By Norris Hall for The Belize Times
There is an ominous cloud looming low over the citrus valley of Pomona, the birthplace and headquarters of the citrus industry in Belize. The once emerald green citrus orchards on the rolling hillsides of the valley are disappearing. The old Mandarins in the industry have mostly died while a few others, seeing their shadows grey before they vanish, continue to desperately grasp at their fading influence by persistently putting the industry in disarray.
The citrus industry of Belize is now dying a slow death as it reflects on the glory days of its pre-deceased Trout Hall canned fruits and juices and the citrus company’s top notch football team, the Queen’s Park Rangers, in their royal blue and gold uniforms.
BEATEN DOWN BY WARFARE
Beaten down by years of tribal warfare, litigations, a loss of investor confidence and political interference as well as perceived corruption by this government, the industry is again beginning to keel over, and apparently, waiting to just give up the ghost.
The Prime Minister, in his first taste of power a few years, ago told a very gullible Citrus Growers’ Association (CGA) that he will never abandon them; that he will not oversee the demise of the CGA.
Now, with his government’s inaction in amending key legislation to streamline the industry, and in frustrating the creation of an environment that is more conducive for investments, he holds the hammer that will drive the final nail into the coffin of a once vibrant industry.
The CGA no longer seems assured by the Prime Minister’s commitment to them. But they are also suffering from the ricochets of their own infighting. The industry is now low on oxygen and energy. A major investor in the industry, Banks of Barbados, has again told the CGA that they are prepared to sell their 49 percent shares to the CGA, or to any other takers. The asking price is US$25 million.
Oh yes, the Prime Minister did promise to support the CGA in its bid to secure the shareholdings of Banks. However, like his promise not to oversee the demise of the CGA, his failed commitments to the industry now have the undertakers on standby.
Exacerbating the frustration, especially of the CGA, is that while the Prime Minister had promised to watch their back, his then Minister of the Police and now Chairman of the investment arm of the Belize Social Security Board had other long term plans of his own.
When the CGA elected new representatives to serve on the Board of Directors of Citrus Products of Belize (CPBL), of which they own 51 percent of the shares, a very strange thing happened. Armed members of the Special Unit of the Police were dispatched to prevent these newly elected CGA members on the Board of Directors of CPBL from attending their first Board of Directors meeting.
FROM POLICE MINISTER TO SHIPPING MAGNATE
After that, even stranger things have happened. The Minister of the Police (now former), now enjoys a lucrative contract with CPBL. The company he is connected to, Seaboard Marin, has the exclusive contract to transport from Pomona and the Big Creek Port all of CPBL’s products and to ship them to overseas destinations.
At about the same time, according to our source, but quite likely by another coincidence, 800 pounds of pound solids (juice in simple terms) vanished from the factory in what one auditor described as “a disappearing phenomenon”.
Furthermore, the CGA is also being screwed over royally by the Barrow Administration, or perhaps by a friend of the Administration. He is the same former Police Minister turned shipping “magnate”. He is now the Chairman of the Belize Social Security Investment Fund. Among one of the CGA’s major debts, is a loan from the SSB for $17 million. It has been struggling to meet that debt as it is also indebted to the European Investment Bank (EIB) to the tune of roughly US$10 million with first payment due in 2014 or early 2015.
It is now perceived by the CGA, which is supposed to have their backs covered by the Prime Minister, that there is an intention by the SSB for a hostile takeover of its 51 percent majority shares in CPBL in a debt for equity swap. This would cause a major disruption of the CGA. It appears that while some members of the SSB do not share this view, those at the top are pushing ahead with this objective. This is perceived by some as having a smell of corruption, and if not, then a clear conflict of interest by the SSBIF Chairman.
PAINS FOR BOTH CGA AND CPBL
There are also more pains for both the CGA and the CBPL. Citrus growers have not yet received their final payments of almost $3 million for the last crop from CPBL. Citrus production has fallen. The processors (CPBL) are operating at half capacity. Growers are walking away from their Association. They are abandoning or bulldozing their orchards. The attrition rate in the number of acres of citrus under cultivation drops by five to ten percent each year. Some of this has been as a result of the devastating effect of “greening” – a bacterial disease that has wiped out hundreds of acres of citrus. The CGA has been unable to supply farmers with new plants. Banks of Barbados with its 49 percent shares in CPBL, is fed up with this government and the persistent in-fighting of the CGA. They want to sell their shares. The CGA has made lots of noises about buying the shares of Banks. Now it appears that they have “friends” in high corrupt places who want to see them gone from the control of CPBL. They have been persistently antagonistic towards their major investment partner. Banks have now taken their bluff by offering to sell their shares. At this writing, news has just broken that while Banks has been asking for $US 25 million for their 49 percent of shares in the company, they have reduced their offer to the CGA to US 21.5 million.
