As over 1,000 sugar cane farmers gathered under the Escuela Secundaria Tecnica Mexico outdoor auditorium in this northern village Sunday morning, there was a pervading sense of anxiety and impending doom.

They were worried about where the money would come from for the fast-approaching crop season; concerned that the authorities in their Association, at Belize Sugar Industries (BSI) and in the Government were not doing enough to address the situation expediently.

And so at the Annual General Meeting of the Belize Sugar Cane Farmers Association (BSCFA), there was much speculation as to the future of the industry that supports the northern districts on a far greater basis than any other – and recriminations all around as to who is responsible for the catastrophe.

And yet, there may still be hope. In a special, unannounced visit, Prime Minister Dean Barrow, accompanied by his deputy and Orange Walk North representative Gaspar Vega and Agriculture Minister Rene Montero, addressed the cañeros as to what had transpired leading up to today, and the plan for the way forward.

Hon. Vega and Hon. Montero had just come off a stakeholders’ meeting in Orange Walk last Wednesday with representatives of BSI, the BSCFA and the Sugar Industry Control Board (SICB), chaired by Hugo Patt, in which it was agreed that a relative quality payment program assessing the quality and quantity of sugar would be implemented for the 2011 crop, and that cañeros would get their money, with interest, as soon as BSI had settled their financial arrangements.

According to the Prime Minister, the Social Security Board (SSB) had already signed a $10 million loan to BSI, with another further $10 million agreed to be lent to the troubled company by international partners Tate and Lyle.

But the Prime Minister revealed at yesterday’s meeting that BSI’s troubles were far greater than anyone, including himself, had realized.

Barrow said that at a meeting in October, he learnt for the first time from BSI officials that the company owed US$30 million to two foreign banks, ING Bank of the Netherlands and First Caribbean International Bank (which has branches throughout the Caribbean, including Belize, but which is formally based in Barbados, W.I.), and that a further US$32 million was owed by BSI subsidiary BELCOGEN (the Belize Cogeneration Energy Company, Limited) to various other banks, for a total of US$62 million, or BZ$124 million – money which Barrow says his government simply cannot afford to get at this time due to extant financial debt obligations for the so-called “super bond.”

According to the banks, if BSI and BELCOGEN do not pay what they were owed after a certain period, foreclosure procedures on the factory at Tower Hill and other assets would commence.

BSI said they needed a total of $20 million in working capital to begin the 2010-11 crop season, including money for the third payment to farmers, and initially proposed a loan of $5 million from SSB.

This was approved, Barrow told the cañeros, but then BSI returned, asking for $10 million, which was also approved.

But the latest spoke in the wheel is the discovery of a clause in the agreement between ING/FCIB and BSI in which the latter agreed not to borrow money from any other sources without first clearing it with the banks.

“It appears to me that the banks are prepared to agree to this… but not without certain guarantees that the industry will move forward on the basis of reform,” Barrow told the cañeros, adding that Tate and Lyle’s loan, which BSI would pay back from revenue attained through the crop, was also dependent on agreement to this from both sides – BSI and the cañeros.

And so it was announced that both sides would meet in Belmopan today, Monday, to begin the process of hammering out an agreement on the various needed reforms to the industry that involve sacrifices by both, so as to create an equal partnership where both sides would work together and not separately.

Barrow also committed to seeing to it that even if this last-ditch effort should fail, that the cañeros would receive their money, and that if worse came to the worse, responding to a question from the audience, that relief measures and access to funding for diversification of crops and other similar measures would be available.

But failure, the Prime Minister told the audience, was not an option here. The sugar industry, the lifeblood of the North and the source of nearly all its income and a good part of Belize’s, must be kept alive, he said.

The questions would be taken to the National Assembly, where only last week the Leader of the Opposition, John Briceño, criticized the Prime Minister’s actions with BSI and Belize Telemedia Limited.

A $1 million grant has been approved to go to the BSCFA; the Prime Minister told us that he hopes to get the Association’s agreement to use it for the sugar road rehabilitation program currently underway in the North.

Cañeros listened attentively and when the time came to put their questions to Barrow, they concentrated primarily on the reform element, speaking of changes to the Sugar Act, maximizing the efficiency of the Tower Hill factory, and keeping their own association honest. The Act is also expected to legitimize alternative associations such as the United Cane Farmers Association (UCFA).

Barrow told Amandala in a short interview when we asked about this seeming turnaround from what transpired in February of 2008, when he declined to meet with cane farmers in Orange Walk after they blockaded the Northern Highway and protested the use of the now-looted core sampler machine for cane quality, that the current situation is “unprecedented” and “stands on its own.”

The resultant clashes with lawful authorities at that time resulted in the death of one cañero, Atanacio Gutierrez, and injuries to others. Barrow maintained that nothing less than the survival of the industry is at stake now, and that he felt he had to respond to that.

He also waved away any suggestion that his own political future – and that of the six UDP area representatives in place in Corozal and Orange Walk – hangs in the balance if this effort fails. “There is no time to worry about politics when a crisis confronts this industry…what happens to me, to Mr. Vega here, is of no concern next to what will happen to the cañeros if this industry falls, and that simply cannot be allowed to happen,” he said.

The chairman of the BSCFA Committee of Management, Alfredo Ortega, told Amandala that he was pleased at the high-level visits, the first in his memory, but added that he was concerned that there was still no specific date given for when the money would be received.

He did hold out hope for a workable agreement between all sides, and expressed optimism that BSI would now consider the association’s many reform proposals that had been left hanging in the air, including representation on their marketing committee.

As for his fellow cañeros, Ortega echoed the Prime Minister’s message of unity, asking that they “join hands, because this is for our survival as a sugar industry. This is no time for joking around, no time to be fighting amongst ourselves. We have an opportunity here, and if you heard the Prime Minister, this may be our only opportunity, so we must unite, we must work together.”

Reports from the various committees and divisions of the BSCFA were read into the record and the meeting adjourned around 5:00 Sunday evening.

Amandala