The news was not so sweet at the close of business Friday evening, June 5, at the Tower Hill factory of Belize Sugar Industries (BSI).

Production, as of Friday morning, was 917,000 tons of sugar cane delivered to the factory, converted to only 92,700 tons of refined sugar.

The totals are the lowest for Belize since 1989, when only 867,000 tons of cane were delivered and processed, from which 91,000 tons of sugar were produced.

Going into the numbers, the Orange Walk division of the Cane Farmers’ Association delivered 438,663 tons; Corozal, 408,869; BSI’s cane growing project, 33,102; and its research division, 35,955.

In search of answers to why production was so low, Amandala traveled north and spoke with BSI factory manager John Gillett, who has had some 20 years experience in the sugar industry.

According to Gillett, farmers he spoke to told him they suffered a combination of less-than-ideal weather conditions for planting cane, and an unexpected attack on sugar cane stalks by a small insect known as the “froghopper,” which attacks and drains plants of the valuable cane juice, causing their growth to slow and occasionally killing them.

Gillett told us he considered overall quality in sugar cane to have gone up this season, though not necessarily because of the farmers’ efforts; however, he cited other problems that he believes are holding back the industry, such as the time lapse between the burning of cane and delivery to the factory. Low numbers of produced cane does not necessarily translate to low production of sugar; Gillett cited results from 2005, when with about the same amount of cane (929,000 tons), the factory produced 8,000 tons more sugar (100,400).

Industry sources tell us that BSI is considering getting more into the production of sugar cane, because it believes that the farmers in Corozal and Orange Walk are not serious about producing. Whether this stems from leftover bitterness from the strikes in February is not clear.

Gillett appeared reluctant to discuss the direct effect of the strike on BSI production; according to him, production was only halted during the second week of the strike. He was clear, however, that something had to be done to get the industry back on track.

BSI had expected to mill as much as 1.2 million tons of cane and produce 115,000 tons of sugar this year. Early estimates from BSI sources are that the company has lost $22 million in sales – the company’s projected estimates kept going lower and lower.

Worse, a price cut of 36% imposed by the European Union (EU) on sugar exports from developing countries, including Belize, is scheduled to take effect in October, reducing the price the EU pays from 523 euros per ton to 355 euros per ton.

We spoke to a few farmers outside the factory to get their take on what has been a difficult season.

The consensus was that this season wasn’t too bad, but that Government would have to take a more proactive stance in developing the industry and protect the farmers from the worst effects of what is to come.

The CEO of the Association, Carlos Magaña, and other Association officials were unavailable for comment on Friday evening, and he did not answer his cellular phone today.

Amandala