Cane Farmers Block Entrance to Tower Hill
Tonight there is unrest brewing again in the sugar industry. This afternoon
at about 2:30, members of the Belize Sugar Cane Farmers Association blocked
the entrance to the Tower Hill Factory as an act of protest against the management
of the factory. At this time, they have stopped blocking the entrance –
but the mood is still tense as police have been brought in and there are angry
cane farmers on site.
The problem started a few weeks ago when the factory opened on December
16th, the latest opening date in recent recall. Since then, the factory operations
have been repeatedly stalled by a malfunctioning boiler. It’s a new one
that was brought in to complement BSI’s Belcogen plant, but it hasn’t
been able to produce enough steam to complement the sugar refinement process.
So the factory’s operation has been stalled, deliveries have been delayed
and cane farmers have been left waiting with their cane – some say, for
days at a time.
The interim CEO of the Belize Sugar Cane Farmers Association’s
Dave Madrid told us this morning that it is “a mechanical problem”,
which is the product of some “poor managerial decisions”
made by BSI and “unfortunately the farmers are the ones who will suffer.”
Madrid spoke to us before a meeting of the Association’s membership held
in Orange Walk Town to discuss the difficulties. Our sources told us that at
the meeting members would agitate for a strike. But before the meeting the CEO
Madrid told us that he would strongly advise against that because, “a
strike will not serve the better interests of the farmer.”
But, strike it is, or at least that’s what it looks like tonight
as quite spontaneously after two this afternoon association members blocked
the gate – saying that they will not resume deliveries until BSI’s
management consults with their leadership about the difficulties with the boiler.
Our team was there late this afternoon and here’s what cane farmer Jose
Mai told us he as an independent farmer is angry about.
Jose Mai, Cane Farmer
“The factory was expected to receive to process 6,000 tons a day.
As a matter of fact in an interview with the executives from the Sugar Factory they had indicated that they will anticipate to grinding 1.4 million tonnes
in 32 weeks. The problem with the factory is because of the new technology which
is BELCOGEN they seem to have been technical problems at the factory. It is
supposed to generate enough steam to generate electricity turn the turbines
and all the motors that require the sugar cane processing. Unfortunately it
seems that everything is not in order at the factory and BELCOGEN and as a result
of that they are only grinding 1,000 tonnes a day. That is only one sixth of
what they are supposed to be doing.
The farmers are delivering green cane which takes a longer time for the
cane to deteriorate which is good but due to the inability to grind the cane,
it is stockpiled in the cane yard and the quality is deteriorating, the TCTS
which is the quality of the cane is terrible. Last report was 14.7 tonnes of
cane for one tonne of sugar. If that is right and there are reasons to believe
that it may be worse, it might be even up to 16 tonnes of cane to make one tonne
of sugar, that is no business for the cane farmers. The cane farmers have decided
that they will not continue to deliver cane until BSI gets its machinery working
and synchronizing everything in there. At 14 tonnes of cane for one tonne of
sugar it is not money, cane farmers are losing big time there.
When they finished the crop this year it was nine tonnes of cane for one
tonne of sugar which is excellent, it is like I am telling you a tomato farmer
sold it at a ten dollars a bucket when you can sell it at 25 dollars a bucket.
So we are telling BSI this is not a strike, this is a business decision based
on technical information.
The leaders of the association are in a meeting right now with BSI and
we are hoping to get something resolved. I want to believe that BSI will correct
themselves in there. I am being told unofficially that it may even take a month.
A month to fix everything in there, that is a serious setback because I am sure
that even if I have a million tonnes of cane out there, we will not be able
to grind that. So this year will be an even more difficult year for the cane
We don’t want this to escalate like February of 2009. We don’t
want it to escalate, we don’t want violence but we need to sit down and
respect each other and say listen what are the alternatives we have, we can
understand. They call us fools, they call us ignorant because we are cane farmers.”
And that sentiment is shared by many – but there is no unitary
response from the cane farmers. And that’s because it’s farmer versus
farmer in this case. An important footnote to this entire flare-up is that the
industry whose entire unified membership was once contained under the single
tent of the Cane Farmers Association is now splintered into at least three different
groups. The two newcomers are the United Cane Farmers Association and more recently,
the Corozal Sugar Cane Producer’s Association. That has created tension
between caneros on the ground at this hour, because the cane farmers association
doesn’t want any cane to be delivered, but the United Cane Farmers and
the Corozal Cane Producers want to continue making deliveries.
So the caneros are divided, which we gather suits BSI just fine, since
it can effectively play one association against the other – while ensuring
that cane will continue to be delivered. And that’s what was happening
this evening. After the initial blockage of the main gate at about 2:30 –
the Sugar Cane Farmers relented and let farmers from the other associations
through. This was facilitated in no small part by the heavy presence of police
but the bottom line is cane continues to be delivered.
At news time, meetings were ongoing between the Sugar Industry Control
Board – which is a government controlled body and the BSI management.
We’ll keep watching it, and have an update in tomorrow night’s news.