The Prime Minister, it appears, has abandoned the CGA. He may or may not know of a planned hostile takeover of CGA shares in CPBL. Of course he will say he doesn’t! “How on God’s earth would I have known?” He also appears to have become indifferent (or has been procrastinating) over his commitment to streamline the Citrus Industry Act for the smoother and more equitable operation of the industry.
With all this, CPBL has been unable to sell its products on the futures market given the erratic state of the industry and the loss of investor confidence in this government.
COMMERCIAL BANKS CAGEY
The commercial banks are no longer comfortable with the uncertainty looming over the citrus industry. Herein lies the crux of why citrus growers have not received their final payment for the last crop. CPBL no longer has access to the level of financing from its bankers because of the persistent and on-going controversy between the major shareholders, the CGA and its investment partner, Banks of Barbados, as well as the other factors mentioned earlier.
The final payment, which was due in September, has therefore not been made because of CPBL’s cash flow problems. All the produce is not sold during the crop year. One company official described it as a “mismatch” between the receiving of the crop and the delivery of the final products by the processors and when they receive payments. In happier days CPBL was making the final payments to growers from an overdraft facility with their bankers.
Usually growers received 65 percent of their payment upon delivery of their crops (First Payment). CPBL receives its payments from its customers based on firm delivery schedules and firm sales contracts. In other words, CPBL, in good faith, paid growers even before their products were paid for by using their overdraft facility.
Another very gloomy picture is that CBPL is now only operating at half (50 percent) of its production capacity. There has been a major reduction in the number of acreage in citrus. This has resulted in a serious decline in deliveries. Grapefruit production is down from 1.7 million boxes (80 pounds) in the 2005/06 crop year to 678 thousand boxes for 2012/13. By next year production will reduce even more to a projected 645 thousand boxes, despite a major increase in the world demand.
For the same periods, orange production has fallen from 6.2 million boxes (90 pounds) in 2005/06 to a little over 4 million boxes in the last crop year 2012/13. The forecast is not good.
REASONS FOR INDUSTRY WOES
The CGA’s acrimonious relationship with Banks has undoubtedly contributed to woes within the industry and its heavy debt burden will get worse when the EIB loan payments become due. Remittances from membership of the Association have fallen. It is just about meeting the salaries and wages of its staff.
The Prime Minister recently publicly announced that his government is “rolling in money”. But that should not be for long. He has an election that he will have to buy and he owes the investors of Belize Electricity Ltd. and Belize Telecommunications Ltd. when he high-jacked these companies by using his then super majority to fiddle with the Constitution.
STOP DISSING CITRUS MUTUAL
He has also apparently, reneged on a commitment to citrus growers that he would have introduced a Bill for a new Citrus Industry Act that would be consistent with the Belize Constitution for recognition of a group of serious citrus businessmen/farmers known as Citrus Mutual. The industry now needs Citrus Mutual more than ever but they have been dissed by the PM. In fact he has done absolutely nothing to assist in streamlining the legal instruments for the smoother operation of the industry. It is imperative that legislative issues be urgently addressed to create a new enabling environment and to stimulate new life and growth in the industry.
If positive steps are not taken, or serious attention given to the rapid decline in production, then Mr. Barrow will not only have overseen the demise of the CGA but the death of a once vibrant citrus industry.
No one is addressing the issue of rapidly falling production. The processors (CPBL) no longer have the throughput to make its operations viable. Banks, a major investor in the industry now finds itself in a Catch 22 situation. It has offered to drop the price of its shares to get out of Belize. There is no decisive leadership within the industry to tackle the issues within the industry and between Banks and the CGA. The Prime Minister, about two years ago, made a lame effort to send one of his advisors to determine some of the major problems facing the industry but ignored his advice.
THE BELL WILL TOLL
The economic impact of the collapse of this industry will be horrendous. The impact of such a collapse will affect the entire country. Citrus makes a significant contribution to the gross domestic product (GDP) or the value of goods and services of the nation. It is also the country’s second largest earner of foreign exchange.
Given this reality, the Prime Minister would not only have reneged on his commitment not to oversee the demise of an already failed Citrus Growers Association, he would have delivered the death knell to a once and up to six years ago a very vibrant industry.
There will be no reason for having to tell for whom the bell tolls.