter from the tips of the cane – obviously feeding on the wing. Finally, the fires which left laundry and garden furniture coated in soot and long pieces of burnt leaves day after day for months……. until the fields surrounding our housing complex crackling frighteningly with hot furious fires.

I asked the Farm Management and Complex Management to let us know when “our burning” would happen. What month it was scheduled for? Nobody knew…….. EVER! It was so irritating and frustrating – either inefficiency or top secret! Finally, the garden staff told me that a week after the crop sprayer flew over the mature plants (in seed) the fields would be set alight. Well, that never happened!!! Why was I so worried – because we have a 10-year-old kitty who we knew would be frightened of roaring fire sounds and we needed to be home to comfort her. She is a city girl who likes her comforts, mascara and lipstick and discos – not fire and dirt!!! … and slithering snakes and terrified birds.

Our city girl kitty
Kitty is a lipstick and movies girl – not farming and fires girl

One day, 9 months later at approximately 3m we were driving out of Kruger National Park, after a beautiful day in the bush (where we visited no less than 2 x a week), my phone rings. ‘WHERE ARE YOU ROZZIE?”. ‘GET HOME, THE FIRES HAVE STARTED ALREADY” said the receptionist.

Thank goodness we were closeby and could be home within 10 minutes. Our kitty was cowering in the bathroom behind the shower wall, poor little mite. Chris cuddled her in his big manly arms whilst I ran next door to our friend Velias dashound. He, too was alarmed and shivering as his human mommy was at work and he was alone – behind a tall garden wall so he couldn’t even see what was going on in the fields outside.

The joke at the end of the day was that a whole section of approximately 10 square meters had been protected from the fire by the farmworkers. They must’ve been told what a dragon and a nag the person in Unit 3 had been for 9 months and to please ensure no fire came close to our boundary. I’m glad I had pestered them with my questions – they listened (although nobody warned us the previous day or even the morning of the fire or we would’ve planned to be home). Never give up if you believe in something – especially protecting those who rely on you for safety.

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There is another aspect of the fires I will share with you too ….

When is a fire not a fire?………… Interesting observations I have made and learnt during our time here.

I was always alarmed and upset witnessing so many plumes of smoke, swirling dramatically up into the darkening skies, whilst driving in the South Western & South Eastern areas of the Kruger Park.

After living here for the most part of 2019 its a comfort to learn that most of these fires are not, in fact, bush fires.

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This part of the Kruger is bordered by farms, mostly, on which Sugar Cane is cultivated. (There are also Macadamia Nut Plantations as well as Bananas & Papayas. Macadamias, incidentally, are becoming a much-favoured commodity and many farms are moving over to this crop). When the Sugar Cane is mature the fields are set alight one by one, in small pockets, from March to October (I stand corrected as we were not living here before that but noticed the cane still very green and young during the rainy season and there are now, mid-September, a few farms with the crop ready to be burnt ).

The sky turns orange during a night fire
The noise from a night fire carries for many miles

What has this to do with fires in Kruger you are asking?

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Bushfires are common in South Africa, especially between May and October, being winter which is a very dry season. It has been established that the Kruger National Park falls within the African Savannah biome where a fire is extremely important in shaping the landscape.

Drawing on many years of fire research in Kruger, park management adopted a new fire policy in 2002, which encourages the setting of early-season fires (April to June) to break up the fuel load and allow for lower intensity fires.

Every year park management uses data gathered from more than 500 vegetation monitoring sites to determine where and what percentage of the park should be burnt, as well as the preceding two years’ rainfalls determines the target percentage to burn in each section.

Areas that have produced grass coverage of over four tones per hectare are considered to be ecologically necessary to be burnt back.

When the year’s fire regime has been worked out, section rangers set fires at the beginning of winter in chosen locations to break up the veld into a patch mosaic.

This scattering of burnt and unburnt sections reduces the risk and even prevents, runaway fires that may occur later in the season which are not planned by the Park Authorities.

Burning earlier in the year also makes for cooler fires, which are less likely to turn saplings into multi-stemmed trees and allow for trees to recruit into the next height class.

When the lightning season starts (Summer) Rangers will generally discontinue setting fires to allow lightning a chance to contribute as one of the natural sources of fire. This season usually runs from October to December. The lightning storms are incredible to watch and are so intense due to the extremely high temperatures experienced in these months when the bush is still crisp and emaciated after dry winter months.

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Only a few Savannah plant species are fire-sensitive with most being fire tolerant. We must not worry too much about the lives of the wildlife as they can hear, feel and smell a fire when it is still very far away and most mammals normally have enough time to escape.

Snakes and many insects escape into holes in the ground, where they are safe because the heat from the fire seldom penetrates the soil deeper than five centimeters.

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It is incredible how quickly nature responds to being burnt and how animals benefit in many ways. Even without rain, the grass grows new shoots within days. The animals lick the mineral-rich ash and browsers feed on the new shoots which have much higher nutrient content.

I never used to look out for animals on these routes, what seemed to me desolate areas, but now realise how many predators creep through and find prey easily due to the clear visibility. It also puzzles me how their paws cope with the sharp prickles of the burnt vegetation (have you ever walked barefoot after the heat of the fire has abated.

Tender pads of predators are stronger than we think
Walking amongst the sandy spaces after fires

As a farm girl we used to love playing in the burnt fields – now I have to wonder why….. sore punctured feet and filthy dirty clothing & exposed skin – our poor mothers). The fires on our farms in Rhodesia were often set by terrorists or natural veld fires set off by a piece of glass reflecting the sun’s rays onto the tinder-dry grass.

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I shall not go on to discuss pollution or global warming with regards to the fires as these are subjects outside of my general knowledge – however, they are always mentioned by followers when I post photographs on my Facebook & Instagram Pages.

I WOULD LOVE TO HEAR WHAT YOU THINK, FEEL & KNOW HOW THEY AFFECT OUR ENVIRONMENT ………… Thank you

…… and are you going to consider eating less sugar, or cutting sugar out of your life completely now that you are more informed. Well, I WOULD LOVE TO, AM TRYING, WILL CONTINUE TO PURGE – BUT IT IS DIFFICULT TO STOP ALL SUGAR 🙁

I am a child of Africa, born in beautiful Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and grew up on a beautiful Tobacco Farm. I've moved many many times and do not really know where I want to put my forever roots down. I have fun doing everyday things away from my home, trying to see the wonderment of life through the eyes of a child. A day out, weekend away, week away...... And months' travelling hold magical memories and events. These are what make me who I am - cautious, adventurous, fun loving & hungry to discover colours, countries, geography, cultures and experiences... and I'm normal too ... tiring travel makes me frowny too sometimes. .... With my lovely life partner (Chris), passport, medical kit, credit card I go..... wherever the wanderings take us..........

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