But Differences Still Loom

December eighth – that’s the date that has been set for the start of the sugar crop. That’s what was agreed to yesterday at a meeting of the Sugar Industry Control Board. That Government appointed Board acts like a kind of referee in the industry and has representation from the cane farmers association, BSI and the Ministry of Agriculture. They met yesterday – and not surprisingly the Cane Farmers and BSI could not agree on a compromise. But they did agree on one thing: ripe cane is awaiting harvest in the field and the season must start:

Oscar Alonzo, CEO - BSCFA

"We want the crops to start, early. Especially since we determined there is 1.475 million tons of cane out there that needed to be processed. Yesterday the SICB sought to see if it would be possible let us reach an agreement; But what we did achieve yesterday is set date. There is a date that has been sent which is 8th of December as the ideal date to start the crop. If they don't start the crop on that day, we run the risk that the cane that is out in the fields, a substantial portion would be left. We're saying okay, let's start the crop. We can always continue to negotiate and it has to be a willingness on the part of BSI to negotiate and we can conclude the full agreement in the next year. They have indicated they need to consult their principals to let us know if and when we can negotiate next week. We hope that it is positive because we know we can resolve it that way; But we have told the sugar industry board we will act on what our membership has said. If we want to start the crops, if it means with an interim agreement, if not we will put into effect the actions the members share which is to hold a nation social protests.”

So, while they threaten a protest, ASR/BSI is moving ahead with its plan to roll out a revised agreement for farmers to sign independent of their association. BSI has extended the deadline for feedback to November 28th, and it will roll out a final agreement after that.

So, the bottom line is that while a date has been set, really, not much else has happened. Both sides are sticking firmly to their hardline positions: BSI/ASR will not sign an interim agreement – and the cane Farmers Association is demanding one.

How things will move forward from here is uncertain – but the cane farmers say they are ready to negotiate with ASR/BSI:

Oscar Alonzo, CEO - BSCFA

"I think one thing shown is that we both agree that we need to have the crop begin early. The fundamental difference is how. We have been saying we can start with an interim agreement, they have been persisting even in the meeting yesterday that they don't want to sign an interim agreement. We're saying fine, let us sit and negotiate an agreement. We've had always want to settle this thing through negotiation, we're still prepared to do it. We hope that BSI can respond positively in that direction, as quickly as possible and come to the table to negotiate, not discuss. We're not here to discuss, we're not a social club where we sit down and take drinks of coca cola and discuss. We want to settle the matters, which is to the benefits of both parties.”

It should be that simple…but it is not – because “the benefit of both parties” that Alonzo talks about is a moving target. Both ASR/BSI and the Cane Farmers have diametrically opposed positions on the ownership of cane, the term of the agreement, and the formula for paying for bagasse.

So, with this chasm between them – both sides are looking to a government which, it appears, has been trying to stay out of a dispute which pits a valued foreign investor against an association representing thousands of farmers, also known as voters. So, with no clear path to playing hero, Government has remained on the periphery.

The man playing that role is chairman of the SCIB Gabriel Martinez. The former UDP Corozal Southwest Representative told our colleagues at CTV-3 yesterday that it’s delicate:..

Reporter

"Can you at least tell us when the negotiations are going to start again between BSI and Belize Sugar Cane Farmers Association?"

Gabriel Martinez, Chairman – Sugar Industry Control Board

"Well that's in the process. As we mentioned it's very delicate, I wish not to jeopardise the process, that's what agreed inside.”

So with 12 days to go before the agreed date for the start of the crop – we’ll continue to monitor developments closely.

Channel 7